Queen’s speech: The ‘hostage’ MP and other antiquated customs

This year’s state of opening of parliament has been scaled back – but ancient traditions remain

Adam Forrest@adamtomforrest
Tuesday 11 May 2021 11:58
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The Queen has carried out her first major public ceremonial duty since the death of her husband Prince Philip by attending a scaled-back state opening of parliament on Tuesday.

Elizabeth II has launched the start of a new parliamentary session by delivering the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the government’s legislative plans for the year ahead.

Some of the state opening’s pomp and ceremony has been scaled back this year to prevent the spread of Covid, but the occasion remains steeped in several obscure traditions dating back centuries.

The hostage MP

Some of the rituals in the state opening of parliament dates back to a time when the relationship between the monarchy and parliament was a lot less cordial.

So when the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace, one MP remains in the palace as a “hostage” – a token of good faith to guarantee the monarch’s safe return.

Marcus Jones, the Tory MP for Nuneaton, has chosen to be the ritual captive this year. He will stay where he is until the monarchy is safely back inside her palace.

Lady Usher of the Black Rod Sarah Clarke

Black Rod strikes the door

Another ancient tradition, which will still take place despite Covid restrictions, is the one involving the House of Lords official, Black Rod.

Sarah Clarke, Lady Usher of the Black Rod, will see the doors to the Commons shut in her face as she arrives to summon MPs. She has to strike the door three times before it is opened.

It is a practice that dates back to the Civil War and is said to symbolise the Commons’ independence from the monarchy.

If you look carefully on a visit to the parliament, you just about make out the dents in the woodwork where successive Black Rods have made their mark from the annual ritual.

Yeoman Warders conduct their ceremonial search

Searching of the cellars

This ritual dates back to the time of Guy Fawkes. It was the state opening of parliament that Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters had in their sights in 1605.

To avoid any repeat of the plot the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are still searched every year by the Yeomen of the Guard, the Queen’s traditional bodyguard.

The search in advance of the state opening is purely ceremonial: real life anti-terror measures take place separately and are far more rigorous.

Imperial State Crown is taken to the Palace of Westminster

The golden throne – and the crown on a cushion

Upon entering the House of Lords, the Queen takes her seat on an ornate gilded throne under a gold canopy. There has traditionally been a pair of thrones – for the Queen and her consort.

But the death of the Duke of Edinburgh means the consort’s throne, first installed in 1901 for Queen Alexandra, has been place in the care of the Lord Great Chamberlain for safekeeping.

The Queen, accompanied by Prince Charles on Tuesday, did not wear the heavy Imperial State Crown. This was carried on a cushion and placed on a table nearby, as it was in 2019.

The monarch last wore the extremely heavy crown, which is made of more than 3,000 gemstones and weighs two pounds and 13 ounces, was for the 2016 state opening.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg before the state opening

The Covid-era rituals

Significantly fewer politicians and peers were there than usual, and no diplomatic or non-parliamentary guests have been invited – with just 108 people attending in all.

One big change is that the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland did not hand the speech directly to the Queen as is usually the custom, but placed it on a table instead.

Other changes include no military street liners or lining of the sovereign’s staircase, and no military band nor guard of honour outside the Palace of Westminster or as part of the procession from Buckingham Palace.

MPs and members of the House of Lords had to wear masks throughout unless they are exempt. Everyone present took a Covid test beforehand and was only allowed to attend if they had a negative result.

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