The Queen has delivered her speech at the State opening of Parliament 2021.
In case you’re wondering what you just saw, Her Majesty’s address to Parliament is a focal part of its State Opening, something which has existed in its current form since 1852, when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after the 1834 fire.
It’s also the only occasion when the Monarch, the Lords and the Commons meet in the same room – and now doubt has left a lot of people Googling to find out what it was they just saw.
Politicians come and go, and so do the Prime Ministers, but every year, it’s the Queen who opens parliament – although there are some exceptions, such as when the 2018 State opening was cancelled because the government opted for a two year parliamentary session instead of the usual one year one.
There was also no State Opening in 2020 – when the country was in the first coronavirus lockdown – but at that stage Parliament had been in session since its State Opening in December 2019.
I attended the State Opening of Parliament in 2016, as I was working in the House of Commons and received a ticket via ballot, and saw for myself this fascinating and rather important ceremonial occasion.
Here is what happens:
This article was originally published in 2018.
Search of the cellars
After the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of that year with the intention of killing King James I, a tradition started.
The cellars of the Houses of Parliament are searched before the Monarch arrives.
These days, the police join The Yeomen of the Guard – The Queen’s Bodyguards – to check the cellars and ensure her majesty’s safety during her visit to Parliament.
Taking an MP hostage is just one of the many eccentric traditions of the ceremony.
The MP is held ‘hostage’ in Buckingham Palace in case something happens to the monarch.
Whatever happens to her, the same will happen to the MP.
This tradition goes back to the reign of Charles I, when the Monarch and Parliament didn’t have a good relationship.
Indeed, it was so bad that he was beheaded in 1649, at the end of a civil war between monarchy and Parliament.
The Imperial State Crown
The Imperial State Crown travels from the Jewel House at the Tower of London to Westminster in its own carriage.
The valuable Crown, with its 2,901 precious stones, is taken under armed guard through the streets of London.
In the BBC documentary The Coronation, Her Majesty revealed she is unable to look down to read the speech.
She said: ‘You can’t look down to read the speech, because if you did it would fall off. There are some disadvantages to crowns but otherwise they are quite important things.’
The Queen leaves Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn carriage that make its way to the Sovereign’s Entrance at the Houses of Parliament.
She is escorted by members of the Household Cavalry.
Along the route, there are members of Britain’s armed forces who ‘present arms’ as the royal procession passes. They provide security and add to the pageantry of the day.
The Robing Room
Once the Queen enters the Houses of Parliament, she makes her way to the Robing Room.
It is here that she puts on the Robe of State and the Imperial Crown.
Once the Queen is ready, she leads the Royal procession through the impressive Royal Gallery, which is packed with guests, and onto the House of Lords via Princes Chamber.
I managed to catch a glimpse of the Queen as she made her procession that year.
The House of Lords
Members of the Lords are present in this chamber together with ambassadors and high commissioners – they usually wear their national dress – as well as judges from the High Court, the Court of Appeal and Justices of the Supreme Court.
Once she enters the House of Lords, the Queen takes her seat on the throne to deliver The Queen’s Speech.
But before she does so, the House of Lords official known as ‘Black Rod’ or ‘the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’, is sent to the House of Commons to summon the MPs.
Black rod and summoning the House of Commons
No British monarch has entered the House of Commons since 1642 when King Charles I came to arrest five MPs in the run-up to the English Civil War.
To symbolise the independence of Parliament from the Monarch, the Commons doors are slammed in Black Rod’s face when he or she tries to enter.
The Royal messenger has to bang three times with the rod before he is allowed in.
If you visit Parliament, you can see the dent in the woodwork where Black Rods have made their mark.
MP’s follow Black Rod to the Lords chamber to listen to the speech by the House of Lords bar, which is at the opposite end to the Throne.
The Queen’s Speech
Once everyone is in the House of Lords, and before either House can proceed to public business, the Queen officially opens Parliament by addressing both Houses in The Queen’s Speech.
The monarch does not write the speech. It is written for her by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and it outlines government policies and laws it wants to pass.
After the Queen’s Speech
Once the Queen leaves Parliament, members of both Houses debate the content of the speech.
There are usually functions too, with food and drinks served, but these are by invitation only.
Members of the public cannot attend the State Opening of Parliament but they can attend any of the debates taking place on the day, either in the Lords or Commons chambers, from around 2pm, after the Queen has left.
Or if you would like to follow the route, or learn more about how Parliament works and its history, you can take a tour of the Palace of Westminster throughout the year.
Share your views in the comments below.