From Black Rod to the Delivering of the 'hostage'; The traditions behind the King's Speech and what they mean

7 November 2023, 11:26 | Updated: 7 November 2023, 12:00

King Charles III Delivers Speech At The Opening Of Parliament
King Charles III Delivers Speech At The Opening Of Parliament. Picture: Getty

By StephenRigley

King Charles III will open Parliament for the first time today as reigning monarch.

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The traditional ceremony signifies a new parliamentary session.

What are some of the historic traditions involved in the State Opening of Parliament and why do they exist?

Charles at the State Opening of Parliament
Charles at the State Opening of Parliament. Picture: Getty

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State Opening of Parliament traditions

Searching the cellars in the Palace of Westminster

On the day of Parliament's official State Opening ceremony, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched by the Yeomen of the Guard – the monarch’s own bodyguards and the oldest existing British military unit.

This dates back to 1605, when it was first carried out after a failed attempt led by English Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, to assassinate the protestant monarch James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

Delivering of the 'hostage'

The reason behind this unusual occurrence is to do with the separation of powers in the UK between the monarchy and the government. 

Despite the monarchy not involving itself with the UK's legislature, this has not always been the case. 

In 1629, King Charles I did not allow Parliament to meet and bolted the doors to the chambers shut. 

For 11 years, Parliament was not permitted to meet during the period that subsequently became known as the ‘Eleven years Tyranny.’

When Parliament did reconvene after over a decade of being absent, Charles I entered the House of Commons in an attempt to arrest five MPs. 

However, his attempted exploits did not go to plan and, following the English Civil War, he was found guilty of treason and executed in Whitehall on January 30 1649.

From that day forward, the monarch has entered the Houses of Parliament only on the condition that an active MP is taken as a hostage.

Theoretically, it means that, should something happen to the monarch whilst she is in Parliament, the hostage would meet the same fate.

The MP to be kidnapped this year by the monarch as part of the ancient tradition is Jo Churchill, who has held the post of Vice-Chamberlain of the Household since September 2022.

Black Rod is the name given to the House of Lords official, who is sent to summon the Commons for the ceremony. The role has been held by Sarah Clarke (pictured) since February 2018
Black Rod is the name given to the House of Lords official, who is sent to summon the Commons for the ceremony. The role has been held by Sarah Clarke (pictured) since February 2018. Picture: Getty

Black Rod and summoning the House of Commons

Black Rod is the name given to the House of Lords official, who is sent to summon the Commons for the ceremony. 

The role has been held by Sarah Clarke since February 2018, making her the first female Black Rod in the 650-year existence of the role. 

The doors to the Commons chamber will be shut in the king's face, in a practice dating back to the Civil War, to symbolise the Commons' independence from the monarchy. 

Black Rod will subsequently strike the door three times before it is opened. 

Members of the House of Commons will follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, standing at the opposite end to the throne, known as the Bar of the House, to listen to the speech, which is expected to begin after Charles is seated on the throne around 11:30am.

The King's speech

Despite its name suggesting it is prepared by the government, the King's speech is actually written by the government, with its length depending on the number of proposed laws and other announcements - such as foreign-policy objectives - but normally lasts for around 10 minutes.

Beyond any words about his mother, the King's speech will contain a summary of government policies and proposed legislation for the new parliamentary session.

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