Hats off, Strangers!

The State Opening of Parliament is always an excellent opportunity to watch the British monarchy in action at what they do best: Pomp and pageantry! It marks the commencement of a session of Parliament including a speech by the monarch, outlining what measures and actions will be put into place by the government in the coming year. It is a ceremony full of rituals and symbolism dating back centuries, and therefore it is a must-see event for a British history buff like myself. 🙂 Just in case you aren’t familiar with the proceedings, let me explain a few of the key parts of the ceremony.

Before the Queen arrives at the Houses of Parliament a ceremonial searching of the cellars is carried out by the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest existing British military corp (not to be confused with the Yeomen Warders a.k.a. “Beefeaters”, who are guarding the Tower of London). This dates back to 1605, when on November 5 of that year the Catholic revolutionary Guy Fawkes and his accomplices were caught red-handed in the cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster, trying to blow up the House of Lords in an attempt to kill the Protestant king James I. Ever since then the cellars have been searched before the State Opening of Parliament.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who usually accompanies her to this event, arrive from Buckingham Palace in a carriage procession. Prior to that the Imperial State Crown is being taken to the Palace of Westminster in a separate State Coach to be worn by the Queen during her speech.

Once the Queen has put on the Parliament Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown in the robing chamber and has entered the House of Lords, she first addresses the House with the words “My Lords, pray be seated” and then instructs the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to summon the House of Commons. Black Rod walks down the corridor connecting both chambers, accompanied by an inspector of police who shouts “Hats off, strangers!” to the people watching along the way. Upon approaching the House of Commons the doors of the chamber are slammed shut in Black Rod’s face. This is due to the fact that ever since in 1642 King Charles I rushed into the House of Commons to have five members arrested for treason no monarch has been allowed to enter the House of Commons. Black Rod then knocks on the door to the chamber with his staff three times and is then allowed to enter. With the following words he commands the House of Commons to follow him to the House of Lords: “Mister Speaker, The Queen commands this honourable House [pauses to bow to both sides of the House] to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” Usually this is greeted by an amusing remark from Labour MP Dennis Skinner (who is known for having been suspended from Parliament several times for using foul language) before the MPs set off in a casual procession down the corridor. Once they have arrived at the Bar of the House of Lords the Queen begins reading out her speech, which really isn’t her speech at all but has been written by the government. The speech concludes with the words: “My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels”. The Queen then leaves the House of Lords and the Commons return to their chamber for a debate on the speech, which concludes the proceedings.

If you’d like to watch today’s State Opening of Parliament, I recommend YouTube user belfastjack’s videos, who uploaded the entire BBC broadcast from this morning in four parts. Here’s the first:


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