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Today, the State Opening of Parliament is ceremonial

Jul. 26, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Back in May, Britain enacted one of those traditional ceremonies for which the country is famous. The State Opening of Parliament is held every year at the beginning of the session of Parliament and is full of pomp and ceremony.

The day begins early when a group of Yeoman of the Guard, the Queen's personal bodyguard, dressed in their traditional red and gold Tudor style uniforms and carrying medieval halberds, a type of spear, arrive at the Houses of Parliament.

Strangely, their task is to search the cellars to ensure no one has planted a bomb. The job is mainly ceremonial these days -- there are far more sophisticated ways of detecting explosives -- but it is still carried out. The reason for the search is that in the year 1605, a gentleman called Guy Fawkes and some of his friends piled barrels of gunpowder in the cellars in an attempt to kill King James I. The search has been carried out ever since.

Once the cellars have been searched, the two Houses of Parliament meet. The members of the lower house, the House of Commons, wear their normal, everyday dress and start the day with prayers as they do every other day that Parliament is sitting. The House of Lords, on the other hand, wear ceremonial robes and are joined by senior judges, senior clergy and members of the diplomatic corps.

Next, a member of the House of Commons is selected and is taken by car to Buckingham Palace, the Queen's official London residence. This person is entertained well at the Palace but is kept under guard until the ceremony is over. He or she is there as a ceremonial hostage for the safe return of the Queen. The tradition stems from the reign of King Charles I who did not get on well with his parliament and who eventually had his head chopped off by them.

Now a horse drawn coach leaves the Tower of London carrying the Imperial State Crown, Great Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance (A ceremonial cap worn by Kings immediately before they are crowned) and carries them to the Houses of Parliament, where the Queen's Bargemaster hands them over to the Lord Chamberlain's office

Once all is ready, the Queen, usually accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, arrives in a horse-drawn coach. She has her own entrance to Parliament and her route from Buckingham Palace is lined by members of the army, navy and air force. Immediately she sets foot inside the building the British flag is lowered and the Royal Standard is hoisted in its place. It flies until the Queen leaves again.

She now proceeds to a room called the Robing Chamber where she puts on the Parliament Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown before going along the Royal Gallery to the House of Lords. She is preceded by the Lord Great Chamberlain who holds a white stick above his head, the Earl Marshall of England and two Lords, one carrying a white rod with the Cap of Maintenance and the other carrying the Great Sword of State.

In the House of Lords the Queen sits and instructs the Lords to sit and then the Lord Great Chamberlain signals to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod who, escorted by the Door-keeper of the House of Lords and a police inspector, walks to the doors to the House of Commons. As he gets there the doors are slammed shut in his face as a gesture to show the Commons have a right to debate without the presence of the Queen's Representative. Black Rod hammers on the door three times with his black staff and at this point the doors are opened and he enters to address the members and to command them to attend the Queen in the House of Lords.

The members of the Commons then walk to the House of Lords where they pack into one end of the chamber and remain standing.

Now the real business of the day commences. The Queen delivers a speech, known as the "Queen's Speech." The speech is not written by the Queen but by the Prime Minister's party and she is careful not to express agreement or disagreement whilst reading it. In it she outlines what the Government wants to do in the coming year.

After listing all the bills the government intends to introduce the Queen finishes by saying that additional measures may be introduced if time permits and then she talks about any official visits she will be making and any visits by foreign Heads of State that are anticipated. Finally she says, "My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels" before leaving.

The State Opening of Parliament may seem elaborate and archaic but it serves its purpose. The British love ceremonies and this one sets the scene for what Parliament hopes to achieve in the next session. It is a system that is copied to a greater or lesser extent in many countries that once owed allegiance to Britain and it helps to bring in tourist dollars. Long may the tradition last.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

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