All through Elizabeth II's long reign, the Queen's Speech was shorthand for the UK's State Opening of Parliament, which takes place annually at the beginning of each parliamentary session. The monarch reads out a speech to the assembled Houses of Lords and Commons detailing the government's programme of legislation for the upcoming year. On 7 November, King Charles III will give his first King's Speech.
Charles also delivered the last Monarch's speech, in May 2022, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, who was too ill to attend. (Photo above.)
The State Opening is one of those occasions full of pomp and circumstance beloved by Brits and tourists alike. The Monarch arrives by horse-drawn coach surrounded by mounted guards, and delivers the speech from the golden throne in the House of Lords with the crown and all the symbols of royal power surrounding them.
There are many traditions associated with the State Opening, dating back to days when relations between the Monarch and his or her citizens and MPs were less than cordial. In memory of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and King James I in 1605, before each State Opening, the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters) ritually search the cellars of the building to check there are no barrels of gunpowder! One member of the House of Commons is taken symbolically hostage and kept in Buckingham Palace for the duration of the ceremony, to guarantee the monarch's safety. This is similar to the "designated survivor" chosen for the State of the Union speech in the U.S.A., on which the TV series of the same name is based.
The Monarch reads the speech in the House of Lords, so a House of Lords official, Black Rod, is sent to summon the members of the House of Commons. To show their independence from the Monarch, the MPs slam the door to the chamber in Black Rod's face. He or she then has to knock on the door three times with the rod before the door is opened and the MPs accept the invitation.
Even the speech itself, or rather what it is written on, is part of the tradition. The speech, like all British laws, is written on vellum, calf-skin parchment. It is very long-lasting and an excellent way to preserve texts – the oldest law in Parliament's library dates from 1497 and is still easily readable. But it takes several days for the ink to dry on vellum.
Copyright House of Lords 2022 / Photography by Annabel Moeller
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