The State Opening of Parliament in the United Kingdom is an elaborate ceremony steeped in history and tradition and one of the most important occasions of the year for the reigning monarch. For the first time in her reign, however, Queen Elizabeth II handed off the duty to her heir Prince Charles. With the exception of two occasions early in her reign when Prince Andrew and Prince Edward were born, the Queen has never missed the State Opening of Parliament.
Queen reluctantly cancels appearance in Parliament
The absence was attributed vaguely to “episodic mobility problems” and Buckingham Palace reported that the Queen had reluctantly made the decision with advice from her doctors and would delegate the duty to Prince Charles.
The decision must have been made at the last possible second, as the programs handed out to attendees in the House of Lords had not been updated to reflect the change.
The ceremony marks the formal beginning of a new session of Parliament and is roughly analogous to the State of the Union Address in the United States as an opportunity for the government to explain its agenda.
The speech delivered by the monarch is written by the prime minister and his cabinet; this year that meant Boris Johnson, and the speech read by the Prince of Wales largely reiterated the government’s existing priorities.
The rest of the event is packed with symbolism and tradition dating back hundreds of years and reflecting the sometimes tumultuous relationship between the monarch and the House of Commons.
In 1605 the infamous Gunpowder Plot intended to blow up the House of Lords while Parliament was assembled to see King James I carry out the State Opening of Parliament. The event still begins with a ceremonial search of the cellars to ensure that no modern Guy Fawkes is lying in wait.
Prince Charles forced to remember a deposed predecessor
Much of the ceremony is particularly pertinent to Prince Charles, as it derives from Charles I, whose name he shares and whose feud with Parliament erupted into the English Civil War.
Parliament hands over one of its members as a ceremonial hostage to ensure the safety of the monarch, a reminder of the fact that Parliament once deposed and beheaded its king.
Before the Civil War, Charles I stormed the House of Commons in 1642 with his soldiers to arrest Five Members accused of treason. An official known as Black Rod now summons the Commons to hear the monarch’s speech, but not before having the door slammed in his (or her) face in memory of 1642.
Prince Charles did not spark a civil war this year, but he did cause a stir with his participation in the event, which shows that the heir is increasingly taking on responsibilities ceded by his mother due to her age and health concerns.
He was accompanied by his own son, Prince William, just as he has accompanied the Queen in the past. Both of the future kings were preceded by the Imperial State Crown.
The crown took the place of the Queen’s throne, which had been removed. Prince Charles instead sat on the consort’s throne formerly occupied by his father Prince Philip, who died last year.