From Oarsmen to Boxmen

The Chamber of the House of Lords showing the throne from which Queen Elizabeth formally opens each session of the British Parliament.

Tim Koch, now back in London after his Canadian trip, sends this post, the production of which was delayed by his holiday. He promises that more Canadian stories are to follow.

In London, on 8 May, Queen Elizabeth formally marked the start of the 2013 parliamentary year with the State Opening of Parliament. In part, it is a day with numerous elaborate and obscure rituals that culminates in the Queen’s Speech. While delivered by Her Majesty, the Speech is actually written by the government and it sets out its proposed policies and legislation for the coming session. Following this ‘Royal Address’ the ritual ends and normal parliamentary procedures resume with debates on the programme just set out.

The State Opening is one of the rare occasions when the three constituent parts of the British Parliament – the Head of State (the Queen), the House of Lords (the upper chamber, roughly equivalent to the American Senate) and the House of Commons (the lower chamber, roughly equivalent to the American Congress) – meet together.

The Opening formally begins with the arrival of the Queen at the House of Lords where she will deliver her speech. She travels from Buckingham Palace in great ceremony in one of the horse drawn state coaches.

The Royal Procession. HM The Queen in the 1851 Irish State Coach.
Much of the ritual of the day concerns stressing the independence of the Commons from the Lords that was secured in the English Civil War, 1642-1651, fought between Parliamentarians and Royalists. The most important of these rituals stems from the fact that the Monarch cannot enter the Commons lest they should interfere with the elected Members of Parliament. Thus a House of Lords official known as ‘Black Rod’ is sent to the Commons to summon MPs to the entrance of the Lords to hear the forthcoming speech. To emphasise their independence from the Crown, Black Rod has the door to the Commons slammed in his face as he approaches. An even stranger practice concerns the ‘Delivery of the Parliamentary Hostage’. Before the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace, the Commons sends one of its members to the Palace to be held as security in case Parliament should turn upon her – as when they beheaded her 8th Great-Granduncle, Charles I in 1649.

The Royal Procession. Two Royal Watermen act as boxmen sitting on the back of a landau containing non-Royal officials.
Regular HTBS readers will now be waiting for ‘the rowing angle’. As the picture above has already hinted at, there is one to be found. It concerns the role played in the day’s ceremonials by the Queen’s Bargemaster and the Royal Watermen. Until the mid nineteenth century the safest, quickest and most comfortable way to travel any distance was by river. Roads were rough, slow and dangerous. Those who could afford it owned their own elaborate river craft and employed skilled watermen to row them. Royalty found this mode of transport especially convenient as the royal palaces of Windsor, Westminster, Hampton Court, Greenwich and the Tower of London were all linked by the Thames. When travel by river fell out of favour, Royalty retained their Watermen under the command of the Bargemaster for ceremonial duties on land and water. All apprentice served watermen, many Doggett’s winners, they still receive a somewhat medieval salary of £3.50 a year.

Half an hour before the Queen’s arrival at the Lords, the three great symbols of Royal authority, the Imperial State Crown, the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance are conveyed to the Lords in their own State Coach in the Regalia Procession. The immediate ‘security’ for these fabulous objects is provided by the Queen’s Bargemaster and another Royal Waterman, who both ride on the rear of the carriage as ‘boxmen’. This is a reminder of the days when the Royal regalia would have been rowed to Parliament by river from the Tower of London.

The Regalia Procession. The coach contains the Crown and other symbols of Royal Authority. The Queen’s Bargemaster, Paul Ludwig, is standing on the rear of the coach nearest to the camera. To his left is another Royal Waterman.

The Regalia Procession. The Crown can be seen clearly through the window.

The Regalia Procession. A landau carrying officials and other regalia also has two Royal Watermen (seated) riding as boxmen.

On arrival the Crown is removed from the coach by the Crown Jeweller, Michael Swift. He hands it to the Queen’s Bargemaster, Paul Ludwig. He in turn hands it to the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Lt Col Andrew Ford, who takes it into the building properly known as the Palace of Westminster.

The Regalia Procession arrives at Parliament. The Queen’s Bargemaster carries the great symbol of Royal authority, The Imperial State Crown. It is only used at the Opening of Parliament and at Coronations.  

Paul Ludwig hands the Crown to the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Lt Col Andrew Ford.

The BBC’s coverage of the 2013 State Opening is on YouTube. The Bargemaster’s entrance is at 22 minutes 50 seconds in:

Historically, Watermen were regarded as rather roguish figures so it is surprising that they were entrusted with an object that includes 2868 diamonds (including one of 317 carats) plus numerous pearls, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. Perhaps this explains why the Bargemaster is allowed to have the Crown in his hands for only twenty seconds.

The Imperial State Crown – trusted to an oarsman for twenty seconds.

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