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The state opening of Parliament marks the formal start of a new parliamentary session. It is an occasion that brings together its three parts, the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the sovereign. The key elements of the proceedings have remained largely unchanged for centuries, beginning with a procession by the sovereign to the Palace of Westminster, then the assembling of members of both Houses in the Lords chamber, and finally the reading of a speech. Since the time of Charles II, with very few exceptions, this speech has been delivered by the sovereign themself.
1. When did the sovereign first deliver the state opening speech?
The origins of the ceremony “go back nearly nine hundred years” to the reign of William the Conqueror, according to a 1961 Central Office of Information publication. It describes how, before the English Parliament even existed, William I wore his crown ceremonially at Christian festivals and “from his throne discussed affairs of state with bishops and abbots, and earls and barons”.
According to the historian Henry Cobb, by the late 14th century there was a well-established pattern for Parliament’s opening proceedings. In the Middle Ages the king was expected to be present, unless he was ill or on a military campaign, because it was his parliament. The Lords and Commons assembled in the Painted Chamber in the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, where the king sat in state. An address was given, almost always by the Lord Chancellor. This usually consisted of a sermon and an explanation of the state of the kingdom and the reason for the summons to Parliament.
In the Tudor period it continued to be customary for the Lord High Chancellor or Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to give the address, declaring the causes for summoning Parliament. It was delivered and phrased as their own speech, but it was understood to be voicing the monarch’s views. The sovereign did not usually speak at the state opening proceedings. However, Henry Cobb explains that records show they did on occasion. For instance, in 1571 Elizabeth I stood up and spoke a few introductory words before calling on the Lord Keeper to speak.
This situation changed under James I, who often delivered long speeches himself and did not use a spokesperson at all. On his accession, Charles I initially returned to the traditional practice of not speaking and often stayed silent while the Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper delivered the speech. However, later in his reign he spoke with increased regularity.
Under Charles II, the tradition for the sovereign to deliver the speech became established and the use of a spokesperson gradually disappeared. At his first state opening ceremony in 1661, Charles made a “most gracious speech” which was seconded by the Lord Chancellor. Until 1679 Charles would usually deliver a short introductory message which was followed by a speech by his spokesperson. However, from that year onwards, the spokesperson’s speech was discontinued at state openings and when the sovereign was in attendance, they would be the only person to deliver a speech.
The exceptions to this convention were the speeches of George I, because of his poor English, and the speeches of Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Their speeches were read by the Lord Chancellor. The accession of Edward VII in 1901 saw the return of the monarch delivering their own speech from the throne. Since this time, the royal speech has always been read by the sovereign when they are present.
2. What has been said in sovereigns’ first state opening speeches?
Since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, following the English civil war, it has been common practice for every parliamentary session to be opened with a full state opening and the sovereign’s speech. Prior to this, the sovereign’s speech was normally only given at the opening of a new parliament.
In modern times, it has been traditional for the speech to begin by announcing forthcoming state visits and other planned visits from foreign heads of state. This part of the speech often reflects the state of diplomatic and international relations. For instance, Edward VIII’s speech at his first state opening on 3 November 1936 and George VI’s first state opening speech on 26 October 1937 provide an insight into foreign relations leading up to the second world war. Both speeches highlighted the growing tensions on the European continent, and the escalation of the conflict between Japan and China (often termed as the second Sino-Japanese war). The speeches set out the government’s intention to base its foreign policy upon its membership of the League of Nations and to pursue a policy of non-intervention. Edward VIII explained:
The policy of my government continues to be based upon membership of the League of Nations. […] My government will continue to do all in their power to further the appeasement of Europe. […] My ministers, while maintaining their determination to support the international agreement for non-intervention in Spain, will continue to take every opportunity to mitigate human suffering and loss of life in that unhappy country.
Both said the government was making “rapid progress” on strengthening its defence forces.
The sovereign’s speech usually then sets out the government’s legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary session. Edward VIII and George VI’s first speeches largely focused on industrial and trade measures and social policies. Both speeches included proposals to develop existing public health services, to improve housing conditions and provision, and to reorganise the coal industry. Elizabeth II’s first speech on 4 November 1952 had a similar focus. It set out her government’s plans to improve productivity in mining, agriculture and industry, and to legislate to reorganise the iron and steel industry. The speech also set out a commitment for a “steadily increasing number of houses” to be built.
In the modern era, the speeches have been written for the sovereign by the government to set out the government’s agenda. However, there are some examples where it can be assumed that sections have been written to reflect the monarch’s own views. George V and Elizabeth II used their first state opening speech to pay tribute to their fathers, who had preceded them as monarch. George V, who delivered his first state opening speech on 6 February 1911, said:
In opening the first Parliament elected in my reign, the grievous loss which the Empire has sustained by the death of my beloved father is upper most in my thoughts. When, a year ago, he addressed you from the throne no one could have foreseen that his life of unceasing and devoted activity in the service of his subjects was so soon to be cut short. Bowing to the inscrutable decree of providence, I take courage from his example, and I am sustained in my abiding sorrow by the sympathy extended to me by my people in every part of my dominions.
The state opening was, for George V, “the most terrible ordeal I have ever been through”. Historian Jane Ridley documents how George told his mother after the ceremony that he had been “horribly nervous besides feeling so sad thinking of the many times we had seen you and beloved papa do it that I nearly broke down”.
Elizabeth II also paid tribute to her father’s “selfless devotion to his duties” and the example he set. She said it would be her “constant endeavour to follow” that standard.
3. Read more
The historical overview of the customs surrounding the sovereign’s speech has largely been drawn from Henry S Cobb’s article ‘The staging of ceremonies of state in the House of Lords’, which can be found in ‘The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture’ (2000), and from the House of Commons Library briefing ‘State opening of Parliament: History and ceremony’ (3 August 2022).