Black Rod and the Door of the House of Commons


Image: UK Parliament via Flickr CC

The earliest description of the ceremony in which the Commons are summoned to the Lords by Black Rod comes in a notebook that belonged to Sir Thomas Duppa, who filled the position between 1683 and 1694, and had been deputy to his predecessor, Sir Edward Carteret, from 1675. The description is part of a set of procedural notes dated 14 August 1679, presumably given to Duppa in anticipation of his having to fulfil the role at the opening of the new parliament, only recently elected. The note reads:

When the King is sett [seated], either he or my Lord Great Chamberlain gives you Order to call the House of Commons. Then you go immediately, and when you come there, you knock with the end of your rod four or five times, and when the Doors are open, and [you] come in as high as the bar, you make a Congee [bow], and then going three steps further another, and then advancing further another And then holding up your Black Rod in your hand you say Mr Speaker, The King commands this Honourable House to Attend him immediately in the House of Peers. If there is no Speaker instead of Mr Speaker you say Gentlemen of this House of Commons, the King &c. Then you go out making your Three legs [i.e., bows]. And stay for the Speaker in the Painted Chamber and going in, and standing at his Right hand, not suffering any body to stand betwixt him and you, you make three Congees and go and stand with him at the Bar holding your Black Rod in your hand.

The ceremony is pretty much as it is now, though Duppa’s (or Carteret’s) note does not refer to the practice of slamming the door in Black Rod’s face, it is clear that when he arrives, the doors are closed.

How ancient is all this? (The question has already been discussed in a History of Parliament blogpost by Hannes Kleineke, to which most of the following is footnotes.) The ceremony is often said to be in some way connected to the occasion on 5 January 1642 when the king entered the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the leaders of the opposition movement. (for example, in the Wikipedia page ). The fact that it was first described in 1679 might be seen as supporting that belief. But it’s evident that it was a routine procedure by 1679 and very probably well before 1642. The practice was clearly in existence by 1666, for an entry in the Commons Journal for 23 April 1666 records that ‘the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod knocking at the House door, no further proceeding could be had’.

It is difficult to find explicit references to the door-knocking ceremony from before 1642, but there are enough casual ones to suggest that it was in use. There is a reference in the Commons Journal in May 1641 to the Black Rod, James Maxwell ‘coming to the House, with a Message, without his black Rod; and coming in, before he was called in’, which might be regarded either as supporting the idea that the practice pre-dates 1642, or contradicting it (on the one hand, it was expected that he would only enter the Commons by permission; on the other, the door was presumably not shut to prevent him from coming in). But this case was rather unusual, and any divergence from tradition probably deliberate: Black Rod was only coming with a summons to a royal assent by commission (to the bill for the execution of the earl of Strafford), rather than a summons to the personal attendance by the king, and the contemporary diarist, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, records that ‘Mr Maxwell came in bringing in his hand a white stick that we might perceive he came not about a dissolution (for then he must have come with his black rod) and after he was come to the middle part of the House, he said with a cheerful countenance, fear not I warrant you’ (quoted by E.R. Foster, The House of Lords 1603-49, p. 65). Maxwell’s jocularity was an ill-judged reference to his role in the events at the close of the 1628-9 Parliament, when he had been despatched by the King to find out why his command that the Commons should adjourn was not obeyed (Members were, at the time, physically preventing the Speaker from carrying it out).

There is an anecdote in an eighteenth century document which would prove that Black Rod was knocking the door before 1642: Richard Vaughan of Corsygedol in Merioneth, a member in 1628, ‘was so very fat and unwieldy that the folding-doors of the House of Commons were opened to let him in, which is never done but when the Black Rod brings a message from the king, who being then in the House of Lords, the folding-doors opened, when the rumour in the House was ‘the Black Rod or the Welsh Knight is coming’. The value of the reference, though, is diminished a bit by the fact that it is only recorded by Vaughan’s descendant, around a century later. At the beginning of the 1614 Parliament the Journal records Mr Coningsby, the then Black Rod, coming to the Commons to let them know that the King was waiting for them. More usually the Journal records only that the king sent for the Commons, as in 1624 , and not how it was done. The early seventeenth century historian of parliament, Simonds D’Ewes, when he described the opening of one of the parliaments of the reign of Elizabeth I, was unable to put in the name of Black Rod at the time, and it’s uncertain whether he meant by ‘the Ancient Custom and Usage’ he practice that he himself could remember:

The Knights, Citizens, and Burgesses of the House of Commons remained sitting in their own House till notice was brought them by . . . . . . . (according to the Ancient Custom and usage,) that her Majesty, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the residue were set in the Upper House, expecting their repair thither, whereupon they went up immediately unto the said House…

Nevertheless, it is clear that D’Ewes, in around the 1620s or 1630s, did think that there was an ancient practice going on; and the accumulation of evidence suggests that it is probably the same one that was described in 1679.

Was D’Ewes right that the same practice had applied in the reign of Elizabeth? The various diaries of individual Members that survive from the last decade or so of her reign make it clear that the House of Commons was summoned, but how it was summoned is never described. Frequently there are references to things going wrong in the procedure. In the anonymous journal of the 1593 Parliament, for example, the diarist writes that:

After her Majesty’s coming and the Lords all set [sat], the Lower House had intelligence thereof and went to ascend into the Upper House below the bar, being well repleted with those that had gotten in before privately [i.e. people who hadn’t waited to be told, but had bagged their places earlier]; the door was shut upon us until the Lord Keeper had gone a good step into his oration. The Lower House finding themselves discontented here with, because of custom the way ought to have been open unto us, murumred so loud that ht enoise came to her majesty’s hearing, who presently commanded the door to be let open, which was done. (Hartley, III, 62; see also 170)

Hayward Townshend’s journal of the 1597-98 parliament:

notice was given to us that her Majesty was set in the Upper House, and it was her pleasure we should repair thither, which every man did that could get in with great thrusting [shoving]. And then and there the Lord Keeper… delivered unto us a speech in which was contained, as it was told me by relation of others that heard it (for I could not by reason of my late going in and want of knowledge of the fashion of the parliament) the cause and necessity of the parliament [Hartley, III, 226]

And at the end of the same parliament, Hayward was equally unimpressed:

After dinner the same day all of us appeared at the House to go with the Speaker unto the Queen who came to the parliament about 3 a clock and was set in the House before 4. We waited at the Upper House door some half an hour and then were let in (where was the greatest thrust and most disorder that ever I saw. [Hartley, III, 240-1]

Hayward records similar scenes at later parliaments too. While these descriptions don’t exclude the possibility that the Black Rod ceremony took place, it is surprising, if it did, that the Commons were not allowed straight in to the Lords. But perhaps that is merely a symptom of the chaos that could easily overtake early modern ceremonial choreography in a small and cramped series of spaces.

What is the ceremony supposed to mean? Conventionally, the ceremony is supposed to ‘symbolize the Commons’ independence’ of the Crown, and that is probably, in one sense or another, basically correct. But why does the ceremony exist? As with the question of when it was invented, there’s no known answer. But there might be a clue in the practice of the City of London on the occasion of the proclamation of a new monarch. The first description of it I can find is of the proclamation of Charles II in 1660. On that occasion (which was a very odd one, because the king was then still in exile, and the proclamation had been ordered by the two Houses of Parliament) a substantial procession, including the two Houses of Parliament, various heralds, and a body of soldiers, first went to Whitehall and proclaimed the king there. Then they:

proceeded to Temple-Bar where the Gates being shut, the King at Arms, with Trumpets before him, knocked, and demanded entrance: the Lord Mayor appointed some to ask, Who it was that knock’d? The King at Arms reply’d, That if they would open the Wicket [i.e., small door within the gates] and let the Lord Mayor come thither, he would to him deliver his Message. The Lord Mayor came then on Horse-back richly habited, in a Crimson-Velvet Gown, to the Gate, and then the Trumptes sounded; and after silence being made, Alderman Bateman, by order of the Lord Mayor, demanded of the Herald, Who he was, and what was his Message? To which he answer’d, with his Hat on, We are the Heralds at Arms, appointed and commanded by the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, to demand Entrance into the Famous City of London, to proclaim Charles the Second King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, and we expect your speedy Answer to this Demand. [Sir Richard Baker, A Chronicle of the Kings of England from the Time of the Romans Government unto the Death of King James… whereunto is now added ye reigne of King Charles I And the first thirteen years of the Reign of King Charles the II (London, 1674) p. 708]

This ceremony had not just been invented. Something similar (remarkably) is described as having happened at the proclamation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector on 1 July 1657; there is a reference to the ‘usual ceremonies’ at the proclamation of Charles I in 1625; and accession proclamations were plainly being read in London in a similar way in the sixteenth century. The ceremony is not limited to proclamations of a new monarch: the same solemnities are recorded from the eighteenth century when there is a formal declaration of war, or a formal announcement of a treaty of peace (it happened in 1783 and in 1802, and no doubt at other times). The ceremony still exists, at least at accessions, though we haven’t seen it since 1952: there are numerous illustrations of it taking place (here is one from 1910) ; and there are further links on a College of Arms webpage. Nowadays no door-bashing is involved. Temple Bar was dismantled in 1878 in order to widen the road, so these ceremonies take place where it used to be – roughly outside the royal courts of justice – and without a door to knock.

Despite the present absence of a door at the ceremonial entrance to London, there are evident similarities with the business of Black Rod and the door of the House of Commons, and it suggests that the point of the two ceremonies is essentially the same: to emphasise that both the House of Commons and the City of London are independent corporations, with franchises or liberties of their own, and a royal messenger engaged on formal business needs the special leave of the corporation to enter it. It’s not quite the same thing as the Crown itself entering: the City of London has a separate ceremony, sometimes rather confused with this one, when the monarch makes a formal entry into the City, and is offered the sword and key of the City. The City has no power to refuse entry to the monarch him or herself; and the same is no doubt true of the House of Commons – the entry of Charles I into the House in 1642 was not something that could really have been resisted.

What is interesting about this connection is what it might tell us about how the House of Commons thought of itself whenever the ceremony started being used. If it did adopt a ceremony that was familiar from the City of London it suggests that some people thought of it by analogy with a body which exercised a set of freedoms and privileges, and had some sort of corporate existence. It’s a curious linkage, because the House of Commons even now is not a permanent body, with a formal corporate existence: it ends with the conclusion of every parliament. In the sixteenth century that was even more true. If they did borrow the ceremonial vocabulary of the City of London or other urban corporations, those who thought about it may have been making some sort of claim about the nature of the Commons. The mace, perhaps, is a similar symbol. But that can be another blog.

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