King's Speech: Who is Black Rod? The ancient tradition that marks the state opening of parliament

Black Rod at the state opening of parliament on Tuesday. Credit: PA

By Rachel Dixon, Multimedia Producer

While the key purpose of the King's Speech was to set out Rishi Sunak's legislative plans for the upcoming year, the event was full of pomp, ceremony - and slightly strange traditions.

Tuesday marked the first time King Charles read the speech as monarch, having stood in for the late Queen in May 2022.

It is arguably the prime minister's biggest chance to win over voters before he and other party leaders publish their manifestos.

But while policies - including a ban on cigarettes, a new football regulator, and oil licenses - were on the cards, there are many age-old customs that preluded the speech.

One of the quirkier ones is Black Rod.

Watch: King Charles visits Parliament to deliver the first King's Speech in 70 years

What is Black Rod?

The better question might be: Who is Black Rod?

She is a senior officer in the House of Lords, responsible for controlling access to and maintaining order within the House and its precincts.

Lady Usher of the Black Rod, Sarah Clarke arrives for the Committal Service for Queen Elizabeth II . Credit: PA

Sarah Clarke was appointed as the new Black Rod on 17 November 2017. She formally took on the duties as Lady Usher of the Black Rod in February 2018.

In full, her title is Lady Usher of the Black Rod.

She is personal attendant of the sovereign in the upper house and there functions as a sergeant at arms.

Her main role is to preserve order. Historically, Black Rod would be required to be immediately rush to the king to arrest traitors and other offenders at his demand.

Each house of the British parliament has a sergeant at arms, as does each house of the US Congress.

In terms of ceremonial duties, her most prominent role is during the state opening of parliament.

Why is she called Black Rod?

The House of Commons official's name is derived from the rod she carried as part of her uniform.

The rod, which dates from 1883, is made of ebony.

It is emblazoned with the heraldic motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense', which translates as ‘Shame be to him, who evil thinks'.

It is three-and-a-half-feet long, decorated with a gold lion and garter and has a gold orb as a chivalric centrepiece.

Lady usher of the Black Rod, Sarah Clarke knocks on the doors of the Commons chamber during the State Opening of Parliament . Credit: PA

What does Black Rod do during the King's Speech?

Black Rod will summon the House of Commons to the Lords, but during this process the doors to the Commons chamber will be slammed in her face.

It is a practice that dates back to the Civil War in 1641 and is said to symbolise the Commons’ independence from the monarchy.

Black Rod will have to strike the door three times before it is opened.

The door to the Commons Chamber is then opened and all MPs, talking loudly - again to symbolise independence - follow Black Rod back to the Lords to hear the King's Speech.

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