The pomp and pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster in London traditionally takes longer than the speech itself.
But for nine short minutes yesterday, Britons were given a glimpse of their future without Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
Ill health and old age forced the 96-year-old monarch to withdraw from outlining her government’s legislative agenda for only the third time since her reign began in 1952. She has missed only two state openings — in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant with Prince Andrew and then Prince Edward.
It fell to her eldest son Prince Charles, 73, to deputise, in the most important state engagement yet in his record-breaking time as her heir.
When his mother dies, he will be king and opening parliament for a new session will be one of his most important constitutional duties as head of state.
Other than the last-minute change of personnel, there was little to distinguish the centuries-old ceremony from previous ones in the putative “mother of all parliaments”.
Two mounted divisions of the Household Cavalry regiment formed a “secure passage” for the limousine carrying Charles and his wife Camilla from Buckingham Palace.
Regalia symbolising royal authority was paraded — the bejewelled Imperial State Crown, the Great Sword of State and Cap of Maintenance.
The red-coated Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard — the “Beefeaters” — kept watch. Liveried parliamentary and government officials processed.
A ceremonial search of the cellars of parliament was conducted — a throwback to when a gunpowder plot was foiled before the opening of 1605. The door of the House of Commons was slammed shut in the path of Black Rod, an official from the unelected upper House of Lords, to symbolise the independence of the elected lower chamber from the monarchy.
One member of parliament was held “hostage” at Buckingham Palace to ensure the safe return of the monarch, another throwback to more troubled times. Then MPs filed into the Lords, their daywear in contrast to the peers in red and white ermine robes, to listen to the speech.
Charles, dressed in the ceremonial uniform of admiral of the fleet, complete with a sheathed sword, arrived to a trumpet fanfare. The Prince of Wales has had a lifetime to prepare for such occasions. He showed no sign of nerves, smiling and occasionally stopping to chat as he made his way to the chamber and the platform bearing the consort’s throne. Camilla — a future Queen consort — sat to the left of the future king. His eldest son, Prince William, 39, to his right, getting his first taste of an occasion he will also have to perform one day.
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