Rituals and ceremonies perpetuate collective beliefs by repetitively enacting distinct narratives. Commonly, at a carefully selected and demarcated open-air site, or within a constructed setting at a particular location, such ceremonies are performed following a prescribed order of acts carried out according to a canon. An accurate enactment of a given ritual is substantial for maintaining its significance and stepping out of an established canon can be considered sacrilegious. Thus, in general, an organic correspondence develops between acts and settings in ritualistic practices. When these settings are built structures, rituals become embodied in their architectural forms to the degree that without its setting a ceremony might lose its context and plausibly become arbitrary and meaningless.
The elaborate ritual of the State Opening of Parliament in London arose with the first shaping of the Sovereign’s parliament and followed a predominantly established procedure by the late fourteenth century. However, due to the changing character of the relationship between parliament and Sovereign, adjustments of Royal residences, fires, and reforms, among other influences, the State Opening was changing over time. For instance, the ceremony temporarily halted after the opening of the Long Parliament in 1640 and was resumed for Oliver Cromwell’s Opening on January 20th, 1658, to which Cromwell arrived by water “in great pomp.” During the Late Stuart State Openings, the ceremony was reformed for security reasons. After his first Opening on May 8th, 1661, Charles II was advised to abandon arriving to Westminster on horseback, and thus commenced the tradition of the lavishly decorated coaches. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, George IV altered the ceremony to suit his personal aspirations and Sir John Soane, following George IV’s wishes, added to the old Palace of Westminster a new Royal Entrance and the Scala Regia (finished in 1824), for greater magnificence. Furthermore, George IV altered the traditional route to Parliament commencing from St. James’s Park, and instead, started his procession at Carlton House. Succeeding George IV, according to W. J. Napier’s private account of the Opening of 1833, William IV left for Parliament in a procession of five coaches from St. James’s Palace. After arriving at the Royal Entrance, the King went through the Royal and Painted chambers filled with spectators, and entered the Robing room. Inside the Robing room, the King was robed and crowned. Following, the King proceeded to the House of Lords where he ascended the throne and opened parliament by reading his speech. On the evening of October 16th, 1834, prior to Queen Victoria’s accession, a fire destroyed the medieval Royal Palace of Westminster. With the building of the new Houses of Parliament (1840–70), the ceremony of the State Opening took its final shape and procedure followed to this day without conspicuous modifications.
In Ritual and Response in Architecture, Quantrill argued that “ritual is the generator of plans which [then] generate the architectural form,” and emphasized the primacy of sacred acts through examples of ecclesiastical buildings. In this essay, I explore a somewhat different relationship between ritual and architecture. By studying the ritual of the Victorian State Opening of London’s Parliament as it took its shape due to the building of its new setting, I argue that the finally canonized ritual was generated by the new building as much as the building acknowledged the traditional ritual, and additionally, that both had a role to play in the prevailing configuration of the concept of the constitutional monarch. The decorous ceremony and the edifice are theorized as ideological constructs that influenced the political structure by means of narratives crafted by palpable, material realities with characteristic performative agencies. The diminishing religious character of the ceremony is hypothesized not as a secularization of the continuous Monarch, but rather as the fine-tuning of the legitimation of the Monarch’s political agency and responsibilities. Contrary to interpretations that recognize the opulent regal character of the building as a sign for the persisting dominance of the Sovereign during the mid and late nineteenth century, I argue that the new Parliament building, as a scene of royal magnificence, overcompensated for the Sovereign’s diminishing authority and aided the re-casting of political power relations while avoiding civil war and preserving tradition. With emphasis on the ritual’s setting, the study is conducted through an analysis of Queen Victoria’s sequence for the Opening of Parliament by detailing the chambers’ characteristics and iconography, and by observing the participants’ movements from the Royal Entrance in Victoria Tower to the Queen’s ascent to the throne in the House of Lords.
History, Inheritance, and the Gothic Revival
The keyword through which I examine nineteenth century England’s historical and political circumstances is the word nation. In late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe, the concept of a nation was largely understood as a unifying concept distinguishing the feudal model of governing from the contemporary reformed constitutional model. In England, the modern appreciation of the concept of nation (constructed as a long process starting with the Magna Carta in 1215) was still being shaped during Queen Victoria’s reign. For instance, the role of the Monarch was significantly changing and regardless of the Queen’s strong views and authoritative will, she could not veto bills and was less pro-active than her uncle William IV. Some thoughts witnessing England’s contemplations of the concept of nation, and their “reforms versus revolution” persuasions, come from Edmund Burke’s written legacy. In his Observations on the Present State of the Nation (1769), and Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke expressed passionate hostility towards the Revolution and praised both the orderly procedure of England, embedded in the triangular relationship between Sovereign, Parliament, and the people, and the value of the inheritance principle i.e. succession. According to Burke, these English procedures procured a cultivated freedom that respected the tradition and the history of the nation.
Just as Burke rebelled against breaking with the past, architects, in order to position themselves in continuity, understood that a “separation” from the idea of the linear time of progress—a return to the past—was vital. With the escalating awareness of historicity, there was a growing cultural understanding that the nation and its people’s identity were embodied in the built. Architecture was understood as possessing a strong agency and Victorians grew self-conscious of the image, or heritage, they built, which they believed defined them in the present and was supposed to represent them in the future. Architects inclined towards the Gothic style believing that it was a representation of the part of their history that had not been subject to Roman Authority. Furthermore, the choice of the Gothic style for the new Parliament was made due to its representational elasticity, in the words of Michael J. Lewis: “The Tory could say that the Gothic was the style of tradition and legitimacy; the Whig could retort that it was also the style of the thirteenth century and the Magna Carta, when the power of the King was checked. […] For the moment, however, it conveyed Englishness, a quality to which both parties were busily staking out claim.” Additionally, the Gothic was seen as the very antithesis of Neoclassicism, “which had become associated in the popular patriotic mind with the rootless anarchy and national enmity of revolutionary France.”
It is against this roughly sketched political and historical context that the public architectural competition for the new Houses of Parliament was announced in 1836, according to which the new building was to be designed in either Gothic or Elizabethan style. The commission received 97 proposals and not without controversies, unanimously chose Charles Barry’s and Augustus Pugin’s design (see Fig. 1) in the Gothic style, meant to reflect the reformed nation and government. The construction of the new Houses of Parliament began in 1840.
Fig. 1. Charles Barry, Elevation for the New Houses of Parliament, West Front, pen and ink, 1836. British Architectural Library, RIBA, London.
Inside the New Houses of Parliament: Victoria Tower, the Landing Place, and Norman Porch
Queen Victoria used the Victoria Tower Royal approach and full sequence for the first time at the Opening on February 3rd, 1852. The morning of the Opening, she departed Buckingham Palace in the Irish State Coach, escorted by the Household Cavalry, passed along the Mall, Whitehall, and Parliament Street, and arrived at Victoria Tower. At this point, the Victoria Tower was one of the tallest buildings in the world and apart from being the Royal approach, it was designed to store the archives of Parliament. This architectural arrangement interestingly positioned the Queen at the threshold of the Palace alongside history. The arches of the Tower were built wide enough to allow the Queen’s Coach to drive through at the State Openings. With the arrival of the Queen, the Royal Standard flag was raised at the top of the tower and the Sovereign’s presence was indicated. The Queen was greeted by the Great Officers of State, the Duke of Wellington, and the Usher of the Black Rod, among others. The procession then entered through the threshold on the north side of the Tower and arrived at the Landing Place. The Queen’s sequence went through noteworthy changes during the design stage (see Fig. 2). Initially Barry designed a more dominating royal staircase running parallel to the Houses’ longitudinal axes. However, as Alfred Barry reports in the biography of his father, the architect later hesitated and changed the position of the staircase to attain a generally more balanced ground plan. Following this modification, whether this alteration was essentially Barry’s initiative or was externally influenced, the Queen’s trajectory was reduced and saturated in a smaller portion of the plan.
Fig. 2. Some of the changes the Queen’s sequence underwent as depicted by the physician and inventor David Boswell Reid (1805–1863) during the building of Parliament. The National Archives, Image Library, London.
Fig. 3. Ground Floor Plan of the Houses of Parliament indicating Queen Victoria’s sequence for the Opening of Parliament.
Upon the Queen’s arrival at the Landing Place, the Royal Staircase would have been somewhat dark as natural light diffused through the stained-glass windows. Concurrently with the windows, all architectural elements sprouted vertically towards the ribbed-pointed arches and all formal presence provoked the Queen’s initial ascent. At the beginning of the procession, the broken line of the participant’s movement and the Gothic ambiance stirred an anachronistic atmosphere, which, I maintain, helped “disjoint” time as participants entered the independent time of the ceremony. Anachronisms, such as this one, played a role in historical constructions of continuity and were later thought to be imperative to Whig historiographers. However, the particular connection between the architecture and Whig’s politics is not the essay’s pressing concern and should be studied elsewhere.
During the ascent up the Royal Staircase, the Norman Porch would have appeared as the point of appeasement and security, a resting place preceding the Robing room and the Queen’s transformation (see Fig. 3). The Norman Porch was envisioned as the overture for the Robing room and Royal Gallery. It was supposed to display sculptures of the Kings of the Norman Period, the first period in English history in which a Parliament was established. Although the sculptures have never been positioned there, the lavishly decorated room with its exquisite finery of detail, presented and still presents a magnificent image of that fragment of English history.
The Robing Room
After the Norman Porch, with an abrupt turn and through a slight stylistic shift, Queen Victoria entered the Robing room. The Robing room was the place where she met the Imperial Crown, where she put on her ceremonial robes, and transformed into a Monarch. The Imperial Crown traveled under armed guard from Buckingham Palace in a separate Coach preceding the Queen. It was carried alone to emphasize the essence of authority, which was more important than any individual who for a brief moment in history succeeded it. The Crown was regarded as something superior, distinct from the personality of the Queen and coupled with the region and the nation. In this private chamber, Queen Victoria was expected to transcend her individuality and become an embodiment of the Monarchy – become the Monarch who provided continuity throughout the changing political and social conditions. Through this transformation, Queen Victoria became the abstract concept of the Monarch, which, according to Burke, was not to be abdicated by the people. One could not blame an abstract concept, which established history and tradition, for the lack of wisdom of one’s time and representatives.
By observing the sequence and its proposed bodily movement, it can be presumed that entering the Robing room was a detour to some extent - an additional stepping out. If stepping in the Houses of Parliament through the Landing Place, Royal Staircase, and the Norman Porch was stepping out of time and into a “historical time-travel,” then stepping into the Robing room can be interpreted as entering a realm of history entangled with mythology. This interpretation is supported by the character and decoration of the Robing room adorned with themes from the Arthurian Legend.
When on July 9th, 1848, the Art Commission agreed for the theme of the Robing room to be the Arthurian Legend, they encountered a symbolically loaded narrative. At the same meeting, they decided the frescos depicting the legend should be executed by William Dyce. Dyce proved to be the imperative figure in the process of interpreting the legend and tuning it to Victorian values and the ideal of the contemporary national identity. From July 1848 till February 1849, Dyce studied the legend, preparing to turn the medieval epic into a modern visual narrative. However, sources offered divided opinions on the figure of King Arthur, and summarizing them, Dyce wrote to Charles Eastlake:
…we have two views of Arthur’s character, one mythological, the other Chivalric – the one embodying some politics-religious creed of an extinct species of Paganism, about which we know very little; the other presenting to us, under the forms of Chivalry, a vivid and intelligible picture of human life, with its greatness, its crimes, and its misery. The one possesses interest chiefly for the Antiquary; the other belongs to all time and I need not say which view I prefer.
Dyce envisioned a portrayal of the Legend free from ancient heresy, or any endorsement of Catholicism, and purified of immoral episodes. He proposed to paint seven frescos in which the Knights were personifications of certain moral qualities. By censoring the legend and promoting a governing system that embodied moral and social codes through universal values, Dyce managed to tailor the ideal of chivalry into supporting the modern conception of Monarchy. Namely, the theme of chivalry carried a partisan subtext while at the same time preserved its traditional aristocratic associations. Norbert Elias insightfully explored the role of chivalric stories, beginning with the knightly-feudal crusades and away from Latin Christendom, as one of “taming” the warrior and civilizing the aristocracy. In a similar manner, the English claimed the origins of chivalric stories, embedded them in contemporary context, and made use of them, once again, to further, or cement, the framing of court. To sum up, chivalry was recognized as a value that endured through varied states of human affairs as a mixed system of opinion, power, and sentiment, due to tradition and the principle of succession. It prevailed, according to Dyce, because of the universality of its inherent values and the principle of succession which followed tradition. In the realm of the transcendent principles, hierarchy, authority, brotherhood to the nation, noble equality, and liberty stood together in the pragmatically framed concept of freedom. What is made most explicit through the use of the Arthurian Legend in the Robing room is the Art Commission’s and the artist’s veneration of narrative presented simultaneously with the need to stabilize, or pin down, the narrative’s fluctuating nature. In this narratively constructed stern realm, the Monarch was to submit to social esteem, and authority was to yield to historical wisdom. In this realm, Queen Victoria was to transform into a constitutional Monarch, for in King Arthur’s domain there was no room for absolute Monarchs and the fierceness of pride and power. Transformed, crowned, and robed, Queen Victoria, or better said, the Monarch, proceeded towards the throne through the Royal Gallery.
The Royal Gallery
The Royal Gallery was in continuance to the previously observed stylistic shift. If in the Landing Place, Royal Staircase, and Norman Porch there was an unquestionable Gothic presence, in the Robing room and the Royal Gallery that is not the case. The flat roofs and the restrained structural detailing render these rooms as enclosures that allowed predominance to iconography and communication through associations. In other words, in these two rooms, various meanings sprung from the paintings and the sculptures cradled in a somewhat restrained Gothic interior. The artefacts positioned in these rooms were metonymies through which the assertions of power, history, and culture, took place. Together, and through the narrative they performed, the art works stood for extensions of the self-constructing identity the expanding United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was putting on display.
The Royal Gallery’s new position in the ceremonial sequence is particularly intriguing. Before the 1834 fire, the ritual, following the Sovereign’s sequence, went from the Royal entrance, through the Royal and Painted chamber to the Robing room from which the King, or Queen, would directly enter the House of Lords. This meant that during the procession inside the edifice, a majority of spectators was admiring the King, or Queen, prior to their “transformation” and robing, as they walked towards the Robing room. Differently, in the new Houses of Parliament, the Royal Gallery was positioned after the Robing room, which positioned the spectators as admirers of the representation of the Monarch and not the individual ruler. This repositioning of the spectators might have been a conscious political decision, or it might have ensued as a result of architectural planning concerns, nevertheless, it remains an intriguing outcome yet to be unraveled.
The Royal Gallery’s thematic was historical with a focus on England’s military history. It had portraits of the Monarch throughout history, eight gilt Caen stone sculptures of rulers under whose guidance great battles have been won, two paintings by Daniel Maclise, and a copy of the Magna Carta. During the procession, Maclise’s painting that appeared to the left of the Monarch, was “The Death of Nelson Supported by Captain Hardy on the Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar,” and to the right his “The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after Waterloo,” finished in 1861. When the Monarch passed through the Royal Gallery, she would already have been “transformed” and would not require further affirmation. To put it shortly, in the Royal Gallery, Queen Victoria did not need a historical narrative to help her represent the monarchy. In the Royal Gallery, it was the institution of the Monarch that needed shaping, affirmation, and reminders - it can be speculated that this might have been the reason for the repositioning of the Gallery with its spectators after the Robing Room. Firstly, the victories of England elaborated through images of past Monarchs and Lords, standing in battle together with the people, reaffirmed the principles of hierarchy and succession as victorious; for instance, the Battle of Waterloo served as an affirmation of the path England has chosen versus the path chosen by Napoléon. Secondly, the presence of the copy of the Magna Carta cautioned the Monarch while positioning Parliament as a powerful presence. Taken as a whole, the Royal Gallery had its own agency, an atmosphere loaded with English power and historical wisdom represented as to shape a constitutional monarch in transition - one that preserved tradition and embraced the reformed future.
On the day of the Opening, the Royal Gallery would have been filled with spectators. The Monarch walked through the Gallery along a straight axis starting from the Robing room and culminating in the Prince’s Chamber at the sculpture of Queen Victoria. The Prince’s Chamber was richly decorated with royal images and heraldic devices from the Tudor period, also recognized as the Reformation period which emancipated England from the Catholic Church. The doors of the Prince’s Chamber were removed, and the Monarch could see the sculpture as an apex preceding the House of Lords. The marble sculpture of Queen Victoria in the Prince’s Chamber is by John Gibson and was finished in 1855. The sculpture represents Queen Victoria supported (or framed) on both sides by the figures of Justice and Clemency—standing reminders of her royal duties. She is portrayed sitting on a throne, wearing the George IV State Diadem, officially the Diamond Diadem, and not the Imperial Crown. In her left hand, she holds a scepter and in her right, a laurel wreath. Traditionally, the Queen, or King, would be portrayed holding a scepter and an orb mounted with a cross—the globus cruciger. The orb stood for ruling and was a religious symbol, and the scepter (most likely derived from the shepherd’s staff) symbolized governing. Together, both showed the Monarch ruled and governed. The role of the Monarch, in a constitutional Monarchy, was mainly thought of as one of governing and not ruling. The Monarch in that sense had the right to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. Simultaneously, the sculpture being Queen Victoria’s portrait is also a “re-representation” of an absent figure. Thus, such a portrait can be interpreted, in the words of Louis Marin, as a “memorial of history that is presence itself, that defines the place and time of the absolute present,” and as a “sacramental body that would at once operate the political body of the kingdom in the historical body and lift the historical body up into the political body.” Being reminded of the duties of the Monarch, Queen Victoria proceeded towards the House of Lords through the door on the east side of the Throne.
The House of Lords
The decoration and interior of the House of Lords is mostly the work of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–1852), the strongest supporter of the Gothic Revival. For Pugin it was not enough that Gothic stood for “Englishness,” nor it would have been any different if it stood for the state, the people, or the Sovereign. According to Pugin, any architectural style communicated certain virtues which transcended the individual and present, and the Decorated, or Middle Pointed Gothic represented the most valuable Christian virtues. In Pugin’s persuasions we find a “synthesis of the real and the symbolic” which buttressed the image of the Gothic with an agency that seemed to surpass the political sphere from within the Houses of Parliament. Thus, richly decorated, with every detail thoroughly thought over, a dominating Royal Throne, and eighteen statues of the Magna Carta signatories, the House of Lords (see Fig. 4) communicated meaning both through its direct affective visceral qualities and by way of reflection and associations.
Fig. 4. The House of Lords, F.G.O. Stuart, 1870–1885. Andrew Dickson White Architectural Photographs Collection, Cornell University
In this context, the Monarch, devised out of the ritual itself, as a concept and an idea, sitting as simply one of the three foundational parts of Parliament (the other two being the House of Lords and the House of Commons), uncovered the essential structure which unified the constitution and nation. In this instant, the three foundational parts of Parliament, tradition, and history, together with the view towards the future, emerged along the physical axis of the Palace of Westminster, which also connected the Houses and the Royal sequence. The Queen read her speech, written for her by the government, and Parliament was officially opened. The principle of succession was justified through the idea of English intrinsic rationality, and hierarchy reconciled with freedom; the ceremony accented mutual political interdependence that supported unity as a remedy for civil war, recast the Sovereign, and served as a reaffirmation for an expanding empire. The ceremony of the Opening of Parliament represented a stepping out of nineteenth century London into a historical, aestheticized framing of the nation’s image.
From the Middle Ages onwards, in this ritual, the King, or Queen, represented an embodiment of divine presence and with it the Sovereign’s unquestionable inherent political power. For instance, at the Opening in 1536, Henry VIII and the Lords rode from York Palace to the Houses of Parliament, where the King put on his ceremonial robes and the Imperial Crown. Together with his procession, that included abbots and bishops, the Monarch proceeded to Westminster Abbey for the mass of the Holy Ghost. Upon the Monarch’s arrival at the abbey, an appointed abbot took the Monarch’s sceptre—his representation of authority not needed before God. After mass, the Monarch went back to the Houses of Parliament where the Lord Chancellor delivered a “worshipful sermon,” after which the royal speech was read and Parliament officially opened. Contrary, as shown, in the Victorian era the nature of this ritual was primarily secular - there was no attending mass, the procession did not include representatives of religious orders, and there was no sermon before the reading of the royal speech. However, the Monarch was still there by divine right. It can be speculated that what was being crystallized was the move within the concept of governing institutions away from having the Church as their sole gravitational center and if not supplanting the Church, then at least intensely supplementing it with the concept of the nation. Additionally, it can be speculated that within the new Houses of Parliament, it was the history of the nation that was being presented as sacred and that history was understood to be foundational to the progressive process of constructing the liberal democratic nation. Thus, the ritual of the Opening was used to accommodate the necessary shift while the “cultural habitus” remained strong. This presents an intriguing idea that rituals, while working in the frameworks of established narratives, can be used to foster innovation and re-invent traditions. The annual ritual of the Opening of Parliament continued to inaugurate the Sovereign for the sake of tradition and the nation, and it continues to do so today in the same shape, following the same acts (even though some meanings have changed) finally modeled in the beginning of the nineteenth century with the building of the new Houses of Parliament.