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Meet the parliamentarians with roles in the coronation

The procession at Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953 (Alamy)

7 min read

After what appears to have been an internal debate, government whips who are also members of the Royal Household will join the King’s procession in Westminster Abbey, while one cabinet minister has just been given a very significant role in the procession. Daniel Brittain reports

There have been reports of considerable unhappiness, not to say outrage, that hundreds of MPs and peers won’t get seats in the Abbey for Saturday’s coronation. It’s not just the crossbenchers who are cross. After centuries of guaranteed seats, only the Prime Minister, opposition leaders and first ministers are assured of a place. With about 50 seats allotted for each House, parliamentary ranks in the Abbey will be literally decimated. But with just 2,500 seats this time it would not be a popular move to pack it out with 1,400 parliamentarians. The viewing platform in Parliament Square will be the most people can expect.

There are, however, 13 members of the government who have a particular connection with the monarchy because they double up either as members of the Royal Household, or are one of the great officers of state. 

That august body, not to be confused with holders of the great offices of state, are the modern-day descendants of the medieval or Tudor courtiers who carried out the most important government functions. Three of them are held by politicians: The Lord High Chancellor (to give it its full title), The Lord Privy Seal and the Lord President of the Council. The Lord Chancellor (currently Alex Chalk) is the oldest government office with a continuous history dating back to 1066. In terms of the official order of precedence, he outranks even the Prime Minister. Their power derived from the fact that nearly all the early ones were clerics who could read and write and therefore supervised the conduct of government business.

Originally the Keeper of The King’s Conscience, most readers know it’s a position which has undergone radical change in the 21st century. Whilst retaining a role in the administration of justice and appointment of judges, it’s now combined with the more politically charged position of justice secretary. However, the Lord Chancellor’s oath of office is still regarded as highly significant, pledging the minister to: “respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts”.

A rather more recent office, (going back to only 1529), but with more regular contact with the King, is the Lord President of the Council – Penny Mordaunt. It’s a job frequently combined with the leadership of the Commons. She leads the regular meetings of the Privy Council, the ancient body which effectively rubber stamps those parts of government business which are required to be determined by the King in council. She has a meeting with the King before each session to brief him on what’s coming up. On coronation day she’ll be meeting him again as she’ll be carrying the Sword of State in the King’s procession: a first for a woman. Not all meetings of the Privy Council are uncontroversial. The one on 28 August 2019, when Jacob Rees-Mogg flew to Balmoral to ask the late Queen Elizabeth II to prorogue Parliament on 9 September, has gone down in constitutional history.

“The long interwoven history of the Crown, court, Parliament and government will be demonstrated at the coronation”

If those are two very active historic roles, the third senior great officer held by a politician, the Lord Privy Seal, is little more than a title, although its origins date back to 1307. When he held it, Ernest Bevin declared he was neither a lord, a privy nor a seal. Mind you this is not currently the case as the present holder is the Leader of the House of Lords Lord True, so at least one word of the title is correct. Originally the post holder sealed the monarch’s personal (as opposed to state) documents. Over time its use was required less and less until all functions were abolished by the Great Seal Act 1884. It’s an office in name only.

If the great officers account for three cabinet jobs, there are 10 more junior members of the government (all acting as whips) who are members of the Royal Household. Five are Lords and Baronesses-in-waiting. As well as whips they also act as departmental spokespeople. There are though occasional Household duties, including meeting foreign heads of state at Heathrow or Gatwick and welcoming them on behalf of the King. The much-missed Baroness Trumpington once told me that when she did this she was supplied with a very ancient – though extremely stylish – Rolls Royce from the Royal Mews. “I felt very grand,” she beamed. It’s uncertain at the time of writing whether these five will make it to the King’s procession.

It’s the Chief Whip in the Lords and her deputy who will really impress. Their official titles are Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms (Baroness Williams of Trafford) and Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard (Earl of Courtown). Respectively they head the closest and oldest bodyguards of the King (although possibly not particularly effective these days in the event of an attack). As well as running the government’s whipping operation, they get to take part in full dress military uniform in numerous state ceremonial events such as the State Opening, and last September stood as part of the Guard of Honour for the Lying in State of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Hall and marching in her funeral procession from Westminster Abbey to Hyde Park Corner. Now they’ll be processing at the coronation.

Lord Courtown told me he’s “very much looking forward to taking part in this significant national event”. As a woman, Lady Williams didn’t get to wear the splendid red and gold Dragoon Guards uniform at the state funeral, only a badge and stave of office. This time around, it has been confirmed that she will be wearing the uniform at the coronation. 

In the Commons the deputy, third and fourth government whips, namely the treasurer of the household (Marcus Jones), the comptroller (Rebecca Harris) and vice-chamberlain (Jo Churchill) are all members of the Royal Household. The first two have occasional Household duties, including riding in a horse-drawn carriage to and from State Opening. Jo Churchill is kept pretty busy with royal duties. She delivers messages from the Commons to the King, such as when the King’s consent is required and announces replies in the Chamber as the first business of the day. She also writes the daily letter (now an email) to the King about the goings on in the Commons. It’s well documented that the Queen really enjoyed these letters when there was a good supply of gossip. She told Tony Blair how much she enjoyed Janet Anderson’s on that score. If you watched the Queen’s funeral procession, you might well have seen Churchill and Rebecca Harris (together with the then-treasurer Craig Whitaker) carrying their white staves of office.

But to see the Commons whips at their finest you need to watch the BBC’s coverage of the 1953 coronation on YouTube. There, at about 18 minutes in, you’ll see the then-trio not just carrying their staves but in full blue and gold court dress, white silk stockings and carrying their black and gold cocked hats. A few minutes later in splendid isolation the similarly-dressed late Harry Cruickshank MP, then-leader of the Commons and lord privy seal appears. Many of the well-known photos of the Queen’s crowning show him standing close by.

Saturday is going to be very much a dress-down coronation, so don’t expect to see anything nearly as glamorous. The whips will certainly be on parade, the roles of the great officers are not finally decided. Either way the long interwoven history of the Crown, court, Parliament and government will be demonstrated at the coronation.

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Read the most recent article written by Daniel Brittain - Obliging Noble: The Lord Howe Interview

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