If you follow British politics at all, you’re probably familiar with the State Opening of Parliament. In this, Queen Elizabeth II rides in a gilded carriage from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, as the Houses of Parliament are formally known. There she changes into formal attire – including the crown – and sits in the House of Lords, where she reads a speech that has been prepared for her by the current government.
The speech outlines the things the current government wants to do in the upcoming legislative session. It’s like a more subdued State of the Union address… without the clapping every 30 seconds.
Incidentally, my favorite part of the ceremony involves someone known as the “Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod”. Usually called “Black Rod” for short, once the Queen and the Lords have assembled for the speech, Black Rod is sent to summon the House of Commons. However, as he approaches the Commons chamber the door is slammed in his face, and he bangs on the door with his… black rod to get their attention:
This is a response to an event that took place on January 4, 1642, when Charles I, accompanied by armed soldiers, stormed into the House of Commons to arrest five MPs he believed had encouraged the Scots to invade England. Although the House of Commons and Charles I had been at odds for decades by that point, this event proved to be the spark that ignited the English Civil War, and is why, to this day, the monarch is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. By slamming the door in Black Rod’s face, the Commons reminds the monarch that they won’t be bullied by the anyone, especially the Crown.
And hey, speaking of “being bullied by the monarch”, have you ever wondered what happens after the Queen’s speech?
Well, the Commons takes up a bill known as “A Bill for the more effectual preventing clandestine Outlawries”, which is mercifully shortened to the “Outlawries Bill”. And here’s something you might not know: in Anglo-Saxon times, to be declared an outlaw was the second worst thing the government could do to you, outside of torturing you to death. That’s because an “outlaw” was literally a person “outside the law”. An outlaw convicted of a crime couldn’t just hire a better lawyer and file an appeal, since he was now excluded from the legal system. Anyone offering an outlaw food, shelter or assistance could be executed for aiding and abetting. And if an angry mob happened to come across an outlaw… well, you couldn’t be arrested for killing a person the law no longer recognized, so… It may surprise some that the “WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE” trope made famous in old Western films actually has its origin in Anglo-Saxon England!
Of course, England doesn’t have “outlaws” any more, at least not in that Anglo-Saxon sense. But a bill about them is introduced into the House of Commons after every Queen’s Speech. This is to symbolically show that the House will control its own agenda, and not be bullied or persuaded by the monarch. An interesting side note is that, since the bill is purely symbolic these days, no one bothers printing up paper copies of the bill. And since they haven’t done so for years, no one really knows what the exact text of the bill actually was. This version of the bill, used during the reign of Queen Victoria, is the most complete known example of the bill:
A Bill for the more effectual preventing clandestine Outlawries.
For the more effectual preventing Clandestine Outlawries in Personal Actions, Be it Enacted by the Queen’s most excellent Majesty by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and Commons in this present Parliament assembled and by the authority of the same. That if after the [date] any attorney Solicitor or other person who shall prosecute any person or persons to Outlawry in any action personal wherein no Writ or Exegerit shall be awarded shall make default to send or deliver the Writ of Proclamation to the Sheriff of the proper County where the Defendant shall be dwelling at the time of awarding the Exegerit (the place of such dwelling being known), every such Attorney Solicitor or other person aforesaid making such default being lawfully convicted shall for every such offence forfeit [amount]; and if the Sheriff (the Writ of Proclamation being duly delivered to him) shall refuse or neglect before the Return of the Writ to make [number of] Proclamations according to the directions of the Act made in the thirty-first year of the reign of [Queen Elizabeth] for the avoiding of privy and secret Outlawries in actions personal, every such Sheriff being lawfully convicted shall for every such refusal or neglect forfeit [amount].
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While all this is going on, the House of Lords discusses vestries. In the United States, Ireland and Scotland, vestries are committees of lay people who advise the clergy of Episcopal churches.
The vestry serves two purposes. For one, it takes some of the workload off the clergy. If a church needed roof repairs, for example, the vestry might be in charge of getting estimates and determining the best course of action. Or if the church had a sensitive situation – like a deacon getting caught with a prostitute – the rector may seek the vestry’s help in figuring out what to do next.
The vestry’s second task is to keep an eye on the books, not just to keep the rector’s hand out of the cookie jar, but also to make sure the parish is financially stable generally. This is the origin of the vestry in England: a secular group made up of prominent citizens that had control over the parish’s public charity funds, such as aid to the poor. Over time, vestries assumed more and more power, such as appointing church officials like clerks and sextons, and maintaining public utilities like water pumps, market scales, clocks and fire engines. At their most powerful, in the early 1830s, vestries spent almost 20% of England’s national budget!
By the late 19th century, it became obvious that professionals were needed in many cases. Many vestries were responsible for cesspits in early days, but the rise of modern sanitation systems required more knowledge than the average vestry member had. And by this point, the 20,000+ vestries hopelessly overlapped each other and offered inconsistent services throughout the country. So their civil powers were removed by legislation in 1894, while their ecclesiastical powers were removed by a reorganization act in 1921.
So why does the House of Lords introduce a bill for a thing that was abolished 96 years ago? Again, it’s symbolic, just to show the monarch that he or she can’t bully the House of Lords, either. Specifically, the Lords debates “A bill for the better regulating of Select Vestries”, which is predictably just called the “Select Vestries Bill”.
But what’s a select vestry? Well, in the Middle Ages, any taxpaying resident of a parish could be a member of the vestry. But massive population growth in the 1600s, especially in cities like London and Manchester, meant that it was no longer feasible for every taxpayer to have a seat on the vestry. So “select vestries” were created which had a property ownership requirement, and one had to be “selected” by existing members… much like a country club, an analogy that adequately describes how the process actually worked. Not surprisingly, many vestries became corrupt over time. Since the House of Lords includes all 26 bishops of the Church of England, many of those bishops pushed for reform. In fact, the “Select Vestries Bill” was once a real bill the bishops wanted to pass. When it failed to pass in that session, the bishops ensured that it was the first thing discussed in the next session of the Lords. And the next. And the next. And the next. They kept pushing for the bill for years, until its introduction became a tradition unto itself.
While you may think all this is just some nutty practice British people do because someone made it a “thing” 400 years ago, know that our neighbors to the north do something similar. Canada is a constitutional monarchy, so their parliament sessions also begin with a royal speech… although it’s almost never delivered by the actual Queen of Canada. It’s called the “Throne Speech”, and it’s actually two speeches – a short one delivered by the Lieutenant Governor of Quebec called “the Allocution”. The premier of Quebec then reads a much longer speech, “Discours d’ouverture”. After this, each house debates a bill: C-1 (in the Commons) and S-1 (in the Senate). But while the British bills reference past legislative needs – outlawery reform and vestry corruption – the Canadian bills are refreshingly direct. They simply state that the bill they’re discussing is about how they’re free to discuss whatever they want. The bills are identical, save for the stuff in brackets, which is specific to each body:
Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the [House of Commons / Senate] before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the [elected representatives of the people / Senate] to act without the leave of the Crown;
Whereas that custom, which can be traced to [1558 / before 1867] in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;
And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom;
Now, therefore, Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:
1 This bill asserts the right of the [House of Commons / Senate] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.