What Does Black Rod Do The Rest Of The Year?

What Does Black Rod Do The Rest Of The Year?
Black Rod in the Central Lobby at the Palace of Westminster. Photography by Jessica Taylor, copyright UK Parliament.

He’s like Father Christmas, isn’t he? One day’s work in a fancy costume, then feet up for the rest of the year…

"A lot of people think the whole job revolves around breeches, stockings and banging on the door," admits David Leakey, "but the ceremonial is a very small part of the job".

Leakey is the 69th Black Rod since 1349, when Edward III realised he needed someone to keep his brand-new Knights of the Order of the Garter in check. Because 25 of the ruftiest, tuftiest knights in all the land needed simmering down from time to time, the King created a Usarius; medieval Latin for doorkeeper; closer to our word ‘usher’. "The chap needed to be a gentleman to command a knights’ respect so Black Rod is a ‘Gentleman Usher'," explains Leakey.

He was given a staff of office as a symbol of authority, and a uniform, the design of which apparently stopped evolving sometime around the 18th century.

David Leakey wears the black stockings, white tie, breeches and some very natty patent, buckled slippers with the same ease he might have worn battledress during his 39 years in the army.

"It’s all jolly expensive," he says, hanging up the sober black tailcoat before relaxing in his Grade I listed office, hurriedly adding "but we shop around."

"My wife saw the advertisement in a national newspaper. In many ways it’s just like any other senior executive position. Anyone could apply. I understand there were over 100 applicants, from the military and civil service to event managers and marketing consultants."

Black Rod is, as was the first Usarius, responsible for access, order and discipline — and required to keep an eye on Members’ behaviour.

Members can invite into the House whomever they like. This can range from presidents and prime ministers through Hollywood stars to discredited captains of industry. All need to be handled with the *cough* appropriate security requirement. Occasionally, the House objects to someone coming in at all. Right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, for example, was an unpopular choice for afternoon tea at the Lords, though he's probably not welcome in a lot of people's houses.

Abuses of position such as the expenses scandal are matters for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. "But there’s plenty of what I refer to as 'petty crime'," says Leakey. "It’s usually silly things — like conducting tours when the house is sitting — where Black Rod is required to have ‘a quiet word’.

Does it ever get beyond a quiet word?

"I couldn’t possibly comment."

Black Rod — David Leakey — sitting in his office. Photo by Sandra Lawrence

Black Rod oversees a £30m security budget and has the right to detain people himself. "I normally hand them straight over to the police. Parliament is no haven from the law, even though there are some restrictions on how the police can operate — they may not affect an arrest without permission — from Black Rod in the Lords; from the Serjeant at Arms in the Commons."

One has to weigh the balance between keeping the palace open, accessible and welcoming — anyone can walk in and see the chamber in action — and keeping it operational and safe from disruption. "When we get an equal number of complaints on each side, I reckon I’ve got it right."

Something earlier Black Rods wouldn't have had to deal with was "business resilience and continuity". In the event of emergency, Black Rod has 48 hours to relocate Parliament in its entirety.

Black Rod's rod. Photo by Roger Harris, copyright House of Lords 2015.

The rod itself is relatively new, thanks to the traditional ‘custom’ of outgoing Black Rods quietly snaffling ‘their’ wands into their suitcases when leaving office. The practice was stamped out in 1873. The current 36in of ebony is topped with the golden lion of the sovereign, with a gold butt the other end. After a few years of being hammered on a door, said butt began to get tatty, so in 1904 a gold sovereign of the day was fitted to keep it smart. No one has ever bothered fixing the door itself — its battered looks are all part of the symbolism of a defiant House of Commons.

The rod isn’t heavy, a good job since it’s being used on an alternate daily basis just now. "I have to carry it every time a peer is introduced to the house," says Leakey. "There are 53 of them being introduced over two and a half months." Its main use is, of course, at the State Opening of Parliament. Protocol is everything. There are 1,000 named guests who need correctly-worded invitations and the correct seats. Black Rod is also in charge of arranging space for media and many kilometres of cabling.

Black Rod bangs on the door of the House of Commons during the State Opening of Parliament. Photo by Jessica Taylor, copyright UK Parliament

On the Grand Day itself:

The Queen is seated on the throne in the Lords. She nods to Black Rod to summon the members of the House of Commons.

Black Rod sets off "at a steady pace".

The door is slammed in Black Rod’s face; symbolising the independence of the House. In 1632 Charles I tried to arrest five MPs on charges of treason. The Speaker refused him entry, claiming he had no right to enter Parliament. Black Rod knocks three times.

The Serjeant at Arms peeks through a spyhole and announces "It IS Black Rod! Open the door!".

Emphasising the word ‘is’ is important, thanks to two incidents in the early 17th century. Once, Black Rod bowled up early. The Commons weren’t ready. Worse, he hadn’t even bothered to bring his stick. He was packed off to get it and firmly told to come back at the appointed hour.

Another Black Rod sent a stand-in to do the door duty (allegedly he was too drunk to go personally). The Commons took great offence and turned him away too. Nowadays, the Serjeant is checking it is actually the correct chap, with his cane… or Sulks Will Happen.

Black Rod is finally allowed in and relays a message commanding the MPs to attend Her Majesty.

The Commons take their time.

When they’re good and ready, MPs walk to the Lords ‘as a rabble’ — talking loudly; a further demonstration of their autonomy.

Black Rod is not directly responsible for the ceremony the night before the Opening, where the Yeomen of the Guard, carrying candle lanterns, search the basements for barrels of gunpowder and wannabe Guy Fawkes’s, but when his own Yeoman reports all is well "I always celebrate the news with a glass of port".

It’s a ceremonial search these days, of course, conducted at night, in private, but Leakey feels tradition is an important part of life at the Palace of Westminster. "History is the fibres of the fabric that has stood this house in good stead."

From shiny shoes to slammed doors, he clearly buys that fabric wholesale, loves the pomp and ceremony that goes with the stockings. He’s determined to get it right.

"There have been 69 Black Rods and only one’s been executed," he says (Henry VIII beheaded Henry Norris, for an alleged intrigue with Anne Boleyn). "I’m keen to keep my head."

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Last Updated 21 June 2017

James Guppy

Excellent - fascinating stuff!

Beth Williams

Interesting article. Let's keep Black Rod and cut by half the numbers of people in the Lords and the Commons. They do very little.

Greg Tingey

As someone who regularly wears (white) knee-length socks & black breeches, I aca tell you that the outfit is as confortable as the photo of David Leakey implies.
If you want more on what Black Rod does, you could do worse than look up the autobiography of a previous Black Rod, who was also a "TV personality" because of his excellent historical / presentational style.
Lt-General Sir Brian Horrocks

Robyn

Parliament posted a video where David Leakey gave a lecture (about an hour long) about what Black Rod does and a little bit of the history of the position. Here it is: youtube(dot)com/watch?v=lZQfz0HJJ1o (Apparently I can't just post the link without embedding the video, and it was huge, so I had to edit the URL.)

I found it pretty fascinating, but I'm also the sort of person who watches the State Opening every year, even though I live in California
and it happens in the middle of the night here.