Queen Elizabeth II opens Parliament in low-key ritual, first ceremonial duty since Prince Philip's death

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The rituals of the British state go on and no one knows that better than the newly widowed Queen Elizabeth II, performing her first ceremonial duty Tuesday since husband Prince Philip died last month.

The 95-year-old queen carried out one of her most important roles as head-of-state, presiding over the elaborate State Opening of Parliament and delivering the Queen's Speech from The Sovereign's Throne – but with less of the folderol that normally surrounds the symbolism-drenched ritual.

She sat alone on the throne, a small table covered in red embroidered velvet next to her. She wore no crown, nor formal robes of state, nor heavy Crown Jewels – just her usual coat-and-dress and matching hat ensemble in pale blue and patterned white silk.

Queen Elizabeth II reads the Queen's Speech on the The Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in London on May 11, 2021.
Queen Elizabeth II reads the Queen's Speech on the The Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament in London on May 11, 2021.

The Imperial State Crown was driven in a separate car from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament, carried in and placed on a table in the House of Lords.

She arrived alone from Windsor Castle in a royal Range Rover, not a golden carriage. The number of people who were there to watch, usually throngs, was much reduced, socially distanced and vaccinated due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the first major in-person appearance by the queen since her husband of 73 years, the Duke of Edinburgh, died on April 9. For most of her longest-ever reign of 69 years, the duke accompanied the queen to the State Opening of Parliament, but after his retirement in 2017, her son and heir, Prince Charles, has escorted his mother.

The Prince of Wales and his wife, Duchess Camilla of Cornwall, were present in the Lords' chamber, and he escorted her into the chamber, but he did not sit next to her in the consort's throne as he has in the past and as her husband used to do. That throne was removed for the first time in 120 years, according to British media reports.

In all the years of her reign, the queen missed participating in the ceremony only twice, both while she was pregnant with her two youngest children in the 1960s.

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The Imperial State Crown arrives for the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on May 11, 2021.
The Imperial State Crown arrives for the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on May 11, 2021.

Although the State Opening is the most significant public event in the queen's recent diary, she has not been idle. Only days after her husband's death, she was carrying out some routine duties, such as royal audiences to receive new ambassadors and presiding over a retirement ceremony for her most senior royal household official, according to the Court Circular, the official record of royal engagements.

On Monday, she was back at her laptop at Windsor Castle, where she has spent most of the pandemic, talking via video call to the Royal Life Saving Society, sharing fond memories of achieving her own life-saving qualification as a teen princess 80 years ago. She became the first young person in the Commonwealth to achieve the Society’s Junior Respiration Award, Buckingham Palace said.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks to the Royal Life Saving Society  via video call from Windsor Palace in a picture released May 10, 2021 by Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth II speaks to the Royal Life Saving Society via video call from Windsor Palace in a picture released May 10, 2021 by Buckingham Palace.

“I didn’t realize I was the first one – I just did it, and had to work very hard for it!” she told participants on the call, according to the palace. “It was a great achievement and I was very proud to wear the badge on the front of my swimming suit. It was very grand, I thought.”

The State Opening of Parliament formally marks the start of a new session of Parliament, when the monarch (king or queen) reads a speech written by the prime minister (currently Boris Johnson) and his or her government laying out the government's agenda for the coming parliamentary session.

As with many of the monarch's public speeches, she does not write this one. Queen Elizabeth generally only writes her annual Christmas speech broadcast on TV, and her speeches for special occasions, such as her pandemic speech in April last year and her speech marking the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day a month later.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Royal Gallery in the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in London on May 9, 2012 during the State Opening of Parliament.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Royal Gallery in the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in London on May 9, 2012 during the State Opening of Parliament.

The State Opening may seem peculiar to outsiders but it's intended to symbolize the governance of the United Kingdom and the separation of powers. Members of all branches of government – the crown, the legislature, ministers, judges and even international diplomats – are assembled in one place at the same time at least once a year.

In pre-pandemic years, many of those attending were dressed in antique costumes and carried out unusual customs that carry historic meaning but leave non-Brits befuddled.

Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Charles, Prince of Wales on the Sovereign's throne to deliver the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in London on Oct. 14, 2019.
Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Charles, Prince of Wales on the Sovereign's throne to deliver the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament in London on Oct. 14, 2019.

One official is called Black Rod, a sergeant-at-arms of sorts for the House of Lords. Black Rod (the current one is Sarah Clarke) is dressed in black, carries an ebony rod and controls access to the Lords. Among her jobs is summoning the House of Commons to attend the monarch's speech and leading them to the Lords' chamber.

But part of the ceremony includes ritual humiliation: As Black Rod approaches the House chamber, the doors are slammed in her face, to symbolize the Commons' independence of the sovereign. Black Rod then strikes the door three times with the rod, is admitted and issues the summons of the monarch to attend the speech.

This piece of theater dates from King Charles I's disastrous attempt to arrest five House members in 1642, a breach of the unwritten British constitution which led to the English Civil War and the king losing his head. Ever since, the House of Commons has maintained its right to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter their chamber, at least ritually.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Queen Elizabeth opens Parliament, first duty since Prince Philip death

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