A number of events take place in Parliament after the death of the King or Queen Regnant. Some of these are prescribed in legislation; others are a matter of custom and can vary with each demise.
1. Adjournment and reconvening of Parliament
Until 1707, Parliament was immediately dissolved upon the demise of the crown. The Succession to the Crown Act 1707 changed this, stipulating that the parliament could continue for six months following the demise of the crown and that it would immediately meet if it had been adjourned or prorogued. Erskine May states that “the demise of the crown is the only contingency upon which Parliament is required to meet without summons in the usual form”.
The Representation of the People Act 1867 removed the requirement for Parliament to be dissolved at all as a result of the death of the monarch.
The Succession to the Crown Act 1707 provides that if Parliament is adjourned or prorogued when the monarch dies it must meet again as soon as possible.
On 6 February 1952, a Wednesday, the death of King George VI was publicly announced at 10.45am. Both Houses convened at 2.30pm and the death was announced simultaneously in both Houses. The sitting of the House of Commons was then suspended until 7pm that evening, after the first part of the accession council. The House of Lords was adjourned until 7pm.
Both Houses had risen for the day when the death of Queen Elizabeth II was announced at 6.30pm on 8 September 2022. Both Houses then met at 12pm the following day, a Friday, for tributes to the late Queen. Both Houses had been scheduled to sit on that day for consideration of private members’ bills. Both Houses met again on Saturday 10 September 2022 for further tributes.
The Representation of the People Act 1985 sets out what is to happen if the death of the monarch occurs after Parliament has been dissolved but before polling day. In this situation, polling day and the first meeting of the new parliament are postponed by 14 days. If the demise occurs between polling day and the date of meeting appointed in the dissolution proclamation, neither the Representation of the People Act 1985 nor the Succession to the Crown Act 1707 applies.
2. Oath taking
Historically, members of both Houses have taken a new oath before participating in parliamentary business after a demise of the crown. However, this is not a legal requirement. In 1937, following the accession of George VI, the then attorney general, Sir Donald Somervell, stated his opinion that the obligation to take a new oath after a demise of the crown was customary rather than statutory:
The obligation to take a fresh oath to the new sovereign after a demise of the crown in my opinion ceased to be statutory in the eighteenth century. Since then, however, it has been continued by custom of Parliament. Nothing has been suggested to me which would lead me to suppose that the House desires any change.
Erksine May also states that there is no statutory obligation to take the oath after a demise.
The House of Lords requires peers to take a new oath before participating in parliamentary business. The ‘Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords’ states that “the oath of allegiance must be taken or solemn affirmation made by all members before they can sit and vote in the House: on introduction; in every new parliament; after a demise of the crown”. The taking of a new oath is optional for MPs.
After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, senior ministers and office holders in both Houses took a new oath in the sittings immediately following the demise.
3. Presentation of addresses
In 1956 and 2022, both Houses agreed messages of condolence to be presented to the new monarch.
After the death of King George VI, on 11 February 1952, the House of Commons received a message from the new Queen. It read:
I know that the House of Commons mourns with me the untimely death of my dear father. In spite of failing health he upheld to the end the ideal to which he pledged himself, of service to his peoples and the preservation of constitutional government. He has set before me an example of selfless dedication which I am resolved, with God’s help, faithfully to follow.
The House of Lords received the same message.
Following the reading of this message in the House of Commons chamber, the then prime minister, Winston Churchill, moved an humble address to the new Queen and also moved motions that messages of condolence be sent to the Queen Mother and Queen Mary, mother of the late King. Similarly, motions on the presentation of an humble address to the Queen and messages of condolence to the Queen Mother and Queen Mary were agreed in the House of Lords. These messages were conveyed in person to the Queen at Buckingham Palace on 13 February 1952.
Messages of condolence to King Charles III following the death of Queen Elizabeth II were delivered in person. Both Houses agreed messages of condolence to the new King in the form of an humble address following members’ tributes. These were presented to King Charles III at a ceremony in Westminster Hall on 12 September 2022. The King then immediately responded to the addresses.
4. Lying in state
The modern custom for deceased sovereigns to lie in state at the Palace of Westminster began upon the death of King Edward VII. After his death in 1910, King Edward VII’s body was taken in procession from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, where he lay in state for three days and the public were admitted to Westminster Hall to view the coffin. The bodies of King George V and King George VI also lay in state in Westminster Hall where the public were admitted, for four and three days respectively. An estimated 750,000 people attended the lying in state of King George V. Nearly 305,000 people filed past the coffin of King George VI; the queue was approximately four miles long.
After Queen Elizabeth II died at Balmoral her body lay at rest at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh from 11 to 13 September 2022. The public were permitted to file past the coffin. Her body was then taken to London, where it lay in state in Westminster Hall for nearly five days, from late afternoon on 14 September to the early hours of 19 September 2022. Approximately 250,000 members of the public viewed Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin. At its longest, the queue was 10 miles long. The whole lying in state of Queen Elizabeth II was also broadcast live. In the first two days, over 7.5 million people watched the live stream of the lying in state.
Since King George VI, there have been three further occasions on which public figures have lain in state in Westminster Hall: Queen Mary, wife of King George V and mother of King George VI, in 1953; Sir Winston Churchill, in 1965; and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002.
The tradition of members of the royal family participating in vigils for the sovereign’s lying in state was started after the death of King George V, when the new King, Edward VIII, spontaneously decided that he and his brothers would join the guard standing vigil on the catafalque. During the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002, her four grandsons took part in the vigil. This practice has become known as the Vigil of the Princes.
On 16 September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II’s four children held a vigil around the coffin in Westminster Hall. They had also held a vigil by the coffin as it laid in rest in Edinburgh before being transferred to London. On 17 September 2022, the late Queen’s eight grandchildren also held a vigil around the coffin.
Following the lying in state, the monarch’s body departs Westminster Hall for the funeral. The funerals of King George V and King George VI both took place at Windsor Castle. The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was held at Westminster Abbey. This was followed by a committal service at Windsor Castle. It has been suggested that Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was held at Westminster Abbey to accommodate the approximately 2,000 people who attended, including members of the royal family, heads of state from around the world, prime ministers and government representatives.
[House of Lords Library: Emily Haves]