The office originated as Usher of the Order of the Garter in the 14th century. Letters of Patent were issued in 1361 by King Edward II to create the Usher as a Court position involved in meeting with Parliament.
By the sixteenth century, the role had evolved to become a position entirely associated with Parliament, rather than the Royal Court. In essence, Black Rod became the Monarch’s representative in the House of Lords.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Black Rod's Office was reformed. There was a reduction in staff and a long-standing additional fees system supplementing Black Rod’s salary was abolished.
Uniform and rod
Black Rod’s uniform consists of black shoes with black buckles, silk stockings, black breeches, and black coat. The rod is made of ebony. The present rod dates from 1883 and is emblazoned with the heraldic motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, translated as ‘Shame be to him, who evil thinks'. It is three and a half feet long, decorated with a gold lion and garter and has a gold orb as a chivalric centrepiece.
In the guise of Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (a Crown appointment), Black Rod is responsible for organising access to and maintaining order within the Lords Chamber and the precincts; and police services and fire safety.
In the guise of Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain (who is Officer of the State responsible for Royal affairs at Westminster) Black Rod is responsible for and participates in the major ceremonial events in the Palace of Westminster, including the State Opening of Parliament, Royal and State Visits, and other ceremonial events.
Again, as a representative of the Queen, he is also responsible for the Queen's residual estate in the Palace, consisting of the Robing Room and the Royal Gallery.
The Yeoman Usher is the formal title of Black Rod’s Deputy.
Black Rod's role in the State Opening of Parliament is the one which makes him known to the public. After the Queen has taken her seat on the Throne, she despatches Black Rod to the Commons Chamber to summon MPs to hear the Queen's Speech. The door of the Commons is slammed in Black Rod's face. He then bangs three times on the door with the rod.
This custom dates back to 1641, when, as noted in the House of Commons Journal: ‘Mr Maxwell, coming to the House, with a Message, without his Black Rod; and coming in, before he was called in: Exception was taken to both.’
The tradition has been continued as a way to symbolise the Commons’ independence from the Sovereign and the Lords. After knocking, Black Rod is admitted to the Commons chamber and requests Members’ attendance.
MPs pair up, led by the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and follow – in a boisterous way, again to signal their independence – Black Rod to the bar of the House of Lords to hear the Queen's Speech.