Prorogation is the term for the formal end of a parliamentary session. Parliament stands ‘prorogued' between the end of one session and the State Opening of Parliament which marks the beginning of a new session.
A session may also be prorogued when Parliament is dissolved and a general election called. Prorogation is marked by a ceremony in the House of Lords.
In centuries past, the Sovereign used the power of prorogation to suit his own purposes, both summoning Parliament so it could authorise taxes, and proroguing it to limit its activities and power.
Prorogation before the nineteenth century
Early prorogation ceremonies had four key elements. First, the Speaker made a speech mainly concerned with the subsidy bill – a bill ‘for the better support of His Majesty's household'.
Then the Lord Chancellor or the Lord Keeper (another official of the royal household) replied to the points made by the Speaker and thanked the Commons for the subsidy bill. The Royal Assent was then given to the bills passed by both Houses.
Finally, the Lord Chancellor either prorogued or dissolved Parliament according to the Sovereign's instructions. The Sovereign was customarily present on these occasions and, from the seventeenth century onwards, usually made the speech before prorogation or dissolution.
Prorogation during the nineteenth century
In the early nineteenth century prorogation was a ceremonious occasion. Thus in 1815 the Prince Regent rode in a coach with a cavalry escort to the Palace of Westminster, arriving to a cannon salute.
Peers wore their full ceremonial red robes trimmed with ermine; ladies looking on wore gowns and jewels.
In the 1840s, the procession from the Royal Entrance to the Robing Room and thence to the Lords Chamber appears to have been identical in composition to that at State Openings.
Queen Victoria prorogued Parliament in person regularly between 1837 and 1854, after which she ceased to attend, allegedly because she disliked the ceremony.
This was the last occasion on which the Sovereign prorogued Parliament or gave the Royal Assent in person, and was also the last time the Speaker made a speech at prorogation.
From 1855, a prorogation speech, prepared by the Government, was read by the Lord Chancellor, and in 1867, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli introduced the custom of having the Lord Chancellor read the prorogation speech in the first person, as if the Queen were speaking the words herself.
This practice continues at Royal Commissions for prorogation today, although the speech is now read by the Leader of the House.