The Speaker's State Coach
History of the Speaker’s State Coach
The Speaker’s State Coach is a rare example of 17th century coach design and is one of only a handful surviving in Europe from this period. It is thought to have been made for King William III and Queen Mary II in the 1690s. It is the oldest of three great ceremonial coaches in Britain, the others being the Royal Gold State Coach and the Lord Mayor’s Coach.
Around 1700, it is thought that the coach was presented to the Speaker of the House of Commons by Queen Anne. Early records of the coach are scarce, and the first mention is by Speaker Abbott in 1802, who paid his predecessor Speaker Mitford (Lord Redesdale) £1,060 for the State Coach.
The coach was used to transport the Speaker of the House of Commons to formal state occasions, such as Coronations and Jubilees. The last use of the coach was by Speaker Thomas at the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
The State Coach’s paintings and carvings
The iconography of the State Coach’s paintings provides clear evidence that the association of this coach with the Speaker is long-lived, from the crossed maces on the doors to the small oval plaques that bear the coats of arms of the Speakers.
The series of paintings on the coach are thought to celebrate the accession to the throne in 1688 of King William III (William of Orange) and Queen Mary II following the Glorious Revolution which brought to an end the reign of James II. They illustrate the landmark development in British constitutional history when Parliament asserted its rights over the monarchy. The conditions under which William and Mary succeeded to the throne were drawn up by Parliament in the ‘Bill of Rights’ - a statute which also gave the peoples of England, Scotland and Ireland greater personal liberty and democracy.
The painting on the door of the coach shows a seated figure traditionally identified as King William III who is being presented with two scrolls inscribed ‘Magna Carta’ and the ‘Bill of Rights’. Beside him are the allegorical figures of Liberty, Fame and Justice (blindfolded). The door on the other side of the coach has a matching painted panel with a seated female figure identified as Queen Mary.
In 2005, Speaker Martin formally decided to retire the coach and protect it as a historic object for future generations. At this time, it was the oldest working State Coach in Europe.
Following centuries of use, a significant amount of work was needed to restore the carriage. From pest treatment to the removing of decades of dirt, layers of overgilding and varnishing, the fine quality of the carvings and the colour and quality of the paintings were revealed. Over 21 months, the State Coach was returned to a magnificent state, to be seen as it had originally been intended over 300 years ago.
The restoration works also served to stabilise the structure of the coach and ensuring its preservation as a historic object.
The Speaker’s State Coach today
In 2011 the House of Commons loaned the Coach to the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court, Devon. This initiative allows easy visitor access and enables the coach to be seen alongside the Museum’s renowned collection of historic British carriages and coaches. More than 90,000 people visited in 2019.