British traditions: the ceremonial mace

Let’s talk about ceremonial maces. Because, um–.

Never mind the because. Let’s talk about them anyway.

In December 2018, an MP (that’s a member of parliament, and let’s not bother with the capital letters; they bore me) seized the ceremonial mace and started out the door with it.

What ceremonail mace? We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about why he grabbed it. It was to protest the way the government was handling Brexit. (A quick translation: Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union, and pretty much everybody, from every party and every point of view, was protesting the way it was being handled. Even the people who supported it opposed it, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s a sign that you understand the situation. It’s still a mess, but I write these posts well in advance and by now it’s a slightly different mess.There’s always room at the bottom.)

Irrelevant photo, to cheer us up after a mention of Brexit: This is not a ceremonial mace but an azalea. In a pot whose color doesn’t do much for the flowers. Sorry.

Now let’s go back to where we were before those pesky parentheses and the irrelevant photo got in the way. The MP grabbed the mace and headed for the door, walking as if he was leading some sober ceremony in full silly dress, complete with lace frills and an ermine robe. Not that he was wearing anything silly or that MPs get to wear ermine robes. That’s reserved for members of the House of Lords and only on special occasions. But carrying the thing made him surprisingly stately, either because of the weight of the mace or the weight of tradition. Even when you’re disrespecting it, the mace makes you move respectfully.

Before he got to the door, he let someone take it away from him and she carried it back to its place, equally ceremoniously.

And that was enough to create a huge flap. Because people take this stuff seriously. So seriously that he was probably relieved to let someone take it away before he got out the door and had to decide what to do next. Lean it in a corner in his office? Take it home on the bus and store it in the bathtub? Head for the pawn shop and see what it’s worth?

The MP told reporters, “The symbolic gesture of lifting the mace and removing it is that the will of Parliament to govern is no longer there, has been removed. I felt Parliament had effectively given up its sovereign right to govern properly.

“They stopped me before I got out of the chamber and I wasn’t going to struggle with someone wearing a huge sword on their hip.”

I’ve watched a video of the incident and I couldn’t see who had a sword, huge or otherwise, but given the symbolic silliness that goes on in parliament I’m sure he didn’t make it up. Of course someone would be running around with a sword. I doubt the sword’s sharp enough to cut anything tougher than cheese, but I don’t really know that. Maybe tradition insists that it has to be sharpened daily. I have a nice block of local cheddar in the refrigerator in case anyone wants to experiment.  

Now let’s go back to the question of what the mace is. The Radio Times–which isn’t the place you’d normally go for political reporting–says, “The ceremonial mace is a five-foot-long, silver gilt ornamental staff that represents the royal authority of Parliament. Without the mace, Parliament cannot meet or pass laws.”  

Seriously?

Well, they all think so, so they make sure it’s true.

Oliver Cromwell made an impressive demonstration of its power and at the same time won the prize for most effective mace-grab: In 1653, he got frustrated with the MPs and told the Commons, “I say you are no Parliament. I will put an end to your sitting.” Then he told his soldiers to walk off with that “fool’s bauble,” a.k.a. the mace, which they did and since the swords were on their hips no one stopped them.

After that, he threw the MPs out of the House and locked the door. A month later, he formed another parliament–one he figured he could get along with. 

So there.

Whether he brought back the mace so they could pass laws or they went ahead without it I don’t know. If anyone does, I’d love to hear from you. 

According to WikiWhatsia, maces originated in the ancient Middle East during the late stone age and were symbols of authority. It says, “A ceremonial mace is a highly ornamented staff of metal or wood, carried before a sovereign or other high official in civic ceremonies by a mace-bearer, intended to represent the official’s authority. The mace, as used today, derives from the original mace used as a weapon.” 

The mace that the Commons depends on is a symbol of royal authority. It’s carried in every day by the “Serjeant at Arms. It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

In contrast, the House of Lords has two maces, probably to prove they’re better than the Commons. One is placed (ceremoniously, I’m sure) on the woolsack before the House meets but isn’t placed there if the monarch comes to the chamber. Presumably because the monarch represents royal authority more impressively than a five-foot silver gilt symbol of monarchy.

I have no idea where the other mace is. Probably gathering dust ceremoniously under the Lord Speaker’s bed.

The woolsack? That’s what the Lord Speaker sits on, of course.

Stop that giggling in the back. We’re trying to learn something here.

The woolsack tradition started when Edward III (1327–1377) ordered his Lord Chancellor to sit on a bale of wool while in council. At the time, the lord chancellor presided in the Lords, so that’s where the woolsack went to live and that’s where it stayed.

This wasn’t just wooly thinking. Wool was central to the economy. The lord chancellor was to remember that. 

You want scandal, though? In 1938, someone discovered that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was duly taken apart and restuffed with wool. By rights, they should’ve gone back and un-passed every law that had made its way through the Lords while the speaker was sitting on the imposter wool sack, but World War II wasn’t far away and people were distracted.

Sprinkle a little salt on that, would you? On the first part of the sentence, please, not the second.

Anyway, the Lords can’t meet or pass laws without their mace either. And if the woolsack’s stuffed with horsehair, they can’t know about it or they’ll all have to burn their wigs.

Salt, please.

By now the Americans among us (and possibly a few other nationalities; I can’t predict that) are laughing helplessly, not because I’m funny but because of all these sober traditions. I can predict the American reaction because I’m close to that state myself and I’m still mostly American. If anyone wants to discuss what it means to be mostly American, let me know. I’m happy to wander off down that dark alley. But for now, allow me to sober everyone up: The U.S. House of Representatives has its own ceremonial mace, and if it’s not in place, then the House isn’t meeting. That’s not quite the same as saying the House can’t meet without it, but the two symbols are within spitting distance of each other.

Any number of state legislatures have them as well.

If you’re still giggling, think about how many Americans get worked up over someone burning the flag. Not because the thing has any intrinsic value–it’s just a piece of cloth–but because of its symbolism. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in other countries, but  let’s agree that we can all get silly about this stuff and mistake a symbol for a law of physics.

Because the British mace is so freighted with symbolism, periodically some MP or other loses it and grabs the mace. Or doesn’t lose it but makes a calculated decision to grab the mace, because if you want to make a point–not to mention the front pages and the 6 o’clock news–grabbing the mace is a reliable way to do it. It probably won’t be good publicity, but they will at least spell your name right. Or try to.

96 thoughts on “British traditions: the ceremonial mace

  1. I suppose we all need symbols? Discuss. When in the US I was surprised at the number of houses that were flying the Stars and Stripes outside their homes. In the UK, the equivalent is exceptional – except in Scotland, where the Saltire is commonly displayed (even on milk cartons and cuts of meat). Anyroadup, I politely asked our American host – a lovely, genuinely kind, woman who had her sense of humour surgically removed, what people were celebrating. She visibly stiffened and said, in a tone reserved for the very simple, “I guess we’re just proud of our boys.”

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I love a bit of ceremony, it’s the only fun in politics. I’m so bored with Brexit ( and here I would like to remind everybody yet again that I’m a Remainer so none of this is my fault ) and while Cyberspouse has been following 25 hour coverage faithfully, I just like the parts where they grab the mace or crowd back in to hear the Yays and Nays and the speaker shouts at everybody.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you. Not because I don’t think it matters but because it depresses the hell out of me and I’m reaching a point where I just don’t want to hear it–even though (or especially because) I know we need to hear about it. But yes, let’s just grab the mace and take it home on the bus.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I think they should put a board on the floor of the House, with leave written on the right, and stay written on the left. The mace should be put in the middle and set to spin, wherever the top bit stops is the answer to Brexit. Easy Peasy.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Yes, the mace represents a stupid tradition, but isn’t it interesting that lots of upstart youngsters have followed the lead of the Mother of Parliaments? At least we don’t have flags everywhere, or have to hear our dirge of a national anthem before every football (not eggball) match. Or every time someone farts in public, either.

    I think we should update and combine two of our traditions. On May Day they should prop the mace upright, tie long ribbons to it, and have our MPs Morris dance around it. I’d even watch the tv coverage of parliament for the day to see that 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • That would reset everyone’s image of politicians. Or else confirm everything we already believe. I can’t quite figure out which. Either way, though, it’s an inspired idea. You wouldn’t want to start a petition calling for that, would you?

      A hundred years ago, when I was in my teens, I was told that after the last show in all British movie theaters they played the national anthem, so everyone tried to scramble out before it started so they wouldn’t have to stand and look patriotic until the damn thing ended. Is that true? Was there an uproar when it someone performed a mercy killing?

      Liked by 2 people

      • A great idea, and if it got enough signatures they would have to debate it in Parliament! I suspect it would just confirm what we all think of them though.

        Yes, that is true, and the scramble to beat the credits was sometimes the best part of the evening – as long as you woke up in time from a dull movie or weren’t otherwise occupied in the back row 😉

        Liked by 3 people

        • I love your description of–well, both scenes: the end of the movie and the debate. At our local movie theater, the showing starts with “Trelawney,” the unofficial Cornish national anthem. No one stands, which is probably why I don’t think it’s obnoxious.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I realised that the Cornish regarded themselves as separate from the rest of the UK but not that they had their own unofficial anthem. Good to know they don’t take it too seriously though – and most Brits are too arthriticky to take a knee even if they wanted to. The time to be concerned is when they put subtitles on the movies 😉

            Liked by 2 people

  5. History and humor all in one post. Kudos. I am, of course, aghast to find out that the woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. Forget the mace controversy. This is the real problem. Well, until someone takes the mace and carries it home on the bus…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I couldn’t believe they voted to renovate the place. It’s been propped up by tradition, custom and precedent alone for so long that they’re all afraid of it all falling down like a game of Jenga if they don’t get the plasterers in to cover up all the gaps.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Ellen, I don’t even know what to think about maces and woolsacks. I’m still reeling from your post about all the pubs in parliament and the drunken shenanigans. I found myself thinking I hope the guy walking around with that mace was sober ’cause he could hurt himself or others with that thing! #BloggersPitStop

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m guessing this from the way he carried it, but my money’s on not being able to carry it while drunk. It looks both heavy and awkward. Which means a person has to work up the nerve to grab it while cold stone sober.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. America also has it’s useless symbols, right now one is an old crow that sits in the main chair in the House of Representatives. Seems no one can get rid of her, including people in her own party that didn’t want her in charge. They believed it when she said she would only do it for one more term. Ha!

    Apparently there is another symbol America can’t get rid of, and that’s another old crow who has lost her shot at the “highest office” twice, and now claims she wants a third try. Not that the other side is any better, they have their people they can’t eliminate either. Do you have to be a Brit to run for Parliament? Would you like to exchange useless symbols?

    As to the House of Lords, when I was in college we had an establishment called the House of Lords. They were run by a frat and served up a pretty good pizza. Maybe a good sideline for your HoL?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not ready to include living humans in the same category as strange symbolic objects–or, for that matter (and please excuse me for a minute while I get serious on you) to single out a couple of women when we have such a range of multi-gendered politicians to make fun of, especially since I haven’t followed Pelosi’s career closely enough to know what I think of her. I thought, given how easy it seems to pick up the news from the internet, I thought I’d be able to follow events in the U.S. almost as closely as I used to. No such luck, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s frustrating that people my age (e.g. Rand Paul) are still junior by congressional standards. Please try not to let that frustration drag you into disrespect for the older generation. The young may be watching.

      I think even the very, very junior MoC have some inspirational value for their generation. AOC is the easiest target of all time…I’d hate to see her get anything past any committee, at her current state of political (un)consciousness, but she’s far from useless. She’d be well worth educating, if anyone can resist the urge to cutesipate her long enough to try.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Fair enough. I’ll spend that time trying to learn how to use the perfectly good whetstone I bought for my kitchen knives and which I use only sporadically since it doesn’t seem to make them sharper. Lately it’s been sending me a User Error message, so I know the stone itself isn’t to blame.

          I wouldn’t worry about facing a sharp sword if I were you.

          Liked by 2 people

            • Okay, okay. We’ll bang edges. That’s the way historic recreations work here too–or the one we watched, which was supposed to be an Arthurian battle. They take blunt swords and smash them against the opponents’ blunt swords without particularly pretending to aim for anything else. Oh, and they get muddy. And when we were there, back in the ancient days of Arthurian phone booths, a bunch of them stuffed themselves inside to call home. Sadly, I didn’t have a camera.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I thought they were an attempt by two people to kill each other. Or, in the case of recreations, to look like they’re trying to kill each other, not to look like they’re whacking at each other’s swords and shields.

                Like

  9. I always think that it’s pretty ironic that Cromwell had King Charles I executed because he wouldn’t work with parliament (that wasn’t the official excuse) and then dismissed them himself and ruled Britain with the help of some Major Generals (martial law, in effect).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m fascinated by the woolsack. If the mace is on the woolsack, how does the speaker sit on it? It looks like a big … footstool or bench, but I didn’t see dimensions when I skimmed the article. I always thought a mace was something to club someone with and that a ceremonial mace was one you didn’t want to mess up by clubbing someone. Learn something every day. Pretty funny the woolsack was supposed to symbolize the wool industry and was stuffed with horsehair (shudder; I sat on a horsehair sofa once). We have our own symbols here in the US that nobody understands. One is the statue of freedom on the top of the Capitol, often called “the Indian.” It’s a woman wearing a Phrygian cap (sometimes seen in depictions of the French Revolution). Citizens of ancient Phrygia were former slaves and (get this) women could be elected to public office there. Somehow, I think the people who put Lady Freedom on the Capitol dome were NOT thinking of women’s suffrage, but, who knows. I read about the ceremonial mace when the story broke and am glad to have it revisited.

    Liked by 3 people

    • A woman wearing a Phrygian cap is called the Indian? Because Indians are known for wearing Phrygian hats? That makes as much sense as having a cremonial mace. Which has traveled a long way from being the kind of mace you hit people with and looks nothing like the original.

      The woolsack’s big. Room for a mace, a speaker, and a Lego set. I used to think horsehair sofas were covered with horsehair. Silly me.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s because of the way it looks from a distance. Like something in a robe wearing a headdress. Since they took it down for cleaning and repair, more people know what it is. Still…Thanks for the info on the woolsack. Even if not covered in horsehair, the sofas were often itchy and always hard.

        Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a lot of that in the House of Commons. What interests me about it is not just it’s absurdity (although that’s high on the list) but how easily it gets to seem ompletely natural.

      Like

  11. In our state the parliamentary mace got stolen once, I seem to remember. Must look it up.

    I’d post a photo of the replica one in Canberra Old Parliament House I snapped last July, but can’t here. In my latest post (which I think you might like) there’s one of the New House of Representatives , there, tho. There’s no mace shown in it, because Parliament wasn’t sitting.

    We were, in the gallery, with a bunch of multicultural people and the tour guide. I didn’t like the foyer. An ‘80s Miami inspired riot of modern marble. The building outside is impressive tho. The Italian architect (hence the marble) loved it so much he resided where he could see it. In the new Parliament , unlike the Old, they didn’t slavishly copy the English colours. So the greens in the chamber are not Hunter, or British Racing, but Eucalyptus.

    I often listen to Parliament on the radio, but to The Senate. They are more civilised. The House of Reps is feeding time at the zoo.

    Liked by 1 person

          • Kitchen knives are easy. Just hard work if someone just kicked your front door in. I hated coming home from work and having to clean up the mess. I’m going to defend my family and my property. But having a Saturday night special might detract a crime, but really waving a gun around will deter the criminal. Doesn’t work like that. First a gun owner has to pass a series of test and apply for a license through the government. Your background has to be immaculate. Not even a warning on record. There is a thorough background investigation. Only authorised dealers can sell or transport guns and every sell takes an background approval. Then you have to renew license every year and pass the test. There are other regulations too. Anyway guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’ve been slow to respond to this because I wanted to check my memory against my partner’s. Before I get to that, though, let me give you some background.

              My partner, Ida, was doing research for a mystery she was working on. This is going back to the 1990s and she needed to find out how to buy firearms in Texas. Her first attempt didn’t go well. We walked into a gun store in Corpus Cristi mall and she asked the clerk, “What kind of gun would you use to rob a bank?”

              The blood drained out of his face but he did stay upright and he didn’t call the cops. I’m grateful to him for that.

              At some point after that, she went to a gun show, spent some time talking to the salespeople, and asked prices about paperwork. There was no paperwork, no background check, and she could have bought a gun on the spot. She swears she could have bought an AK-47.

              Liked by 2 people

              • Rifles are not considered guns. Different category. You might be able to buy an AK-47, but you won’t be able to buy ammunition for it. And if you get caught with an automatic rifle by the police, you will go to jail on concealed automatic weapon charge.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’m not expert in gun or rifle sales. I do know automatic weapons are illegal in most states and don’t know what’s available online. Laws vary in every state. Shipping explosive devices across state lines is limited I would think.

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’m not sure about the shipping–and I’m far from an expert on this myself. I did see the UPS can deliver ammunition in the lower 48 by ground delivery only and by some method I can’t translate into ordinary English is Hawaii and Alaska.

                Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m surprised no one wanted to test the horsehair to see whether it was some sort of Parliamentarian protest against the Royalists. I assume Edward III would have assured that the real thing was in there originally. It would be interesting to know what happened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I expect we’re free to imagine, because I doubt anyone will ever be able to trace it back. My best guess is that it got shabby, was sent out for repair and restuffing, and whoever got the job wasn’t told, It has to be a woolsack, so they looked at the thing, wondered what idiot decided to stuff it with wool, and used the most sensible thing. Which is, in the context of Parliamentary tradition, almost invariably wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

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