The Santa Hat of State

Thursday, December 25th, 2008. 1:08am

Cap of Maintenance - a ceremonial crimson velvet cap lined with ermine, being carried on a sword by a military officer.
During the State Opening of Parliament a military officer is given the role of parading in front of the monarch with what looks like a santa hat on a stick. It is a symbol of the monarchy which is kept with the crown jewels in the Tower of London. It is properly known as the “Cap of Maintenance” and is a ceremonial crimson velvet cap lined with ermine. The officer who carries it does so using a sword, though the cap is protected from the sharp end. It can be seen opposite the sword of state in the image to the right.

While the hat is just a bit of silly tradition. It is surprising how many people do not realise that all our MPs have to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen before taking up their seats in the House of Commons. I find it shocking that so many people are excluded from serving as elected representatives in Parliament by virtue of their beliefs. Some though get round the problem by taking the oath with their fingers crossed or changing the words, for example Tony Benn claims to have said:

As a dedicated republican, I solemnly swear …

and Dennis Skinner said:

I solemnly swear that I will bear true and faithful allegiance to the Queen when she pays her income tax

I believe the only people who should determine who represents them Parliament, or in other levels of Government are the electors in the relevant constituency, and they should be free to send anyone they see fit. Anyone should feel free to stand. I also don’t think the standards boards or the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges should have any power to suspend elected individuals other than, if they consider misconduct serious enough, to call a by-election and let the electorate know why they think the person they elected has behaved inappropriately.

As well as the “Santa Hat of State” the opening of Parliament brought many other generally unseen elements of the way the country is run to the fore, for example: “The Lords Commissioners”. These three to five Privy Counsellors appointed by the Monarch to exercise, on their behalf, certain functions relating to Parliament, including the opening and prorogation of Parliament, the confirmation of a newly elected Speaker of the House of Commons and the granting of Royal Assent. This is one of many ways where the Monarch, and those working directly on behalf of the Monarch retain a central role in the governance of the UK.

The influence of the Monarchy has been decreasing. It is often said that if the Monarch did try and use some of their powers, or went against the wishes of Parliament they wouldn’t retain their power for long. I do not think we ought wait for such an event to occur before reform occurs. Reform should not be dependent on who the particular monarch happens to be, our system of Government has to be able to function just as well, and with the support of the population, under the current Queen, or if Prince Harry succeeds to the throne.

All I am proposing is the next logical step in the modernisation of the way we govern ourselves. Some might call it a revolution, but there would be no great upset, much could stay the same. I would not want to abolish the Royal Family, they could continue in their ceremonial roles for as long as the people of the UK want them to. What is held by the Monarchy on behalf of the nation could be taken under clearer democratic control. Other bodies could be created to replace some of the functions of the Monarch. I think it would be possible to create a system of parliamentary representative democracy in which the British people could be proud and have faith without involving the Monarch.

The current government have been taking steps such as starting the reform of the House of Lords, but they have not in my view gone far enough, I do not believe they have gone as far as the nation wants. I believe the House of Lords, to be an effective upper house, ought be a mix of those with experience in Government and in the Commons and elected representatives of groups such as religions, professionals, students as well as independent and retired individuals. There certainly should not be any hereditary element in the government of the UK be it in the Monarchy or elsewhere.

It is not only in Parliament that vestiges of royal rule remain, even in Cambridge City Council meetings the Monarch is represented by a Mace with a crown on the top. Local government elsewhere doesn’t use royal symbols; for example the Mayor of London and the London Assembly derive their authority purely democratically, in the case of the Mayor on the back of over a million votes. Perhaps if Cambridge still can’t find a new Sergeant-at-Mace in the new year having advertised twice that could be a trigger for recognising Cambridge City Council gains its legitimacy from the electorate not from a Royal Charter granted eight hundred years ago. Old films of Cambridge, shown in Magdalene Street during the 2008 film festival, showed the City’s mace being carried upside down in the presence of royalty. This isn’t done elsewhere when the royalty is present, and I am left wondering if it was a republican statement by a previous Sergeant-at-mace in Cambridge realising his role had become anachronistic even by the 1970s.

5 comments/updates on “The Santa Hat of State

  1. Brian Johnson

    Actually, maces are carried upside down because they are weapons of war which have now lost their war-like attributes and now only ceremonial. In other words, the mace is not being carried as a weapon.

    I suppose this is similar to when an arch of swords is held over a newly-married couple leaving the church, the swords being reversed to present the sharp edges outwards – to protect rather than threaten. :)

  2. Richard Article author


    Generally though maces are carried with the crown at the top (which doesn’t look upside down, and in modern usage is the right way up). Whenever I’ve seen Cambridge’s Mayor accompanied by the mace (Council meetings, Remembrance Day, Reach Fair) the mace has been this way up:

    Cambridge's Mayor and Mace Bearer 23rd April 2009

    Westminster Council’s webpage explains:

    In the course of time, the hitting end of the Mace fell out of use and the handle end increased in importance. This end became highly decorated and the Maces became no longer an offensive weapon but a symbol of authority. Today’s ceremonial Maces are therefore now carried, so to speak, upside down.

    What I saw on the footage of the Royal visit was the City Council mace being carried decorated (crown) end down and handle end up (grasped in the middle).

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    Having heard a presentation by the Sgt @ Mace earlier today I understand what was probably happening in the Flickr image above was the Queen arriving by car. On her arrival the mace would be then turned over in-front of her.

    The Sgt @ Mace explained this as indicating to her that the city sees her as the “1st Citizen” while she is in the city; whereas usually, the first citizen is the mayor – accompanied by the city’s mace – crown on top – to indicate this.

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