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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Sir Thomas Wriothesley (c. 1460-1534)

The Wriothesley Garter book c.1530

RCIN 1047414

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Sir Thomas Wriothesley, who from 1505 to 1534 occupied the post of Garter King of Arms, compiled many books and rolls of arms, pedigree and precedence. This manuscript contains a variety of records on heraldic matters, particularly the Order of the Garter, and descriptions of heralds' fees and oaths.

However, the most striking image in the manuscript is what may be the first contemporary view of the opening of Parliament, at Blackfriars in April 1523. Henry VIII is enthroned in the middle, with three earls in front of him bearing the Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance. To the King's left are the Garter King of Arms (Wriothesley himself, wearing the distinctive tabard of a herald) and officers of the Royal Household. To the King's right are three bishops: Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury are seated; behind stands Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London. Below these men, and to the King's right, sit the Lords Spiritual: nine bishops with seventeen abbots behind; to the King’s left and on the cross-bench sit the Lords Temporal: two dukes, seven earls, sixteen barons, and the Prior of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem. The four woolsacks in the middle are a symbol of the wealth of England's wool trade, and accommodate two Chief Justices, eight judges, and four Serjeants of the law, behind whom kneel two clerks with their quills and inkpots. Behind the cross-bench, at the bar of the House (at the bottom of the page) stands Sir Thomas More, Speaker of the House of Commons, with thirteen Members of Parliament behind him.

Parliamentary rule evolved in the United Kingdom before it was established anywhere else in the world. The ideal is for monarchs, ministers, members of both Houses of Parliament and people to work together for the greater good. Monarchs such as Henry VIII on many occasions forced Parliament to their will. When Charles I did so, Parliament and the people rose up, and ultimately deposed the king. Today, British constitutional government has evolved so that a strong and established working relationship exists between the Sovereign and Parliament. The Sovereign’s influence confers legitimacy on those who exercise power, and that influence now derives from the respect and affection The Queen receives from the public. The House of Lords – in which Wriothesley’s symbolic depiction of ‘King in Parliament’ is located – is still the location of the State Opening of Parliament, and of the reading – by the Sovereign – of her speech, announcing the major business of government over the following session.