Fact Sheet H4

Fact Sheet H4: The Serjeant at Arms

 

Summary: The United Kingdom’s House of Commons appointed its first Serjeant-at-Arms in 1415. Traditionally, the Serjeant protected the Speaker and members’ rights, and carried out the House’s instructions.  The Serjeant’s duties have changed over the years.  They now include services to members, tours and community engagement programs, and Chamber security. On formal occasions, the Serjeant carries a ceremonial mace as a symbol of the Assembly’s authority.

History of serjeants-at-arms

The mace

The Serjeant-at-Arms’ duties today

History of serjeants-at-arms

King’s bodyguards

Originally serjeants-at-arms were members of the King’s bodyguard.  The title serjeant-at-arms seems to have developed during the Crusades in the twelfth century. 

Although armed guards were common in armies, serjeants-at-arms were seen as different, as they were middle class.  They carried battle maces to use as weapons.

Apart from duties as bodyguards, they also had some power to act for the King, including arresting and imprisoning people.

Spread of the role

The concept of serjeants-at-arms spread across England.  Cities and boroughs employed serjeants to carry out administrative and bailiff duties. These officials were not as high ranking as serjeants appointed by the King, but they could also arrest and imprison people.

Serjeant-at-Arms in the House of Commons

The House of Commons first appointed a Serjeant-at-Arms in 1415. There are various theories why. 

At the time the Speaker was often in a difficult and dangerous position.  He tried to meet the demands of the House, which he was there to serve, and also the conflicting interests of the King.  Therefore, one of the Serjeant’s most important tasks was to protect the Speaker from his enemies in the House.

However, the Serjeant had another important role.  He carried out the House’s instructions and protected members’ rights.  Those rights allowed members to speak freely in debates, and carry out their duties without interference.  For example, members could not be arrested and imprisoned for a debt.

The House needed to enforce those rights, particularly as members were increasingly challenged by officials outside Parliament.  The Serjeant could arrest and imprison people.  He brought prisoners to the entrance of the Chamber (known as the bar of the House) for questioning.

Over the years the Serjeant also became an essential figure on ceremonial occasions, and the House’s official messenger.  Serjeants took on additional responsibilities including doorkeeping, housekeeping and maintaining the Parliament building.  These duties were the core responsibilities of the Legislative Assembly’s first Serjeant-at-Arms in 1856.

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The mace

The mace as a weapon

The mace started life as a club-like weapon.  It has an ancient history as a weapon.  Roman soldiers are pictured on stone tombs carrying maces. 

Its size varied when it was used as a weapon.  Those used by foot soldiers were a lot shorter than maces carried by cavalry.

Maces developed from a steel ball on a wooden handle to an elaborately spiked steel war club.  The heavy head meant they could be used to deliver violent blows.

In medieval times serjeants were used as bodyguards, and carried a mace to use as a weapon and a badge of office. The title Serjeant-at-Arms literally means ‘servant bearing arms’.

As new weapons replaced the mace, it gradually became a symbol of royal authority and power, rather than a weapon.  In England, it seems the mace was last used as a weapon in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558–1603).

The mace used in Parliament

The Serjeant-at-Arms is custodian of the parliamentary mace.  Initially the House of Commons did not prepare warrants for arrest, so the Serjeant used the mace as his only authority to arrest people.

Maces are now symbols of authority in many parliaments throughout the world.  They are ornamental and often highly decorated.

The mace symbolises a House of Parliament’s authority and independence.  The Legislative Assembly can only meet and debate when the mace is on the table in the Chamber.

Legislative Assembly’s three maces

The Assembly has had three maces in its history. The first was a gilded wooden mace used during 1857–65 and 1891–1901.  The Commonwealth House of Representatives borrowed this mace from 1901 to 1951, until the House of Commons gave it a mace.

The second mace was engraved with the English and Victorian coats of arms and had a Maltese cross on the headpiece.  The Assembly used it from 1866 until it was famously stolen from its box in the Speaker’s office in 1891. Despite a widespread police search and several suspects, including the then Speaker, it was never found.

The present mace was first used in 1901.  It is silver, 1.5 metres long, weighs 8 kilograms, and is gilded to look like solid gold. 

The mace features symbols of the rose, thistle, harp and waratah, representing England, Scotland, Ireland and Victoria. Its headpiece incorporates a fleur-de-lis, and the United Kingdom and Victorian Coats of Arms embossed in enamel. It is also engraved with the names of the Speakers since 1856.

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The Serjeant-at-Arms’ duties today

Ceremonial duties

The Serjeant-at-Arms leads the Speaker’s processions, carrying the mace on his or her right shoulder.

The Serjeant and the Speaker make a ceremonial procession into the Chamber each sitting day.  Most Speakers choose to have a long procession on a Tuesday.  The Serjeant leads the procession from the Speaker’s office, through Queen’s Hall and into the Chamber through the front entrance. 

On other sitting days the Speaker makes a short procession, and enters the back of the Chamber.

At the opening of a new Parliament, the Serjeant leads the Speaker to the Legislative Council Chamber to hear the Governor’s speech. 

One of the few occasions the mace leaves the building is when the Speaker presents the address-in-reply to the Governor.  This is the formal response to the Governor’s speech made at the opening of Parliament.  The Speaker normally presents it to the Governor at Government House, accompanied by the Serjeant who carries the mace.

Before 2000, the Serjeant wore a Windsor Court uniform on ceremonial occasions.  The uniform included knee breeches, buckled shoes, gloves, a ruffled lace collar (known as a jabot) and cuffs.  Today the Serjeant wears a black suit both on sitting days and for ceremonial occasions.

Responsibilities in the Chamber

The Serjeant-at-Arms is responsible for Chamber security and maintaining order in the public and media galleries.  If anyone is disorderly, the Speaker directs the Serjeant to remove them.

Sometimes the Legislative Assembly agrees to allow an official visitor (known as a ‘stranger’) into the Chamber.  The Serjeant announces the visitor and, on the Speaker’s direction, allows them to enter the Chamber.

As official messenger, the Serjeant takes written messages to the Legislative Council.  The most common message states the Assembly has passed a bill and asks the Council to agree to it.  The Serjeant also receives messages back from the Council, delivered by the Usher of the Black Rod, see Fact Sheet F4: Communicating with the Governor and the Council.

Apart from the traditional duties, the Serjeant today also helps the clerks record the minutes and give procedural advice to the Speaker and members.

Administration and services for members

Staff in the Serjeant-at-Arms Office help organise ceremonial occasions, set up members’ offices within Parliament House and arrange members’ travel.

The Serjeant provides accreditation for all media representatives working in Parliament.  Accreditation allows them to use the media galleries and other facilities. 

The Serjeant also keeps a list of members’ contact details.  View the members list here, or contact the Procedure Office on 03 9651 8563. 

Fire protection

The Serjeant-at-Arms no longer has responsibility for security outside the Chamber.  However, with the Usher of the Black Rod,  the Serjeant looks after Parliament House’s fire protection, including emergency and evacuation procedures.

Public and school tours

The Serjeant-at-Arms now has much more responsibility for community engagement programs.

The Serjeant manages the tour program.  Tour guides give regular public tours of Parliament House.  We also offer specialist tours for school and community groups. Tour guides organise role plays for school children.  These very popular sessions take place in the Chamber, with children debating and voting on a bill.  Also, tour guides travel to schools to give parliamentary information talks.  We offer both these in regional Victoria.    

For details about tours contact the Tour Booking Office on 03 9651 8568.

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