Who’s Who in Parliament: the Sergeant-at-Arms

The Sergeant-at-Arms (or Serjeant-at-Arms) performs a dual role in the House of Commons, ceremonial and administrative.

An article in “The Table”, the journal of Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, notes that in England people who were permanently retained by the Sovereign to perform certain services became known as Sergeants. It suggests that Sergeants-at-Arms were originally the King’s bodyguard.

The Sergeant-at-Arms was a personal attendant upon the King, especially charged with arresting those suspected of treason. Richard I had 24 with him on the Crusades. They were formed into a 20-strong Corps of Sergeants-at-Arms by King Edward I in 1278, as a mounted close escort. In 1399 King Richard II limited the corps to 30 Sergeants, and King Charles II had 16. The number was reduced to 8 in 1685 and gradually declined thereafter.

Around 1415, the British House of Commons received its first Sergeant-at-Arms. From that time onwards the sergeant has been a royal appointment, the sergeant being one of the Sovereign’s Sergeants-at-Arms.

There are several theories to account for the introduction of the Sergeant-at-Arms into Parliament, and later, the House of Commons. Some are presented below.

One theory holds that the assignment of a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Commons Speaker was a scheme by the King in 1415 to extend his power over Parliament. However, it is debatable if this was the true reason. In the early 15th century, the House of Commons was still quite subservient and certainly did not command enough power to warrant such a move by the King. More likely, the introduction of a Serjeant-at-Arms came at the request of the House of Commons itself in order to enforce parliamentary privilege. By virtue of the King’s insignia on his mace, the Serjeant-at-Arms was empowered to exercise royal authority over ordinary citizens through the instructions of the Speaker. When Parliament was not sitting, he returned to duty in the Royal Household.

The article in The Table proposes that since Parliament met where the King lived (the Palace at Westminster), it was only natural that he should have seconded two Sergeants-at-Arms to attend upon the Houses. A pamphlet written about 1322 suggests that the function of the first parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms was that of a door-keeper.

Another theory, one advanced by I.T.P. Hughes, a former British Sergeant-at-Arms, proposes the Sergeant-at-Arms was appointed to protect the Speaker. The demands placed on the Speaker by his master, the Commons, often conflicted with the demands placed on the Speaker by the King, who had appointed him. Violent disagreement was often the result. Richard II, therefore, appointed a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Speaker about 1391.

The position of Sergeant-at-Arms was obviously introduced during a critical stage in the evolution of Parliament. The House of Lords and the House of Commons were both trying to consolidate their powers at a time of great confusion over roles, authority and privilege, which explains why there is disagreement surrounding the Sergeant-at-Arms’ precise date and purpose of introduction.

Original Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Parliament

As mentioned above, the Sergeant-at-Arms was essentially a door-keeper, meaning that he was the Commons’ Usher, Keeper of the Doors, and Housekeeper. As the public became more aware of the activities of Parliament and began to attend sittings, someone was needed to maintain order.

The maintenance of law and order, and the execution of warrants were among the earliest functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms. In the 16th century, however, saw a shift in the authority of the position. Until then, it had come from the Sovereign, through the Speaker. Henry VIII now delegated the wielding of the Sergeant’s authority to the House of Commons.

Because he attended the Speaker, he was involved in all ceremonial functions connected with that office.

By the 17th century, the Sergeant’s department was fairly well established and consisted of the Vote Office (which was primarily concerned with the distribution of the journals of the day to Members), the Deputy Housekeeper, two door-keepers, four messengers and various watchmen and firelighters.

Role of the Sergeant-at-Arms today

The office of Sergeant-at-Arms continues to serve legislatures across the Commonwealth that adhere to British tradition. A sense of the position’s medieval origins persists, particularly in its ceremonial role in parliamentary proceedings. Over time and in many jurisdictions, maintaining order in the Chamber and housekeeping duties have evolved into responsibility for security beyond the walls of the Chamber and property management functions.

The Sergeant-at-Arms’ ceremonial duties involves carrying the House of Commons mace during the Speaker’s procession. This is when the Speaker and his staff walk to the House of Commons chamber before each sitting. The Sergeant-at-Arms occupies a desk at the Bar of the House when the House is sitting. In accordance with the Standing Orders, the Sergeant-at-Arms preserves order in the galleries, lobbies, and corridors and is responsible for taking into custody strangers who misbehave in the galleries. Under the direction of the Speaker, the Sergeant-at-Arms is also the Chief Security Officer responsible for the overall security within the Parliamentary precinct.

(Sources: House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition, The Table, Office of the Speaker, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan website, Legislative Assembly of Ontario website, Wikipedia, Parliament of Australia House of Representatives website, UK Parliament website)

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