The Speaker’s State Coach is an iconic work of art and an important piece of Parliamentary history. It was used by the Speaker of the House of Commons to attend royal events for three centuries. The Coach is now cared for as a heritage object, the earliest surviving English coach in the United Kingdom.
In this story, we follow the coach for over 300 years, and take a close look at its design and imagery, to discover the long-intertwined relationship of Parliament and the monarchy.
The State Coach of the Speaker of the House of Commons is a one-of-a-kind piece. Dating from around 1698, it is one of the oldest carriages in Europe. It is also the oldest of the UK’s three gilded ceremonial coaches. The others are the Gold State Coach, held at the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace, and the Lord Mayor’s Coach, cared for by the Museum of London.
The Speaker’s State Coach is thought to have been made for King William III (1650-1702) and Queen Mary II (1662-1694). As we can tell from the ornate design, it is for grand ceremonial occasions.
It weighs just over 2 tonnes. This is slightly lighter than the Lord Mayor’s Coach (2.9 tonnes) and the 4-tonne Gold State Coach. The carriage has no brakes and was traditionally drawn by two Shire horses.
The Coach is a significant example of the Baroque style, characterised by rich and elaborate ornament. This style became popular in England from the 1680s, partly driven by a growth in European craftspeople in the country. The Speaker’s State Coach is likely based on, or inspired by, the designs of Daniel Marot (1661-1752). Marot was a French Huguenot architect and furniture designer who was active in England and Holland.
The main body is ornately carved oak which is gilded in gold. The undercarriage of the coach, and the end supports (also called standards), are original, making them over 300 years old.
The coach also features painted panels on its body and doors. The scenes and symbols depicted include royal, parliamentary, and patriotic themes.
Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689
Two of the Coach’s panels feature what are likely depictions of William III and Mary II, who became King and Queen of England following the ‘Glorious Revolution’. This ‘Revolution’ refers to events leading to the overthrow of the previous King, James II (also James VII of Scotland) (1633-1701).
Leading bishops and politicians believed that James II was trying to establish a Catholic dynasty with no regard for parliamentary consent. In response to a series of acts and declarations by the King, they invited the King’s Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William (also James’s nephew) to intervene. Although a so-called ‘bloodless’ revolution, the Dutch leader William amassed troops, invaded the country, and replaced the King.
A constitutional agreement was put in place as a condition of William and Mary’s accession to the throne. The new monarchs signed an Act of Parliament called the Bill of Rights (1689). This statute secured a degree of personal liberty and democracy for the peoples of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This Bill is regarded by some as the basis of the UK’s constitutional monarchy today.
The Coach is an expression of this pivotal moment in history. It is therefore an important historic document as well as an ornate design object.
Queen Anne is thought to have presented the Coach to the Speaker of the House of Commons in around 1700.
The ceremonial aspects of the Speakership grew over the 16th and 17th centuries. This included the rise of the tradition, still observed today, of the Speaker’s procession from his official residence to the Chamber. The Speaker is accompanied by the Serjeant-at-Arms bearing the ceremonial mace. The Coach reflects this increased ceremonial significance of the Speakership with a carving of a pair of maces below each door panel.
Our earliest reference to the Coach comes from Speaker Sir John Mitford (Speaker from 1801 to 1802). A letter in the Gloucester Archives shows us his predecessor, Speaker Addington (Speaker in 1801), requested £300 for the vehicle in 1801.
The following year, Mitford sold it to Speaker Charles Abbott (Speaker from 1802 to 1817) for the substantially greater sum of £1,060 (around £47,000 in 21st-century money). Abbot’s diary mentions that the coach had been repaired in 1801, presumably at Mitford’s own expense, which may explain the increase in price.
Since then, the Speaker of the House of Commons has used the coach to attend many events. These include coronations and celebrations of the monarch. We include a full timeline of its history and uses below.
Speaker George Thomas (Speaker from 1976 to 1983) rode in the Coach during its last use in a ceremonial occasion—the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. It was drawn by two horses and the Speaker was accompanied by his Secretary, Chaplain, and the Serjeant at Arms. They also carried the Mace, which is the symbol of the monarch in Parliament. A member of the Household Cavalry rode next to the Coach, and two footmen walked alongside the driving coachman.
Coats of Arms
The Coach is also decorated with Speakers’ coats of arms. Each Speaker of the House of Commons has or acquires their own coat of arms. On the Coach, these are shown on painted oval plaques, which have been added over the centuries for some, but not all, Speakers.
The Coach currently displays the arms of Speakers Michael Martin (Speaker from 2000 to 2009) and Bernard Weatherill (Speaker from 1983 to 1992). These were applied over the arms of other Speakers, which have been found during conservation. The oldest yet discovered (found during cleaning in 1935) were those of Speaker Addington, who was Speaker in 1801.
A major conservation project by Plowden and Smith took place from 2006 to 2008, which restored the magnificence of the Coach.
Following centuries of use and display, the painted panels had become chipped and hard to see. The metalwork had corroded, and the gilding discoloured. A team of experts, whose skills matched the craftspeople that made the coach, undertook the big task of conserving the coach.
By removing decades of dirt, and layers of over gilding and varnishing, they revealed the fine nature of the carvings, and the colour and quality of the paintings.
The Coach is now seen as intended over 300 years ago.
Where do you park a State Coach?
In its earliest years as a ceremonial vehicle, the Coach was kept in a special coach house adjoining Westminster Hall.
Between 1802 and 1808, the architect James Wyatt (1746-1814) rebuilt Speaker’s House—the Speaker’s official residence on the parliamentary estate. He relocated the coach house to the ground floor near these new lodgings.
During World War 2, the Coach travelled to Mentmore country house in Buckinghamshire to escape bombing across the capital.
In 1978 the Coach moved to the Whitbread Brewery in Chiswell Street, near the Barbican in London. This may seem a strange location, but there was a long link between the beer brewing family and the Speaker’s Coach. Speaker Charles Shaw-Lefevre (Speaker from 1839 to 1857) married Emma, the daughter of Samuel Whitbread II, and was himself a partner in the company for 48 years. Two shire horses from the brewery pulled the Coach accompanied by three Whitbread draymen (people who deliver beer by horse-drawn wagon). In 1988, Speaker Weatherill opened a new coach house in the brewery’s courtyard.
The Coach was periodically on display in Westminster Hall from 1995, before it went for conservation. From 2011 to early 2023, it was on display at the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court in Devon.
In May 2023, the Coach returned to Westminster Hall for a display in honour of the coronation of King Charles III.
About 1698: Manufacture of the coach
About 1702: Queen Anne is thought to have gifted the Coach to the Speaker of the House of Commons
1801: Speaker Mitford purchased the coach from his predecessor, Speaker Addington. The Coach was repaired
1802: Speaker Abbott purchased the Coach from Speaker Mitford
About 1808: Coach housed in new stables adjoining Speaker’s House
1834: Fire destroyed the existing Palace of Westminster (including Speaker’s House, but not the State Coach)
1869: Coach underwent extensive repairs
1872: Coach featured in a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral (or the recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid)
1897: Coach used in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee address, when it broke down, leading to further repairs
1902: Coach featured in Edward VII’s coronation
1911: Coach used again in George V’s coronation
1935: Silver Jubilee celebrations for George V included the Coach
1937: Coach featured in George VI’s coronation
1952: Repairs in preparation for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation
1953: Coach used in coronation of Elizabeth II
1977: Silver Jubilee procession for Elizabeth II featured the Coach
1981: Last use of the Coach in a ceremonial occasion, by Speaker Thomas at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer
2005: Speaker Martin formally retired the coach
2006-2008: Extensive conservation work undertaken to stabilise and return the Coach to former magnificence after years in use
2011: Coach loaned to the National Trust Carriage Museum at Arlington Court, Devon
2023: Speaker Hoyle returned the Coach to Westminster Hall for temporary display marking the coronation of King Charles III