Sarah Clarke becomes first female Black Rod after 669 years

Queen appoints former director of Wimbledon tennis championships to take up parliamentary role early next year

The Queen has appointed Sarah Clarke, a former director of the Wimbledon tennis championships, as Black Rod. It is the first time a woman has held the now largely ceremonial parliamentary position in its 669-year history.

Clarke, who will formally be known as Lady Usher of the Black Rod, will take over early next year from David Leakey, who has been Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod since 2011.

Originating from a role created in 1348 by Edward III to guard the door outside meetings of his advisory council, the Order of the Garter, Black Rod is now a senior official in the House of Lords.

The post is most visible at the annual state opening of parliament, when Black Rod is sent from the Lords to the House of Commons to summon MPs to hear the Queen’s speech.

The ceremony involves the door to the Commons being slammed in Black Rod’s face. He – as it has been until now – uses his staff to knock three times on the door and gain admittance.

The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod
The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod’s best-known role is when he, or now she, bangs on the door of the House of Commons before the Queen’s speech. Photograph: Reuters

Black Rod also organises other ceremonial events, and is responsible for “business resilience and continuity planning” for the House of Lords. Their department includes Black Rod’s deputy the yeoman usher, and the House of Lords doorkeepers.

Black Rod is also officially responsible for royal sections of parliament, such as the robing room and the royal gallery. They report to the clerk of the parliaments, who is in overall charge of the administration of the houses.

Before organising the Wimbledon championships, Clarke worked for the 2012 Olympic Games, the London marathon and UK Sport.

Clarke said she was “deeply honoured and delighted” to be offered the post. “Over many years I have been fortunate to work at the heart of some of the world’s most complex events and institutions. To be given the opportunity to join such an experienced and dedicated team is a great privilege.

“The House of Lords is a place where the smallest detail is as important as the big picture and the depth of heritage and tradition is second to none. I am truly looking forward to starting work.”

The Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord Fowler, said: “I am very pleased to welcome Sarah Clarke to the role of Black Rod. As the first woman to take on the role, this is a historic moment for the house.

“The Lords has a great record of women taking on senior political roles. Five of the last seven leaders of the Lords and the current leader of the opposition have been women, as well as both my predecessors as Lord Speaker.

“I am sure Sarah will continue that tradition and do an exemplary job as Black Rod.”

Currently both the Tory and Labour leaders in the Lords are women: Lady Evans and Lady Smith.

Fowler said: “People are most familiar with Black Rod for the part they play at state opening, but the job is much more than that. Some of the most important work happens behind the scenes in organising addresses to parliament by visiting heads of state and other state events, as well as ensuring we have appropriate plans in place to keep the important work of the Lords going in a crisis.

“Sarah’s fantastic record at Wimbledon and elsewhere shows she is the right person for the task.”

When created by Edward III the role was known as ussarius, a medieval Latin word for doorkeeper, and the origin of the modern word usher.

Tasked with keeping order outside sometimes long meetings between the 25 Garter knights and the monarch, they were issued with a black rod as a sign of their authority.

The current rod dates from 1873; before this time incumbents would traditionally keep their rod when they retired. The rod is topped with a gold lion, indicating the sovereign’s authority.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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