Queen and town’s symbol of power

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Being a Tour Guide at the Houses of Parliament, I am regularly asked about the mace which represents Her Majesty the Queen in the House of Commons.

This fantastic golden ceremonial club is a symbol of Royal authority and is carried into the house by the Sergeant-at-Arms, despite the fact no Monarch has entered our place of democracy since Charles I burst into the chamber on 4th January 1642.

A few years later in 1653 Oliver Cromwell called the mace a ‘bauble’ and had it removed.

The current Commons mace was made during the reign of Charles II and has been used in the house ever since. It is kept at the Speaker’s House and rarely leaves the building.

In the past various members of Parliament have used the mace to protest; famously, Michael Heseltine brandished it at the opposition benches during a heated debate in 1976.

People often ask “Why does a mace represent the Queen?” The mace is basically a weapon and in medieval times mace holders would walk in front of important people to ensure the path ahead was clear, presumably anyone who would fail to get out of the way would get a clump. Not only Royalty needed such protection but other people as well, for instance mayors and many ancient towns and cities would not only have a mace but a Sergeant-at-Mace to carry it.

Even today the Lord Mayor of London is accompanied by a large gilt mace.

In time, the ceremonial mace shrank in size but was still a symbol of authority. Smaller ones were called tipstaffs which were carried by officers of law including early police officers. The oldest Civic mace still in use today is used at Hedon in East Yorkshire and dates from 1415.

Seaford did not have a Mayor, but as it was a Cinque Port it did have a Bailiff. The town was an important Cinque Port and returned two Members of Parliament from 1298 until it lost its franchise with the Reform Act of 1832. An important town obviously needed a mace and Seaford had one which was carried by the Sergeant-at-Mace at civic functions.

The mace is still held by Seaford Town Council and it is a beautiful object, possibly silver (although there are no hallmarks), it is now carefully locked away and rarely seen in public.

The Seaford Mace is just over a foot long and is topped with a wide crown at one end and a chamfered ‘knob’ at the other. The decoration is fascinating as it has the Coat of Arms of Queen Elizabeth the First, meaning our mace dates from between 1558 and 1603. The arms are quartered with the Fleur-de-lys (of France) and the three Lions of England (although on our mace they are reversed). The Arms are contained within the Order of the Garter and you can just make out the motto “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (Evil on those that think evil). The arms are topped by a crown and supported by a lion and a griffin.

The Mace looks as if it has been well used. It has some dents and a couple of bits have been broken off. I guess this means it was used at the regular corporation (council) meetings.

It would have been carried by the Sergeant-at-Mace who would have been appointed annually in September along with the Bailiff and other members of the corporation.

In the 1840s and 50s, the Sergeant-at-Mace was John Banks and he was also the town gaoler and a Freeman of the town. His father was also a Freeman and is also recorded as being the Chamberlain of the town. He was followed by William Woolgar who held the position from 1865 to 1901. William’s father and grand-father were Freemen of Seaford too.

As I mentioned in a recent article, there was a difference between a Freeman of Seaford and someone given the Freedom of the Town. A freeman was a political appointment whereas someone given the Freedom had given some service to the community. Among previous people given this honour were William Pitt the Younger, who was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and whose father, William Pitt the Elder, was MP for Seaford.

Last month, for the first time in over 200 years two new people were granted the Freedom of the Town, Don Mabey and Laurie Holland. After the investiture, there was a procession through the town led by our very own Town Crier, Peter White. Peter’s smart new uniform is based on the old Sergeant-at-Arms uniform worn by William Woolgar and I was thrilled to see that he was holding our mace! As Seaford lost its status as a Cinque Port and Corporation in 1883, this is possibly the first time it had been used for over 130 years.

But it is no use having a mace without a Sergeant-at-Mace, so I am really pleased to report Peter has since been appointed as the Sergeant-at-Mace for Seaford. He has been our Town Crier for over 35 years - let’s hope he can remain our mace-holder for a similar length of time!