The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, generally shortened to just Black Rod, is an official in the parliaments of a number of Commonwealth countries. The position originates in the House of Lords of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. His equivalent in the House of Commons is the Serjeant at Arms.
The office was created in 1350 by royal letters patent, though the current title dates from 1522. The position was adopted by other members of the Commonwealth when they copied the British Westminster system. The title is derived from the staff of office, an ebony staff topped with a golden lion, which is the main symbol of the office's authority.
Black Rod is formally appointed by the Crown based on a recruitment search performed by the Clerk of the Parliaments, to whom he reports. Prior to 2002 the office was held by a retired senior officer from the British Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force and was rotated between each service. It is now advertised openly. Black Rod is an officer of the English Order of the Garter, and takes the rank of knight bachelor. His deputy is the Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod.
Black Rod has a number of official duties: he is the personal attendant of the Sovereign in the Lords; as secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain he is responsible as the usher and doorkeeper at meetings of the Order of the Garter (stemming from the Garter Statute 1522); and, as the Sergeant-at-Arms and Keeper of the Doors of the House he is concerned in the admission of strangers to the House of Lords.
Black Rod further has the task of arresting any Lord guilty of breach of privilege or other Parliamentary offence, such as contempt or disorder, or the disturbance of the House's proceedings. He is also responsible, as the representative of the Administration and Works Committee, for more important services; the black rod is used to tap the governor's shoulder as a blessing from the Queen and security of the Palace of Westminster. Either Black Rod or his deputy, the Yeoman Usher, is required to be present when the House of Lords, upper house of Parliament, is in session, and plays a role in the induction of all new Lords Temporal into the House (but not of bishops as new Lords Spiritual).
In 2008 the salary for the position was £81,600.
Black Rod is in theory responsible for carrying the Mace into and out of the chamber for the Speaker of the House of Lords (formerly the Lord Chancellor, now the Lord Speaker), though this role is delegated to the Yeoman Usher and Deputy Serjeant-at-Arms, or on judicial occasions, to the Lord Speaker's deputy, the Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms. The mace was created in 1876.
Black Rod is best known for his part in the ceremonies surrounding the State Opening of Parliament and the Throne speech. He summons the Commons to attend the speech and leads them to the Lords. As part of the ritual, as Black Rod approaches the doors to the chamber of the House of Commons to make his summons, they are slammed in his face. This is to symbolise the Commons' independence of the Sovereign. Black Rod then strikes the door three times with his staff, and is then admitted and issues the summons of the monarch to attend. This ritual is derived from the attempt by King Charles I to arrest five members in 1642, in what was seen as a breach of privilege, though strictly the King was entitled to enter the chamber. After that incident, the House of Commons has maintained its right to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter their chamber, though they cannot bar him from entering with lawful authority.
Before the Acts of Union 1707 united the English and Scottish parliaments, there was a Gentleman Usher of the White Rod who had a similar role in the Scottish Parliament. This office is currently held by Rt. Rev. Brian Smith, Lord Bishop of Edinburgh but the role carries no duties.
Gentleman ushers exist for all the British orders of knighthood, and are coloured as follows:
As in the United Kingdom, Black Rod is responsible for arresting any senator or intruder who disrupts the proceedings.
The Australian Senate has Mr Brien Hallett as Usher of the Black Rod and Mr Nick Tate as Deputy Usher of the Black Rod. One of these is present for the induction of all Senators. Each bicameral Australian state (that is, all but Queensland) also has its own Black Rod.
In New Zealand, where the Legislative Council was abolished in 1951, the Usher of the Black Rod continues to summon MPs to the chamber for the Throne Speech. It is not a full-time position. Colonel William (Bill) Nathan, OBE ED, was Usher of the Black Rod 1993 to 2005. The position is currently held by David Baguley.
In the United States of America, the Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate is the law enforcer for the United States Senate. One of the chief roles of the Sergeant is to hold the mace used at every session. The Sergeant can also request the attendance of absent Senators. With the Architect of the Capitol and the Sergeant at Arms of the House of Representatives, he serves on the Capitol Police Board, responsible for security in and around the Capitol proper and Congressional office buildings. The Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is empowered to arrest any person upon their violating Senate rules (including the President of the United States). The incumbent is Terrance W. Gainer.