Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Opening of a continental parliament

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OPENING OF A CONTINENTAL PARLIAMENT.
A SKETCH.

Bavaria has enjoyed for many years a constitutional form of government; and it cannot be denied that the present system has developed itself more freely, and been carried out more efficiently, there than in any other German state. The Lower Chamber has taken more than once in late years, a very decided stand on its guaranteed rights, and refused to allow the executive that independent action which ministers adopt whenever they can. The attitude maintained was firm but respectful; and the consequence was a cession of the unwarrantable authority usurped by the advisers of the Crown.

It would be an injustice not to own that in Bavaria the sovereign in no way interferes unconstitutionally with the business of government or the progress of affairs. But monarchs yield most unwillingly to certain necessities which a new régime imposes. Though outwardly they cede with a good grace, the forms they have to go through are at heart repugnant to them; and they doubtless inwardly vow that, at the first opportunity all such matters shall be changed. They cling to the reminiscence of their absolute dominion; and dwell fondly upon that time by no means as upon a Utopian state that once existed, but has now passed away. Although the concessions are made which constitutional government requires, still, if possible, any form, no matter how insignificant, that may seem even to convey an idea of supremacy, is clung to with tenacity; and no opportunity is lost of making it understood that there is yet a sovereign power above the sovereign people. Thus in Berlin the King, like Napoleon III., calls his “faithful Commons” to himself: he does not go to them on the opening of the Chambers, but summons them to his resilience, that they may hear in his palace what he has to say.

So in Bavaria. Although the former sovereign did occasionally open the Chamber in the Senate House, the present King has never done so. He has either been represented there by a deputy, or has assembled the members of the two Houses around him in the throne-room of his palace.[1]

It may be thought that acts like these are unimportant. In themselves they may be so, but at all events they are significant. They are proofs that the spirit of that form of government which the ruler has been forced to adopt has not been fully comprehended, or that the change from absolutism was but the result of a compulsion that could no longer be evaded.

At eleven o’clock on the 23rd June the King seated alone in a state carriage drawn by eight horses, and preceded by three coaches and six containing different officers of the household, proceeded to church, attended by half a squadron of the militia. The streets through which the procession passed were not more peopled than ordinarily; and all the parade and gilding seemed slightly ridiculous when there was scarcely anybody save the passers-by to take notice of it. At the church was assembled all that there was of royalty in the town to receive the sovereign, as well as the ministers, the officers of the garrison, even to the second lieutenants, and all the civil officers employed in the government offices, secretaries and all, or, as we should call them, clerks and under clerks. Every employé in Bavaria, however, has a uniform of some sort; therefore the more there are present, the more show is made.

At one o’clock the grand throne-room in the palace—a noble work called into existence by King Lewis—was opened to receive all persons authorised to be present at the ceremony. Any one in uniform or in official dress might dispense with a card and enter without ceremony. A large number of military officers, whose duty it was to be present, came dropping in and took their places round the throne. Civil officers, university professors, &c., also made their appearance, the latter in uniforms not unlike those of our naval service. Then the members of the Lower Chamber, headed by their president and preceded by two ushers, walked into the body of the hall, where seats were arranged for them. Soon afterwards the few members of the Upper Chamber advanced up the centre of the room and took their places before the throne. Considerable as was the number of persons already assembled, the hall had still a great deal of empty space, so vast are its proportions. The whole of the interior is in white and gold. Between the columns which support a gallery on either side stand, in life-size on marble pedestals, bronze statues, gilded with pure gold, representing the most famous ancestors of the House of Wittelsbach. To these figures King Lewis, at the opening of the Chambers, once made an allusion which rather took his audience by surprise. He began his speech by saying how proud and pleased he was to see himself surrounded—every one of course expected him to add “by his faithful Peers and Commons,” but instead of this he continued—“by his illustrious ancestors.” A side door now opens, and there streams in a perfect torrent of new-comers, nearly all in military uniform, and each with at least one order: some of them have a dozen. To see the broad ribbons of the Grands Cordons, the stars, and other decorations, you would fancy that on this particular occasion all the wit and intellect and genius of, at least, the whole of Germany was assembled there and then within those four walls. One wears the ribbon of a grand cross, and has his breast literally covered with decorations, for having satisfactorily held the office of manager of the household, and especially for having with touching fidelity dined for years regularly at the royal table. Another officer, who, young still as he is, has positively no room on his general’s uniform for another decoration, has been thus rewarded for his constant attendance on majesty when taking a walk or drive, when travelling, or when out deer or pheasant shooting. These gentlemen belong to what is called the cortège, and take their places immediately behind the throne and close to it on either side. After them come the King and the royal princes, his brothers and cousins. His Majesty enters uncovered, but, after mounting the raised dais and bowing to the assembly, he looks round him with a royal air, puts on his cocked hat, and, taking it off again, seats himself on the throne with his relations beside him, at the same time commanding the members of both Chambers to be seated.

The King, still seated, then proceeded to read his speech, when at the same moment all the members rose, though they had just before been told to be seated. In reality they ought not to have risen; but deference to royalty is so part and parcel of a German’s nature that, although not required or expected to get up, they unanimously stood while the sovereign read his address. At its conclusion there was a pause; when the President of the first Chamber proposed that they should all give three cheers for his Majesty the King of Bavaria; and three cheers were accordingly given, the President directing the operation.

It was a cold affair, and, in spite of uniforms and stars and decorations, not at all imposing. There was nothing whatever to remind you of the council-chamber of a nation where important discussions are carried on, and issues determined that decide the weal or woe of thousands. The room itself was indeed a magnificent reception-room. It was a cheerful festal place, calling up visions of levees and fêtes and fair women. In no way was it connected in your mind with earnest political endeavours; there was not that association of ideas which alone invests a spot with serious interest.

It is, after all, a strange notion to have an inaugurating ceremony otherwhere than at the place connected with such ceremony. It would have been rather absurd, for example, if the opening of the Great Exhibition had taken place at Windsor Castle instead of at Brompton. And to an Englishman it would be an incomprehensible act if the Queen were to summon the council of the nation to Buckingham Palace, there to read her speech and announce to them that Parliament was now opened. Such a thing would be so foreign to English feeling, that we doubt very much if the Queen herself would consent to do it.

The fact that the Sovereign goes down to the House has doubtless its meaning; and it is just this very meaning which continental potentates are desirous to ignore.

In our judgment on such questions, however, we must take into account the different feeling of the different people on these and similar matters. To the forms in which the Englishman would see the representation of a right jealously to be guarded and carefully maintained, the Bavarian perhaps would be indifferent. Indeed in most cases the German is ready to bow to any act of those in authority. As an instance of this indifference we may add that, on remarking to several Munich citizens on the anomaly of opening the Chambers elsewhere than in the Chamber itself, the answer invariably was: “Yes, it is true: but then, if the throne-room were not made use of for that purpose and for prorogations, the King would never be able to make use of it at all.” And that consideration satisfied every one. That the ceremony proved an occasion for throwing open the hall was ample reason for the Chamber to dispense with a privilege, which definitively stamped the character of the popular assembly, and marked the position in which it stood to the crown.

But rulers act otherwise. For them no acquisition, real or only apparent, is too insignificant to be retained. Like the present King of Prussia, who, at the coronation, took the crown “from the table of the Lord,” and crowned himself, they all well know the value of a “mere form.” They are aware of its influence, and know that it may possibly, at a well-chosen moment, serve as a point of departure for new conquests; and that thus eventually, by slow degrees, the lost autocratic power may be recovered.


  1. As a reason for this, it is said: “There is not room enough in the Chamber.” This is true, if the sovereign comes there escorted by an army of military officers and court attendants. But all these are unnecessary; and, in reality, have no business there on such an occasion as the opening of the Chamber.