When Parliament burnt down in 1834, there was never any hope of saving the Armada tapestries. Commissioned to commemorate England’s narrow escape from the Spanish onslaught in 1588, the 10 tapestries portrayed each crucial stage of the Armada’s advance and defeat at the hands of both the British and, primarily, the weather
. Eight of them hung in the chamber of the House of Lords for more than 200 years; there wasn’t room for all of them, as each was fully 14 feet tall and around 23 feet wide. By the time the fire was discovered, it was never going to be possible to rescue them and they were abandoned to the flames.
However, a project to recreate the tapestries from detailed engravings of the originals has now been completed, and 10 new paintings of the same scenes were recently unveiled. On Thursday a reception was held in the House of Lords to commemorate this restoration project, hosted by a peer for whom sea travel and trade is the subject closest to his heart. More than 200 guests from “the British maritime sector” were invited, along with a number of sea cadets and House staff, to hear presentations on naval and maritime matters and on the tapestries themselves. The final presentation—the headline act
, really—was a speech by the host himself on “The prosecution of British overseas trade”. The host was Lord Selsdon.
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, I have always been in this position. I have always spent my life involved in trade, the development of trade, and amongst the seafaring community I always sat below the salt. I really love the sea; it’s in my blood, and all my family have died at sea. We all leave in our testament that we know the latitude and longitude of our graves or of where we die. If I die today, the latitude and longitude of this place will be on my grave, if someone were able to navigate to it.
After the presentations, there was due to be half an hour or so of mingling and canapés
with even more guests in the Royal Gallery before an unusual and touching ceremony took place. Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral in 1588, removed a bell from one of the ships that attacked the Spanish fleet and kept it as a trophy. Lord Selsdon described its subsequent history:
It remained there for a while but then it went somewhere else and then fell down from a tower.
Whatever exactly happened, the bell ended up in the family of Lord Northbrook. Lord Selsdon recently discovered this and was allowed to bring it to London to be restored, and on Thursday evening, for the first time since 1588
, the bell was to be rung at 6pm precisely to mark the end of the first “dog watch”
Before that, though, the guests were presented with wine grown in a French vineyard that Lord Selsdon has been known to claim has been in his family since the second century BC, although during his speech he said merely that,
... originally rosé was shipped in the second century BC to the United Kingdom, encouraged by Eleanor of Provence who of course was the mother of Edward I who built this place, and therefore the rosé has a certain significance.
The guests were intently sampling the rosé at 5.50 when we all gradually became aware of a plaintive, sonorous melody, as if someone at the other end of the Royal Gallery had started to sing a psalm. When enough conversations had subsided, though, it became apparent that actually it was Lord Selsdon speaking, but a combination of a gentle speaking voice and a lack of direct mike technique meant that no-one more than four metres away from him had even a sporting chance
of understanding what he was saying. A couple of times there was a cry of “Speak up!” and he would lean forward into the mike, but he would give up after a few words and revert to a conversational tone.
Lord Selsdon was standing on a small dais, flanked by a chaplain and Admiral the Lord Boyce. Nearby stood the newly christened “Armada Bell”, flanked by two House of Lords carpenters dressed as 16th-century shipwrights [see illustration]
. A semicircle of sea cadets surrounded this small tableau, with the guests packed in behind them. With everything happening at floor height and with Lord Selsdon’s voice not carrying beyond the middle of the room, many of the guests at the far end of the Royal Gallery could neither see nor hear what was going on at any point of the ceremony. At several key moments they were unaware that the ceremony was even going on at all, drinking and chattering obliviously. Lord Selsdon couldn’t understand it—this seemed to be the height
of rudeness—but he ploughed on, unbowed and, in many cases, unheard.
“I have a special guest
here this evening,” he said. ‘Could we bring him in, please?” A spaniel, one of the sniffer dogs used for security checks in the Lords chamber, was led in by his handler. “What’s the point of a dog watch,” Lord Selsdon asked his audience rhetorically, “if there’s no dog to watch?”
It was crucial that the timing of the ceremony be split-second. Every day at the start of proceedings in the Lords chamber, the Lord Speaker processes in along with Black Rod and a doorkeeper who is carrying the mace. She takes her position by the woolsack, and at the moment that the bishop on duty says the first word of that day’s prayers, Big Ben strikes. This aspect of Lord procedure appeals to Lord Selsdon immensely and he was very keen that the same precision
be applied to his ceremony, but for that to be a certainty he had to be able to hear Big Ben. “Could you all be quiet, please?” he asked a couple of times, but the hubbub from the other end continued unabated. “WAAAAGH!” he yelled suddenly into the mike. The room fell silent.
“Thank you,” he said. He looked at his watch, slightly puzzled. “Now, I’ve got a feeling my watch might be a little fast…” Suddenly I had an explanation for why, when I could have sworn that I had arrived at the reception on the nose
of 4.30, I had already missed Lord Selsdon’s introduction and half the opening speech. “So,” he continued, “if you could all remain silent, we should be ready in about three minutes.” I have to report that the 300 guests did not remain silent for three minutes.
“WAAAAAGH!” cried Lord Selsdon again, at fifteen seconds to six. The crowd quietened down. The artist in charge of the Armada tapestries project stepped solemnly forward and waited. As the first chime sounded he rang four bells, in two groups of two. The semicircle of sea cadets dropped to the floor in unison, crouching on one knee, where they stayed for about 10 minutes.
Lord Selsdon stepped down from his dais, handing over to the chaplain to read a couple of suitably naval prayers. Clearly and crisply, the chaplain’s voice intoned the first intelligible sentences that much of the throng had been exposed to since entering the gallery. As he detailed which prayers he was going to read out and why, the sniffer spaniel was getting increasingly excited
. His handler tried every technique to calm his animal down but none of them were working. The chaplain began his first prayer. “O Lord,” he began. The spaniel started barking loudly in delight, visibly startling many of the furthest-flung guests who were unaware that a dog was even present in the first place. The chaplain, however, was a pro, and he continued smoothly while the handler guided his excitable charge outside.
The remainder of the event passed off without misadventure; the cadets were eventually allowed to get up, a couple more speeches were made and a new coat of arms was presented, and the crowd slowly dispersed. For many of them this will have been their first exposure to Lord Selsdon’s unique oratory, and I can’t think of a better introduction
to it. Although devoid of most of its accompanying pictures, for those who wish and have the time, his speech is reproduced below. ( The Prosecution of British Overseas Trade )