The title of Sergeant-at-Arms appears during the Crusades, when Philip II of France formed a special corps to guard him in the Holy Land in 1192. They always appeared in public encased in armour, and carried a decorated battle-mace as a weapon and as a badge of their office.
It is almost certain that the notion of 'Sergeant' came to England from France with the Normans.
"The Table", the journal of Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, notes that in England people who were permanently retained by the Sovereign to perform certain services became known as Sergeants. It suggests that Sergeants-at-Arms were originally the King's bodyguard. However, quite early on their military duties passed into other hands and it is likely that by the beginning of the 13th century they had turned into civil or police bodyguards. They were armed with clubs or maces, undoubtedly less warlike weapons than those they had originally carried.
Philip Marsden, a former Deliverer of the Vote in the British House of Commons, writes that in one of its earliest forms a Sergeant-at-Arms was a man with a large land grant from the King. He was required to perform duties concerned with the safety of the King in return for the land he held. Marsden traces the earliest record of Sergeants-at-Arms to 1278, when Edward I recruited a corps of 20 as a mounted escort which wielded almost royal authority over their fellow-citizens.
Introduction of Sergeant-at-Arms into Parliament
With roots in assemblies in Anglo-Saxon England, the concept and powers of Parliament have evolved over the centuries. By the 13th century, parliaments were becoming more representative and more frequently held. Separate entities were created in or around 1341 when Parliament split into the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
There are several theories to account for the introduction of the Sergeant-at-Arms into Parliament, and later, the House of Commons. Some are presented below.
One theory holds that the assignment of a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Commons Speaker was a scheme by the King in 1415 to extend his power over Parliament. However, Marsden argues that in the early 15th century the House of Commons was still very much a '‘Lower House' in every sense of the word, and not yet enough of a power to warrant such a move. He agrees that the Sergeant-at-Arms was introduced in 1415, but at the request of the Commons in order to enforce parliamentary privilege. By virtue of the King's insignia on his mace, he was empowered to exercise royal authority over ordinary citizens through the instructions of the Speaker. When Parliament was not sitting, he returned to duty in the Royal Household.
The Table proposes that since Parliament met where the King lived (the Palace at Westminster), it was only natural that he should have seconded two Sergeants-at-Arms to attend upon the Houses. The author of this article suggests that the function of the first parliamentary Sergeant-at-Arms was that of a door-keeper, as mentioned in a pamphlet written about 1322.
I.T.P. Hughes, a former British Sergeant-at-Arms, proposes the Sergeant-at-Arms was appointed to protect the Speaker. The demands placed on the Speaker by his master, the Commons, often conflicted with the demands placed on the Speaker by the King, who had appointed him. Violent disagreement was often the result. Richard II, therefore, appointed a Sergeant-at-Arms to attend upon the Speaker about 1391.
The position of Sergeant-at-Arms was obviously introduced during a critical stage in the evolution of Parliament. The House of Lords and the House of Commons were both trying to consolidate their powers at a time of great confusion over roles, authority and privilege. It is not surprising then that disagreement exists surrounding the Sergeant-at-Arms' precise date and purpose of introduction.
Role of Sergeant-at-Arms in Parliament
The maintenance of law and order, and the execution of warrants were the earliest functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms. Because he attended the Speaker, he was involved in all ceremonial functions connected with that office. He was also charged with keeping the doors and making sure that the Commons was clean.
Marsden writes that from very early in his history, the Sergeant-at-Arms was the Commons' Usher, Keeper of the Doors, and Housekeeper. As the public became more aware of the activities of Parliament and began to attend sittings, someone was needed to maintain order.
The 16th century witnessed a shift in the authority of the position. Until then, it had come from the Sovereign, through the Speaker. Henry VIII now delegated the wielding of the Sergeant's authority to the House of Commons.
In 1572, John Hooker, an MP, described the functions of the Sergeant-at-Arms in Order and usage of the keeping of a Parlement in England. They included keeping out strangers, keeping prisoners, delivering messages, attending the Speaker, and keeping the House clean.
Interference with the liberty of Members occurred from time to time and was always punished. Breaches of privilege in the 17th century included jostling against a Member, taking his cloak or bolting with his coach. The Sergeant would be sent to arrest transgressors.
By the 17th century, the Sergeant's department was fairly well established and consisted of the Vote Office (which was primarily concerned with the distribution of the journals of the day to Members), the Deputy Housekeeper, two door-keepers, four messengers and various watchmen and firelighters.
More than half a millennium after its introduction into the parliamentary system, the office of Sergeant-at-Arms continues to serve legislatures that adhere to British tradition. A sense of the position's medieval origins persists, particularly in its ceremonial role in parliamentary proceedings. Over time and in many jurisdictions, maintaining order in the Chamber and housekeeping duties have evolved into responsibility for security beyond the walls of the Chamber and property management functions.