Privy Council of the United Kingdom

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Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council is a body of advisors to the British Sovereign. The Council was formerly a powerful institution, but is now largely ceremonial. Most of its power is held by one of its committees, the Cabinet. The Council also performs judicial functions, which are for the most part delegated to the Judicial Committee.

The Sovereign, when acting on the Council's advice, is known as the King-in-Council or Queen-in-Council. The members of the Council are collectively known as The Lords of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council (sometimes The Lords and others of...). The chief officer of the body is the Lord President of the Council, who is the fourth highest Great Officer of State, a member of the Cabinet, and normally, the Leader of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons. Another important official is the Clerk, whose signature is appended to all orders made in the Council.

Both "Privy Counsellor" and "Privy Councillor" may be correctly used to refer to a member of the Council. The former, however, is preferred by the Privy Council Office. A Privy Counsellor is said to be 'sworn of' the Council when he/she first joins it.


During the reigns of the Norman monarchs, the Crown was advised by a royal court, which consisted of magnates, ecclesiastics and high officials. The body originally concerned itself with advising the Sovereign on legislation, administration and justice. Later, different bodies assuming distinct functions evolved from the court. The courts of law took over the business of dispensing justice, while Parliament became the supreme legislature of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Council retained the power to hear legal disputes, either in the first instance or on appeal. Furthermore, laws made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Council, rather than on the advice of Parliament, were accepted as valid.

Powerful Sovereigns often used the body to circumvent the courts and Parliament. For example, a committee of the Council—which later became the Court of the Star Chamber—was during the fifteenth century permitted to inflict any punishment except death, without being bound by any rules regarding evidence or the burden of proof. During Henry VIII's reign, the Sovereign, on the advice of the Council, was allowed to enact laws by mere proclamation. The legislative pre-eminence of Parliament was not restored until after Henry VIII's death.

Though the royal Council retained legislative and judicial responsibilities, it became a primarily administrative body. The Council was a large body—it consisted of forty members in 1553—which made it difficult to manage as an advisory body. Therefore, the Sovereign relied on a small committee, which later evolved into the modern Cabinet. James I and Charles I attempted to rule as absolute monarchs, contributing to further deterioration of the power of the Council but ultimately of the crown.

After the English Civil War, Charles I was executed, and the monarchy and House of Lords abolished. The remaining house of Parliament, the House of Commons, instituted a Council of State to execute laws and to direct administrative policy. The forty-one members of the Council were elected by the Commons; the body was headed by Oliver Cromwell, the de facto military dictator of the nation. In 1653, however, Cromwell became Lord Protector, and the Council was reduced to between thirteen and twenty-one members, all elected by the Commons. In 1657, the Commons granted Cromwell even greater powers, some of which were reminiscent of those enjoyed by monarchs. The Council became known as the Protector's Privy Council; its members were appointed by the Lord Protector, subject to Parliament's approval.

In 1659, shortly before the restoration of the monarchy, the Protector's Council was abolished. Charles II restored the royal Privy Council, but he, like previous Stuart monarchs, chose to rely on a small committee of advisors. Under George I, who did not speak English, even more power passed to the body. Thus, the Privy Council, as a whole, ceased to be a body of important confidential advisors to the Sovereign; the role passed to a committee of the Privy Council, now known as the Cabinet.


The Sovereign may appoint all Privy Counsellors, but in practice does so on the advice of the Government. There is no limit to the numbers sworn in as members. Presently there are several hundred.

The heir-apparent is always appointed to the Council, as are the Church of England's three highest ecclesiastics—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London.

Several senior judges— Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, judges of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales, judges of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and judges of the Inner House of the Court of Session (the highest court in Scotland)—are also named to the Privy Council.

The bulk of Privy Counsellors, however, are politicians. The Prime Minister, ministers in the cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition must be sworn to the Privy Council on appointment, as is the Cabinet Secretary and the Queen's Private Secretary. Leaders of large parties in the House of Commons, some senior ministers outside the cabinet, and on occasion senior Parliamentarians are appointed Privy Counsellors.

Although the Privy Council is primarily a British institution, officials from some other Commonwealth realms are also appointed to the body. The most notable instance is New Zealand, whose Prime Minister, senior politicians, Chief Justice and Court of Appeal judges are conventionally made Privy Counsellors. It is common for Prime Ministers of those Commonwealth countries who take the Queen as their sovereign to be sworn as Privy Counsellors too.

The following oath (which was until recently kept strictly secret until Tony Benn revealed it) is administered to Privy Counsellors before they take office:

You do swear by Almighty God to be a true and faithful Servant unto The Queen's Majesty as one of Her Majesty's Privy Council. You will not know or understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done or spoken against Her Majesty's Person, Honour, Crown or Dignity Royal, but you will lett and withstand the same to the uttermost of your power, and either cause it to be revealed to Her Majesty Herself, or to such of Her Privy Council as shall advertise Her Majesty of the same. You will in all things to be moved, treated and debated in Council, faithfully and truly declare your Mind and Opinion, according to your Heart and Conscience; and will keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you, or that shall be treated of secretly in Council. And if any of the said Treaties or Counsels shall touch any of the Counsellors you will not reveal it unto him but will keep the same until such time as, by the consent of Her Majesty or of the Council, Publication shall be made thereof. You will to your uttermost bear Faith and Allegiance to the Queen's Majesty; and will assist and defend all Jurisdictions, Pre-eminences, and Authorities, granted to Her Majesty and annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, or otherwise, against all Foreign Princes, Persons, Prelates, States, or Potentates. And generally in all things you will do as a faithful and true Servant ought to do to Her Majesty. So help you God.

Senior ministers who lose office and go into opposition remain Privy Counsellors, (although of course no longer summoned to meetings of the Cabinet, which is a Committee of the Privy Council). Confidential discussions between senior politicians of opposite parties may thus be held "on Privy Council terms".

Membership ceases upon the dissolution of the Privy Council, which automatically occurs six months after the death of a monarch. (Formerly, until a statute to the contrary was passed during the reign of Anne, the death of a monarch brought an end to the Council immediately.) By convention, however, the Sovereign reappoints all members of the Council after its dissolution; hence, membership is, in practice, for life.

The Sovereign may however remove an individual from the Council, and individuals may choose to resign to avoid expulsion. The last individual to leave the Privy Council voluntarily was Jonathan Aitken, who left in 1997 following allegations of perjury. He was one of only three Privy counsellors to resign in the 20th century (the others being John Profumo, in 1963, and John Stonehouse, in 1976 ). The last individual to be expelled from the Council against his will was Sir Edgar Speyer, 1st Baronet, who was removed in 1921 for pro-German activities during the First World War.


Victoria held her first Privy Council meeting on the day of her accession in 1837.
Victoria held her first Privy Council meeting on the day of her accession in 1837.

Meetings of the Privy Council are normally held once each month wherever the Sovereign may be residing at the time. The Sovereign attends the meeting, though his or her place may be taken by two or more Counsellors of State. Under the Regency Act 1937, Counsellors of State may be chosen from amongst the Sovereign's spouse and the four individuals next in the line of succession who are over 21 years of age (18 for the Heir to the Throne).

Normally the Sovereign is pleased to remain standing at meetings of the Privy Council, so that no other members may sit down, which ensures that the meetings are kept brief. The Lord President reads out a list of Orders to be made, and the Sovereign merely says "Approved." In theory, the Sovereign may also say "Declined" but in practice this has not happened since the reign of Queen Anne. Only a few privy counsellors attend such meetings, and only when invited to do so (at the Government's request).

Full meetings of the Privy Council are only held when the reigning Sovereign announces his or her own marriage, or when the monarch dies. In the latter case, the Privy Council—together with the Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal, the Lord Mayor of London, the Aldermen of the City of London and representatives of Commonwealth nations—makes a proclamation declaring the accession of the new Sovereign. That special meeting of the Privy Council held to proclaim the accession of the new Sovereign and to receive the required statutory oath, is known as an Accession Council.


The Sovereign exercises executive authority by making Orders-in-Council upon the advice of the Privy Council. Orders-in-Council, which are drafted by the government rather than by the Sovereign, are used to make simple government regulations and to make government appointments. Furthermore, Orders-in-Council are used to grant the Royal Assent to laws passed by the legislative authorities of British crown dependencies.

Distinct from Orders-in-Council are Orders of Council. Whilst the former are made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Privy Council, the latter are made by members of the Privy Council without the participation of the Sovereign. They are issued under the specific authority of Acts of Parliament, and are normally used to regulate public institutions.

The Sovereign, furthermore, issues Royal Charters on the advice of the Privy Council. Charters grant special status to incorporated bodies; they are used to grant city and borough status to towns.

The Privy Council therefore deals with a wide variety of matters, including coinage, university statutes, graveyards, dates of Bank Holidays and the appointment of government ministers. One-off announcements such as the merging or splitting of government departments can also be dealt with more easily by the Privy Council than by the departments themselves.

The Crown-in-Council also performs certain judicial functions. Within the United Kingdom, the Crown-in-Council hears appeals from ecclesiastical courts, the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports, prize courts and the Disciplinary Committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, appeals against schemes of the Church Commissioners and appeals under certain Acts of Parliament (eg the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975). The Crown-in-Council also hears appeals from several Commonwealth Realms, British Overseas Territories, Sovereign Base Areas and crown dependencies. The aforementioned cases are theoretically decided by the Crown-in-Council, but are in practice decided by the Judicial Committee, which consists of senior judges who are Privy Counsellors. The Judicial Committee has direct jurisdiction in cases relating to the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

In short, the Privy Council deals with a variety of formal matters of State which either have not been delegated from the Crown to any other official body, or which Acts of Parliament have placed under direct Crown authority for convenience.

Rights and privileges of members

Though the Privy Council as a whole is " The Most Honourable", individual Privy Counsellors are entitled to the style " The Right Honourable". Peers who are Privy Counsellors also append the post-nominal letters "PC": as peers are already entitled to the style "The Right Honourable" (in the case of barons, viscounts and earls) or other higher style (in the case of dukes and marquesses), even when they are not Privy Counsellors, the letters "PC" are necessary to indicate membership of the Council. For commoners, on the other hand, "The Right Honourable" is sufficient identification of status as a Privy Counsellor.

Privy Counsellors are entitled to positions in the order of precedence. At the beginning of each new Parliament, members of the House of Commons who are Privy Counsellors may take the oath of allegiance before all other members except the Speaker and the Father of the House (the most senior member of the House). Formerly, whenever a Privy Counsellor rose to make a speech in the House of Commons at the same time as another member, the Speaker would first recognise the Privy Counsellor. This informal custom, however, was abolished in 1998.

Privy Counsellors are allowed to sit on the steps to the Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords Chamber during debates. They share this privilege with hereditary Lords who were members of the House of Lords before the reform of 1999, diocesan bishops of the Church of England, retired bishops who formerly sat in the House of Lords, the Dean of Westminster, Peers of Ireland, the eldest child of members of the House of Lords, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Each Privy Counsellor has the individual right of personal access to the Sovereign. Peers also enjoy the same right individually; members of the House of Commons possess the right collectively. In each case, personal access may only be used to tender advice on public affairs.

Other councils

The Privy Council is one of the four principal councils of the Sovereign. The other three are: the courts of law, the commune concilium (common council, or Parliament) and the magnum concilium (great council, or the assembly of all the peers of the Realm). All are still in existence, but the magnum concilium has not been formally summoned since 1640.

Several other "Privy Councils" have advised the Sovereign. England and Scotland once had separate Privy Councils, but the Act of Union 1707, which united the two countries into Great Britain, replaced both with a single body. Ireland, on the other hand, continued to have a separate Privy Council even after the Act of Union 1800. The Irish Privy Council was abolished in 1922, when Southern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom; it was succeeded by the Privy Council for Northern Ireland, which became dormant after the suspension of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Only about 10 members are alive [in 2006].

Canada has had its own Privy Council—the Queen's Privy Council for Canada—since 1867. (Note that whilst the Canadian Privy Council is specifically "for Canada", the Privy Council discussed above is not "for the United Kingdom".) The equivalent organ of state in the other Commonwealth Realms and some Commonwealth Republics is called the Executive Council.

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