Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: privy council from Philip's Encyclopedia

Group of main advisers to the British monarch. It developed in the Middle Ages out of the King's Council (Curia Regis). As the cabinet system of government developed, the privy council's powers became increasingly restricted. Its judicial committee, established by legislation in 1833, is the final appeal court for most Commonwealth countries.


Summary Article: Privy Council
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Council composed originally of the chief royal officials of the Norman kings in Britain; under the Tudors and early Stuarts it became the chief governing body. It was replaced from 1688 by the cabinet, originally a committee of the council, and the council itself now retains only formal powers in issuing royal proclamations and orders in council. There are about 500 privy counsellors. Cabinet ministers are automatically members, and it is presided over by the lord president of the council (Nick Clegg from 2010).

In Britain the Privy Council, like the Exchequer, the Treasury, and Chancery, had its origins in the curia regis (king's court or council) as part of the growth of executive and administrative organs of government between the 12th and 15th centuries in England. It became a distinct body in the 14th century and became particularly powerful under the Tudors. The council originally consisted of various officers of state, such as the chancellor, the lord treasurer, the keeper of the great seal, and the chamberlain, but in due course membership included the king's close advisers and was not necessarily dependent on holding a particular office. The council tended to expand in size and during the reign of Henry VIII a distinction was drawn between ordinary councillors, who were mainly lawyers and administrators, and privy councillors, who were a select number of advisers.

The power of the council was curbed by the Long Parliament and its role as the central executive organ declined with the emergence in the 18th century of the cabinet, which is in effect a committee of the Privy Council. A number of early government departments, such as the Boards of Trade, of Agriculture, and of Education, also had their origins as committees of the Privy Council.

Composition The modern Privy Council consists of some 500 people who hold or have held high legal or political offices (including all members of the cabinet who are appointed privy counsellors on assuming ministerial office of cabinet rank), together with the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the speaker of the House of Commons, a number of Commonwealth politicians, and British ambassadors. Appointment is made by letters patent, and is normally for life (appointments are customarily renewed by a new sovereign on succeeding to the throne), although a privy councillor may be dismissed if convicted of a serious crime, or removed at his or her own request, but both are extremely rare. A privy counsellor must be a British subject and takes an oath of allegiance to the sovereign. He or she is addressed as The Right Honourable and may use the letters PC after his or her name.

Functions The full Privy Council now meets only to sign the proclamation of a new sovereign and when a sovereign announces his or her intention to marry. The latter last occurred in 1839, when Queen Victoria announced her forthcoming marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. There are regular monthly meetings of the Queen and a small number of relevant ministers to adopt orders in council. The quorum for these meetings is three.

The lord president of the council is responsible for presenting the business to the Queen, who by convention gives her approval. Most of the business is in the form of proclamations (for example, proroguing, dissolving, or summoning Parliament, or declaring war or peace) or orders in council, which may be legislative (for example, statutory instruments implementing ministerial regulations), executive (for example, setting up a new government department), or judicial (for example, giving effect to a judgement of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council).

Committees of the Privy Council deal with such matters as the granting of charters, the universities, the conferring of honours, and scientific research, and advise on certain matters relating to the Channel Islands. Such committees are not attended by the Queen or a deputy appointed by her and are therefore merely advisory to the council itself.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal from courts of UK dependencies and some Commonwealth countries that have chosen to retain it. It also deals with appeals from medical and veterinary disciplinary bodies and in certain ecclesiastical cases. The council's judicial functions stem from the role of the king as the fount of justice and were exercised through such bodies as the Court of Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission. These courts were abolished in 1640, but the council retained various appellate jurisdictions.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

Related Articles


Full text Article Privy Council
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

A body advising the British monarch, now having chiefly formal functions. It grew out of the Curia Regis (King's Court), forming a distinct...

Full text Article Privy Council
Dictionary of Law

/‚prIvi ‘kansəl/ noun A body of senior advisers who advise the Queen on specific matters COMMENT: The Privy Council is mainly formed...

Full text Article Privy Council
The Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature

With a history going back to the king's council which in the 13th century gave the sovereign private (`privy') advice on the government of the...

See more from Credo