Privy Council

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Queen Victoria's First Privy Council meeting . Painting by David Wilkie , 1838

Her Majesty's Most Honorable Privy Council (short: Privy Council [ ˌpɹɪvi ˈkaʊnsəl ]; German: Privy Council or Privy Council ) is a political advisory body to the British monarch . In the Middle Ages and the early modern period, the highest legislative and judicial organ of government in England under the king , the council today performs predominantly ceremonial functions. Its scope is severely limited, as its previous powers are now exercised by two of its committees, the government cabinet under the Prime Minister and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council .

The only thing that the Council can do today is to prepare decisions concerning unregulated British territories or those royal prerogatives under which the Prime Minister can legislate and legislate without consulting Parliament . It is also the final judge in certain matters (areas or countries) of the Commonwealth .

If the British monarch acts on the advice of the council, he acts as a king-in-council or queen-in-council (king or queen-in-council). Members of the Privy Council are referred to as The Lords of Her Majesty's Most Honorable Privy Council . Its chairman is the Lord President of the Council , who is also the fourth highest rank among the Great Officers of State . By virtue of his office he is a member of the British Cabinet and as such is usually the leader of the strongest faction in the Upper or Lower House . Another important office is that of the clerk ( secretary ), who signs all the instructions adopted by the Privy Council.


During the rule of the Norman monarchs, the crown was advised by the royal court, the Curia Regis , which consisted of the direct crown vassals, clergymen and high officials, was convened only a few times a year and was responsible for the judiciary. In the time between these court days, the kings took advice from members of their own household, from "familiares, domestici and ministri". The Normans and Anjou mostly used members of their own aristocratic family for this purpose. Later, for some offices such as chancellor, treasurer and chief judge, people with the appropriate qualifications were added, mostly clerics and lawyers. Under King Johann Ohneland and while Henry III was a minor . This group of advisors achieved more influence and formed its own organization, the "Council", which was later referred to as the "Privy Council" (Privy Council).

As early as the 13th century, pre-forms of today's two institutions, the parliament and the cabinet, emerged. While the curia regis, the general assembly of the crown vassals, developed into a feudal parliament, the privy council developed into a privy council that advised the crown in its decisions and exercised influence over it. The curia regis was responsible for administering justice; it became the highest legislative body in the kingdom. Over time, the Privy Council developed into a cabinet .

The Privy Council was later also empowered to hear legal disputes, either as a first instance or as an appeal instance. Laws passed by the King on the advice of the Privy Council rather than the advice of Parliament were also considered valid. Powerful rulers often used the Privy Council to bypass the courts and parliament. For example, during the 15th century a board of the Privy Council - later the Court of Star Chamber - had the right to impose any penalty, except the death penalty, without being bound by any rules regarding the evidence or the burden of proof be. During the reign of Henry VIII , the sovereign was allowed, on the advice of the Privy Council, to enact laws by simply promulgating them. The legislative primacy of parliament could only be restored after the death of Henry VIII.

Although the Privy Council retained legislative and judicial functions, it developed primarily into an administrative body. The Privy Council was a large body - it consisted of 40 members in 1553 - which made it difficult to run it as an advisory body. Therefore, the sovereign relied on a small committee, which later developed into the modern cabinet. Jacob I and Charles I tried to rule as absolute monarchs , which led to a further loss of power for the Privy Council.

After the English Civil War , Charles I was executed and the monarchy and the House of Lords abolished. The remaining chamber of parliament, the House of Commons , set up a council of state to enforce laws and guide the administration. The 41 members of the State Council were elected by the House of Commons. The body was headed by Oliver Cromwell , who was in fact the nation's military dictator. However, in 1653 Cromwell became Lord Protector and the Council of State was reduced to between 13 and 21 members, all of whom were elected by the House of Commons. In 1657 the House of Commons granted Cromwell even greater powers, some of which were reminiscent of the time of the monarchy. The council changed its name to Protector's Privy Council . The members were appointed by the Lord Protector and only required the approval of Parliament. Shortly before the restoration of the monarchy in 1659, the Council of the Protector was abolished. Charles II reintroduced the Privy Council, but relied on a small committee of advisers, like other Stuart rulers before.

Under George I , who spoke little English, the Committee of the Privy Council now known as the Cabinet gained even greater power. This ended the role of the Privy Council as a whole, being an organ of confidential advisor to the monarch. This role was now taken over by a small committee of the Privy Council, the cabinet; Robert Walpole , incumbent at the time, is considered the UK's first Prime Minister .


Formally, the sovereign appoints all councilors; in practice it does so at the suggestion of the government. The heir to the throne and the consort of the sovereign are always members of the Privy Council. The three highest church leaders in the Church of England , the Archbishop of Canterbury , the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of London , also belong to the council. There are also several chief judges. The vast majority of Crown Councilors, however, are politicians. These are the Prime Minister , Cabinet Ministers, some senior ministers outside the Cabinet, the opposition leaders and the leaders of the major parties in the House of Commons. The Lords Commissioners are also part of it (partly congruent with the aforementioned persons). Although the Privy Council is primarily a British institution, certain representatives of other Commonwealth realms are also appointed Privy Councilors.

Upon taking office, the Crown Councilors swear by the following formula:

You swear by Almighty God to be an honest and faithful servant of Her Majesty the Queen as one of Her Majesty's Secret Counselors. You will not know or understand of any kind of matter which is to be attempted, done or spoken against Her Majesty's person, honor, crown or dignity, but you will resist with all your might, and either reveal or reveal the like to Her Majesty to those on Your Privy Council who make Her Majesty aware of it. In all matters which are moved, dealt with and debated in the Council, they will faithfully and truthfully explain their thoughts and opinions, as their hearts and consciences command; and they will keep secret all matters which are entrusted and revealed to them or which are dealt with in secrecy in the Council. And if any of the said treaties or advice will concern any of the Councils, they will not reveal it to them, but will keep it to themselves until the appointed time, with the consent of Her Majesty or the Council, will be published. You will maintain loyalty and allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen to the utmost; and they will help defend all jurisdictions, primacy and powers granted to Her Majesty or taken over by the Crown by parliamentary laws or otherwise, against any foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate. And generally they will act in all matters as a faithful and true servant should do to Her Majesty. So help them God.

Membership ends with the dissolution of the Privy Council. This happens automatically six months after the monarch's death. Until a statute issued under the reign of Queen Anne that changed this, the Privy Council was automatically dissolved with the death of the monarch. According to customary law, the new sovereign reappoints all members of the Privy Council, so that in practice membership lasts for life.

However, the sovereign can exclude individuals from the privy council and members can step down to forestall an expulsion. The last to leave the Privy Council voluntarily was Jonathan Aitken , who resigned in 1997 following allegations of embezzlement. He was thus one of the three Crown Councilors who resigned in the 20th century. The last to be involuntarily excluded in 1921 was Sir Edgar Speyer for pro-German activities during the First World War .


Meetings of the Privy Council usually take place once a month wherever the monarch is. The monarch is present at the meeting, but he can be represented by two or more councilors . According to the 1937 Act of Regency , such Councilors of State are the consort of the sovereign as well as the four closest people in the line of succession, provided they have reached the age of 21.

At the meetings of the Privy Council, the Lord President reads out a list of instructions to be given, and the monarch simply says "confirmed". Few of the Crown Ministers are present at such meetings, which are seldom long. General meetings of the Privy Council only take place when the ruling sovereign announces his own marriage or when the monarch dies. In the latter case, the Accession Council , consisting of the Privy Council, the spiritual lords (lords spiritual), the secular lords (lord temporal), the Lord Mayor of London , the city councilors of the City of London and the representatives of the Commonwealth nations , proclaims the accession to the throne of the new sovereign.


The sovereign exercises executive power by giving "instructions on advice" after consulting the Privy Council. These instructions on advice are pre- engineered by the government and are used to implement simple government decisions. They are also used to give royal approval to laws that have been passed in the British Crown Territories by their legislative bodies. Government appointments are also made through instructions on advice .

Of the instructions on advice to distinguish are the instructions of the Council . While the former are made by the sovereign on the advice of the council, the latter are done without the participation of the sovereign. These are issued on the basis of special powers assigned by a parliamentary law and are normally used to regulate public institutions.

The sovereign also adopts Royal Charters (Royal ordinances) on the advice of the Privy Council. These statutes give constituted bodies a special status; they are issued, for example, to give settlements the status of towns and communities.

The Krone-in-Beratung also fulfills certain tasks of the judiciary. Within the UK, the Crown-in-Advice serves as an appeal body to the ecclesiastical courts, the Cinque Ports Admiralty Court and other courts. Appeals based on certain parliamentary acts also fall under this power. The Crown-in-Advice also listens to appeal proceedings from several Commonwealth Realms, British overseas territories, military bases immediately adjacent to the crown (e.g. in Cyprus) and crown areas. In theory, these cases fall within the decision-making power of the Privy Council, but in practice they are delegated to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which consists of the highest judges who are Privy Councilors. The Judiciary Committee has direct judicial power over cases arising from the 1998 Scotland Act, the 1998 Government of Wales Act and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act.

Members' rights and privileges

The salutation of the Privy Council in its entirety is The Most Honorable , while the individual Privy Councilors have the right to be addressed as The Right Honorable . Peers who are Crown Councilors may also add the abbreviation “PC” after their name. This is the Commoners denied. As such, all peers are entitled to the title The Right Honorable, even if they are not Crown Councilors. Some are even entitled to a higher-level salutation. Therefore the abbreviation “PC” is required to indicate membership in the Privy Council. For commoners, the form of address is sufficient to indicate membership in the Privy Council.

Crown councils have their own positions in the British diplomatic protocol (order of precedence) . Before the beginning of each legislative term, Members of the House of Commons who are Crown Councilors may take the oath of office in front of all other MPs, with the exception of the Speaker of Parliament and the Elder of Parliament. In the past, it was also customary for the President of Parliament to give preference to a Privy Council if two MPs stood up at the same time to speak. This practice was discontinued in 1998.

Councilors are permitted to sit on the steps of the sovereign's throne during debates in the House of Lords. You share this privilege with the peers who are not members of the House of Lords, the diocesan bishops of the Church of England , retired bishops previously served in the House of Lords, the Dean of Westminster , the clerk of the crown in the chancellery and the gentleman Usher of the Black Rod .

Each Privy Councilor has a personal audience right with the sovereign. Peers also have this right themselves. The members of the House of Commons have this right only collectively. In any case, the right to personal access may only be used to advise on public matters.

Other councils

The Privy Council is one of the four main councils of the sovereign. The other three are the courts of justice, the commune concilium (common council or parliament), and the magnum concilium (grand council or general assembly of all peers of the kingdom). All still exist formally, but the general assembly of all peers was officially convened for the last time in 1640.

England and Scotland used to have their own Crown Councils. These were united in one body by the Union Act of 1707. Ireland, on the other hand, continued to have an independent Privy Council even after the Union Act of 1800. However, it was abolished after the Irish Republic gained independence in 1922. He was succeeded by the Royal Council for Northern Ireland, but its powers were suspended after the Northern Irish Parliament was dissolved.

Canada has had its own Privy Council since 1867 (see Canadian Privy Council ). The comparable state bodies in other Commonwealth countries are called the Executive Council .


  • William Blackstone : Commentaries on the Laws of England. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1765.
  • M. Davies: Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords. 19th edition. Stationery Office London 2003, ISBN 0-10-400154-2 ( 2007, 20010, 2013 online edition ).
  • Privy Council. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. Volume 22: Poll to Reeves. 11th edition. Cambridge University Press, London 1911.
  • Stefan Voigt , Michael Ebeling, Lorenz Blume: Improving Credibility by Delegating Judicial Competence - the Case of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In: Journal of Development Economics. Vol. 82, No. 2, 2007, pp. 348-373, doi : 10.1016 / j.jdeveco.2006.04.004 .

Web links

Commons : Members of the Privy Council  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
  • Overview . Privy Council Office,accessed December 21, 2015.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Iring Fetscher : Political Science. A lecture series of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University with the Hessischer Rundfunk , Volume 3, Part Two, On the History of English Parliamentarism , Fischer Bücherei, Frankfurt 1968, pp. 105ff.