What is the Privy Council?

Historically, in the UK, the Privy Council is a formal body of advisers to the British sovereign who guide the monarch on the exercise of their royal duties. Members are appointed by the monarch; today, it is mainly comprised of senior politicians, while the archbishops of York and Canterbury and the Bishop of London become members automatically upon their appointments.


What are origins of the Privy Council?

The first political institution known to advise a British monarch was the Witenaġemot ('meeting of wise men'), which was made up of Anglo-Saxon noblemen and existed from the 7th to the 11th century. They were tasked with offering advice to the Anglo-Saxon kings such as Alfred the Great.

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a council known as curia regis – 'royal council' or 'king's court' – conducted much of England's state business, replacing the former Witenaġemot. The curia regis met on special occasions, or when it was summoned by the king, and was comprised of high-ranking officials and land-owning ecclesiastics. The term 'privy' was not actually applied to the council until the 15th century.

Playful Portrait of the Royal Family (Getty Images)

Is there an initiation ceremony?

New members of the Privy Council still take an oath. Before 1998, when it officially became public, it was considered criminal, and possibly treasonous, to reveal said oath. A form of today’s oath dates back to 1570 and sees members swear to be a “true and faithful servant” to the Crown, to “bear faith and allegiance” to the monarch’s “majesty” and to “keep secret all matters committed and revealed unto you…”

Is the Privy Council important and is it part of Parliament?

The Privy Council probably reached the peak of its influence during the 16th and 17th centuries, when up to 40 men could be counted among its ranks, advising Henry VIII on matters of war and peace. They were also used by the monarch as a way of bypassing parliament and the courts. In 1540, Henry VIII’s Privy Council included men such as Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and President of the Privy Council, Thomas Audley, Lord Chancellor and Sir Richard Rich, the King’s solicitor.

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The Privy Council managed parliament itself, using it as a weapon to help influence the decisions of the sovereign

While Parliament during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods was an intermittent body, the Privy Council met every day by the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. Indeed, the Privy Council managed parliament itself, often using it as a weapon to help influence the decisions of the sovereign. During the so-called ‘personal rule’ of Charles I – the 11-year period between 1629-40, when the monarch ruled without summoning Parliament once – the Privy Council, in parliament’s absence, had the power to issue and enforce law and order.

Picture of the Battle of Beziers

How has the Privy Council's role and powers changed?

During the British Civil Wars, the Privy Council (together with the monarchy and House of Lords) was abolished by Oliver Cromwell. Instead, he appointed a Council of State, which was later known as the Protector’s Privy Council, in 1649, following the execution of Charles I. Comprised of 13-21 men, elected by parliament to advise Cromwell, the Council sat until 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne. He reinstated the Privy Council, albeit much smaller than its Tudor cousin.

The development of constitutional monarchy during the 18th and 19th centuries ( ie, a monarchy restricted by laws and which shares its power with government) saw the role of the Privy Council change to an administrative link between monarch and government with limited functions. Today, some 650 people sit on the Privy Council including current and former prime ministers, Prince Charles and Prince Philip. Instead of sitting daily, it meets about once a month, presided over by the Queen.

Have any monarchs ever ignored the advice of their Privy Council?

The last monarch to refuse an order of the Privy Council was Queen Anne in March 1708. She withheld royal assent on the Scottish Militia Bill, fearing that the proposed Scottish troops would be disloyal to her.


This content first appeared in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed