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A brief look at the Privy Council


An engraving showing the Privy Council in 1770.

It’s often forgotten that just like the Prime Minister has his body of advisers in the Cabinet, Her Majesty has her own in the form of the Privy Council. Originally descended from the Curia Regis, a group of household officials and confidants who advised the king, the Privy Council once had a place among Britain’s most powerful institutions.

Under the Tudor monarchs, the Council played a key part in advising the king or queen on matters of domestic and foreign relations. For a brief time during the Civil War and then again just before the Restoration of Charles II, the council was abolished. But it was quickly restored in 1680. During the reign of George I, the Privy Council’s power was significantly weakened and most functions were transferred to what is now known as the Cabinet, a committee of the Privy Council.

This transfer of power is reflected in appointments to the Council. It used to be that only the Sovereign could make members and this is technically still the case, but in practice, most appointments are made by the Government. The Privy Council brings together many different public and religious officials, from Archbishops to MPs, making for a total around 600 members. Some of these are automatically members by virtue of their position, such as the Speaker of the House of Commons. Most Privy Counsellors are appointed for life, but they can be removed or resign if they wish.

Meetings of the Council are usually a formality, with every item of business that comes before it already approved, having gone through Parliament or a committee before arriving at the monthly meeting. Meetings consist of only four members of the Council, including the Lord President who formally heads the meetings. The full Council meets on just two occasions when the monarch dies to appoint his or her successor and when the monarch gets married.

While the Privy Council may be past the peak of its power, it still has an important role to play, making sure that The Queen has her say.

Photo credit: A Privy Council via flickr (license)