Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, usually known simply as the Privy Council, is a formal body of advisers to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom. Its membership mainly comprises senior politicians, who are current or former members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
The Privy Council formally advises the sovereign on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative, and corporately (as Queen-in-Council) it issues executive instruments known as Orders in Council, which among other powers enact Acts of Parliament. The Council also holds the delegated authority to issue Orders of Council, mostly used to regulate certain public institutions. The Council advises the sovereign on the issuing of Royal Charters, which are used to grant special status to incorporated bodies, and city or borough status to local authorities. Otherwise, the Privy Council's powers have now been largely replaced by its executive committee, the Cabinet of the United Kingdom.
Certain judicial functions are also performed by the Queen-in-Council, although in practice its actual work of hearing and deciding upon cases is carried out day-to-day by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Judicial Committee consists of senior judges appointed as Privy Counsellors: predominantly Justices of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and senior judges from the Commonwealth. The Privy Council formerly acted as the High Court of Appeal for the entire British Empire (other than for the United Kingdom itself), and continues to hear appeals from the Crown Dependencies, the British Overseas Territories, and some independent Commonwealth states.
The Privy Council of the United Kingdom was preceded by the Privy Council of Scotland and the Privy Council of England. The key events in the formation of the modern Privy Council are given below:
In Anglo-Saxon England, Witenagemot was an early equivalent to the Privy Council of England. During the reigns of the Norman monarchs, the English Crown was advised by a royal court or curia regis, 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 15th century permitted to inflict any punishment except death, without being bound by normal court procedure. 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 consisted of forty members in 1553, but the sovereign relied on a smaller committee, which later evolved into the modern Cabinet.
By the end of the English Civil War, the monarchy, House of Lords, and Privy Council had been abolished. The remaining parliamentary chamber, 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 House of Commons; the body was headed by Oliver Cromwell, 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 group of advisers. Under George I even more power transferred to this committee. It now began to meet in the absence of the sovereign, communicating its decisions to him after the fact.