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Privy Council

Privy Council. The Royal or Privy Council originated in the Curia Regis, which during the Norman period exercised judicial, legislative, and administrative functions. Its functions were afterwards differentiated, thus giving rise to the Courts of Exchequer, King's Bench, and Common Pleas on the one hand, and the Royal Council on the other. The process by which the latter arose was, however, gradual. Thus in 1178 Henry II. referred difficult judicial or financial cases to a small circle of "sapientes" or councillors. A council of this description exercised large but vague powers during the minority of Henry III., and, after maintaining its existence throughout his reign, became the Council of Regency during Edward I.'s absence in Palestine. The powers of the Council constantly increased, though not without occasional protests on the part of the Commons. The right of nominating the members acquired by Parliament under the Lancastrian kings is a constitutional landmark, since it was intended to put a check on the abuse of the royal prerogative. It was at this time that the name "Privy Council" came into use. In 1437 Henry VI. restored the nomination of members to the Crown, and from the reign of his successor till the Puritan revolution the Council continued to be an instrument of arbitrary government in the hands of the sovereign. Even in judicial matters it was invested with extraordinary powers at variance with the common lawr, and out of it grew arbitrary tribunals such as the Star Chamber (q.v.)and the Court of High Commission. Its judicial functions ivere curtailed by the Long Parliament (16 Car. L, c. 10), and, having become unmanageable through the large number of its members, it was superseded towards the close of the 17th century by an informal cabal, composed of "cabinet councillors." After the definite recognition of Cabinet government by William III., the Privy Council in its corporate capacity practically became obsolete. Regarded in that light it is merely a dignified body into which all politicians of mark are admitted, with the title of Right Honourable. Use, however, is still made of the Council to facilitate the transaction of public business. The Board of Trade was at first one of its committees, and the origin of the Local Government Board and the Board of Agriculture, to each of which duties previously discharged by the Council have been transferred, is virtually the same. The Education Department is still a committee of this kind, the Minister of Education being technically Vice-President of a Committee of Council. The Judicial Committee of the Council is really a court of law with special powers, which include the decision of appeals from colonial and from ecclesiastical courts.