Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769)
Sir William Blackstone
Of the Councils Belonging to the King
THE third point of view, in which we are to consider the king, is with regard to his councils. For, in order to assist him in the discharge of his duties, the maintenance of his dignity, and the exertion of his prerogative, the law has assigned him a diversity of councils to advise with.
1. THE first of these is the high court of parliament, whereof we have already treated at large.
2. SECONDLY, the peers of the realm are by their birth hereditary counselors of the crown, and may be called together by the king to impart their advice in all matters of importance to the realm, either in time of parliament, or, which has been their principal use, when there is no parliament in being.1 Accordingly Bracton,2 speaking of the nobility of his time, says they might properly be called consules, a consulendo; reges enim tales sibi associant ad consulendum.” [“Counsellors, from consulting; for kings assemble such for consultation.”] And in our law books3 it is laid down, that peers are created for two reasons; 1. Ad consulendum, 2. Ad defendendum, regem [for advising and defending the king]: for which reasons the law gives them certain great and high privileges; such as freedom from arrests, etc, even when no parliament is sitting: because the law intends, that they are always assisting the king with their counsel for the commonwealth; for keeping the realm in safety by their prowess and valor.
INSTANCES of conventions of the peers, to advise the king, have been in former times very frequent; though now fallen into disuse, by reason of the more regular meetings of parliament. Sir Edward Coke4 gives us an extract of a record, 5 Hen. IV, concerning an exchange of lands between the king and the earl of Northumberland, wherein the value of each was agreed to be settled by advice of parliament (if any should be called before the feast of St Lucia) or otherwise by advice of the grand council (of peers) which the king promises to assemble before the said feast, in case no parliament shall be called. Many other instances of this king of meeting are to be found under our ancient kings: though the formal method of convoking them had been so long left off, that when king Charles I in 1640 issued out writs under the great seal to call a great council of all the peers of England to meet and attend his majesty at York, previous to the meeting of the long parliament, the earl of Clarendon5 mentions it as a new invention, not before heard of; that is, as he explains himself, so old, that it had not been practiced in some hundreds of years. But, though there had not so long before been an instance, nor has there been any since, of assembling them in so solemn a manner, yet, in cases of emergency, our princes have at several times thought proper to call for and consult as many of the nobility as could easily be got together: as was particularly the case with king James the second, after the landing of the prince of Orange; and with the prince of Orange himself, before he called that convention parliament, which afterwards called him to the throne.
BESIDES this general meeting, it is usually looked upon to be the right of each particular peer of the realm, to demand an audience of the king, and to lay before him, with decency and respect, such matters as he shall judge of importance to the public weal. And therefore, in the reign of Edward II, it was made an article of impeachment in parliament against the two Hugh Spencers, father and son, for which they were banished the kingdom, “that they by their evil covin [deceit] would not suffer the great men of the realm, the king’s good counselors, to speak with the king, or to come near him; but only in the presence and hearing of the said Hugh the father and Hugh the son, or one of them, and at their will, and according to such things as pleased them.”6
3. A THIRD council belonging the king, are, according to Sir Edward Coke,7 his judges of the courts of law, for law matters. And this appears frequently in our statutes, particularly 14 Ed. III. c. 5. and in other books of law. So that when the king’s council is mentioned generally, it must be defined, particularized, and understood, secundum subjectam materiam [according to the subject matter]; and, if the subject be of a legal nature, then by the king’s council is understood his council for matters of law; namely, his judges. Therefore when by statute 16 Ric. II. c. 5. it was made a high offense to import into this kingdom any papal bulls, or other processes from Rome; and it was enacted, that the offenders should be attached by their bodies, and brought before the king and his council to answer for such offense; here, by the expression of king’s council, were understood the king’s judges of his courts of justice, the subject matter being legal: this being the general way of interpreting the word, council.8
4. BUT the principal council belonging to the king is his privy council, which is generally called, by way of eminence, the council. And this, according to Sir Edward Coke’s description of it,9 is a noble, honorable, and reverend assembly, of the king and such as he wills to be of his privy council, in the king’s court or place. The king’s will is the sole constituent of a privy counselor; and this also regulates their number, which of ancient time was twelve or thereabouts. Afterwards it increased to so large a number, that it was found inconvenient for secrecy and dispatch; and therefore king Charles the second in 1679 limited it to thirty: whereof fifteen were to be the principal officers of state, and those to be counselors, virtute officii [by virtue of office]; and the other fifteen were composed of ten lords and five commoners of the king’s choosing.10 But since that time the number has been much augmented, and now continues indefinite. At the same time also, the ancient office of lord president of the council was revived in the person of Anthony earl of Shaftsbury; an officer, that by the statute of 31 Hen. VIII. c. 10. has precedence next after the lord chancellor and lord treasurer.
PRIVY counselors are made by the king’s nomination, without either patent or grant; and, on taking the necessary oaths, they become immediately privy counselors during the life of the king that chooses them, but subject to removal at his discretion.
THE duty of a privy counselor appears from the oath of office,11 which consists of seven articles: 1. To advise the king according to the best of his cunning and discretion. 2. To advise for the king’s honor and good of the public, without partiality through affection, love, need, doubt, or dread. 3. To keep the king’s counsel secret. 4. To avoid corruption. 5. To help and strengthen the execution of what shall be there resolved. 6. To withstand all persons who would attempt the contrary. And, lastly, in general, 7. To observe, keep, and do all that a good and true counselor ought to do to his sovereign lord.
THE power of the privy council is to inquire into all offenses against the government, and to commit the offenders into custody, in order to take their trial in some of the courts of law. But their jurisdiction is only to inquire, and not to punish: and the persons committed by them are entitled to their habeas corpus by statute 16 Car. I. c. 10. as much as if committed by an ordinary justice of the peace. And, by the same statute, the court of starchamber, and the court of requests, both of which consisted of privy counselors, were dissolved; and it was declared illegal for them to take cognizance of any matter of property, belonging to the subjects of this kingdom. But, in plantation or admiralty causes, which arise out of the jurisdiction of this kingdom, and in matters of lunacy and idiocy (being a special flower of the prerogative) with regard to these, although they may eventually involve questions of extensive property, the privy council continues to have cognizance, being the court of appeal in such causes: or, rather, the appeal lies to the king’s majesty himself, assisted by his privy council.
Whenever also a question arises between two provinces in America or elsewhere, as concerning the extent of their charters and the like, the king in his council exercises original jurisdiction therein, upon the principles of feudal sovereignty. And so likewise when any person claims an island or a province, in the nature of a feudal principality, by grant from the king or his ancestors, the determination of that right belongs to his majesty in council: as was the case of the earl of Derby with regard to the isle of Man in the reign of queen Elizabeth, and of the earl of Cardigan and others, as representatives of the duke of Montague, with relation to the island of St. Vincent in 1764. But from all the dominions of the crown, excepting Great Britain and Ireland, an appellate jurisdiction (in the last resort) is vested in the same tribunal; which usually exercises its judicial authority in a committee of the whole privy council, who hear the allegations and proofs, and make their report to his majesty in council, by whom the judgment is finally given.
AS to the qualifications of members to sit at this board: any natural born subject of England is capable of being a member of the privy council; taking the proper oaths for security of the government, and the test for security of the church. But, in order to prevent any persons under foreign attachments from insinuating themselves into this important trust, as happened in the reign of king William in many instances, it is enacted by the act of settlement,12 that no person born out of the dominions of the crown of England, unless born of English parents, even though naturalized by parliament, shall be capable of being of the privy council.
THE privileges of privy counselors, as such, consist principally in the security which the law has given them against attempts and conspiracies to destroy their lives. For, by statute 3 Hen. VII. c. 14. if any of the king’s servants, of his household, conspire or imagine to take away the life of a privy counselor, it is felony, though nothing be done upon it. And the reason of making this statute, Sir Edward Coke13 tells us, was because such servants have greater and readier means, either by night or by day, to destroy such as be of great authority, and near about the king: and such a conspiracy was, just before this parliament, made by some of king Henry the seventh’s household servants, and great mischief was like to have ensued thereupon. This extends only to the king’s menial servants. But the statute 9 Ann. c. 16. goes farther, and enacts, that any persons that shall unlawfully attempt to kill, or shall unlawfully assault, and strike, or wound, any privy counselor in the execution of his office, shall be felons, and suffer death as such. This statute was made upon the daring attempt of the sieur Guiscard, who stabbed Mr. Harley, afterwards earl of Oxford, with a penknife, when under examination for high crimes in a committee of the privy council.
THE dissolution of the privy council depends upon the king’s pleasure; and he may, whenever he thinks proper, discharge any particular member, or the whole of it, and appoint another. By the common law also it was dissolved ipso facto [by that fact] by the king’s demise; as deriving all its authority from him. But now, to prevent the inconveniences of having no council in being at the accession of a new prince, it is enacted by statute 6 Ann. c. 7. that the privy council shall continue for six months after the demise of the crown, unless sooner determined by the successor.
1. Co. Litt. 110.
2. l. 1. c. 8.
3. 7 Rep. 34. 9 Rep. 49. 12 Rep. 96.
4. 1 Inst. 110.
5. hist. b. 2.
6. 4 Inst. 53.
7. 1 Inst. 110.
8. 3 Inst. 125.
9. 4 Inst. 53.
10. Temple’s Mem. part 3.
11. 4 Inst. 54.
12. Stat. 12 & 13 W. III. c. 2.
13. 3 Inst. 38.