When I was going through my inbox, I discovered a question from the contact form that Gmail had squirreled away. Adrian wrote:
WTF is the lord privy seal?
As my loyal readers know, the office of Lord Privy Seal (or, to give the full title, ‘Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal’) has been in the news lately, for it was unexpectedly given to the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, as part of David Cameron’s shambolic reshuffle.
The Privy Seal used to be the Monarch’s private seal. Originally, the Sovereign used one seal–the Great Seal–for all purposes. But as the government of England became more official and less personal, Kings saw a need for a separate seal that could be used independently of the Great Seal and the Chancellor who had custody of it.1 The result was the Privy Seal, and its personal connection with the Monarch was underscored by the fact that it was held by the Controller of the King’s Wardrobe. This allowed the King to act expeditiously, without getting bogged down by the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Chancery or the Exchequer.2
Of course, not everyone liked the idea of the King having greater administrative freedom. In the reign of Edward II, the magnates tried to impose a series of Ordinances3 on the King, and one of the requirements was that custody of the Privy Seal be transferred from the Controller of the Wardrobe to a separate official appointed by the King with the concurrence of the barons in Parliament. This eventually led to the creation of the office of Lord Privy Seal. This small transfer of power can be seen as a harbinger of things to come–placing limits on the use of the King’s seal helped set the stage for later notions of responsible government.
For many centuries, the Privy Seal played a key role in the administrative process since a Writ of Privy Seal was required before the Lord Chancellor could affix the Great Seal to a document. But the whole procedure for passing documents under the Great Seal was so breathtakingly byzantine4 that the government decided to simplify it in the late nineteenth century. Section 3 of the Great Seal Act 1884 (47 & 48 Vict. c. 30) effectively consigned the Privy Seal to desuetude by providing that “[i]t shall not be necessary that any instrument shall after the passing of this Act be passed under the Privy Seal.”Despite these reforms, the office of Lord Privy Seal survived as a sinecure. Since the premiership of Clement Attlee, it has been customary to give the position to either the Leader of the Commons or the Leader of the Lords. This is because those offices aren’t recognized by the law, and so they aren’t entitled to a salary. The Lord Privy Seal, on the other hand, does receive a salary (see schedule 1 of the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 [1975 c. 27]). Instead of amending the law so it reflects modern political realities, successive governments have continued to use the office of Lord Privy Seal and other sinecures to pay their ministers. Why do they do this, you ask? Well, this is Britain…
So there’s your answer, Adrian. I’m sorry it took so long for me to respond, and I hope you didn’t need it for pub trivia or a school report!
4 A good outline of the process may be found in S. R. Scargill-Bird, A Guide to the Various Classes of Documents Preserved in the Public Record Office, 3rd ed. (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1908), 81-82.