Great Offices Of State vs. Great Officers Of State

When Sajid Javid was appointed Home Secretary, he became the first person of color to hold one of the Great Offices of State. However, he is not the first person of color to be a Great Officer of State–that honor goes to Baroness Amos, who served as Lord President of the Council from 2003-2007. Confused? Let me explain.

The Great Offices of State are the four most senior political offices in England and Wales. They are:

  • the Prime Minister;
  • the Chancellor of the Exchequer;
  • the Foreign Secretary; and
  • the Home Secretary.

It’s exceedingly rare for anyone to hold all four offices. So far, James Callaghan is the only one to have done so. But six individuals have held three of the offices,[1] and two people held multiple offices simultaneously.[2] Nowadays, the primacy of the House of Commons means that Great Offices of state are invariably held by MPs rather than peers, though this is not a legal requirement.[3]

The Great Officers of State, on the other hand, are an eclectic assortment of politicians and courtiers, including:[4]

  • the Lord High Steward; [5]
  • the Lord High Chancellor;
  • the Lord High Treasurer;
  • the Lord President of the Council;
  • the Lord Privy Seal;
  • the Lord Great Chamberlain;[6]
  • the Lord High Constable;
  • the Earl Marshal; and
  • the Lord High Admiral.

Three of these offices are usually vacant. The Lord High Steward and Lord High Constable are only appointed for a coronation, while the office of Lord High Treasurer has been placed in commission since 1714 (incidentally, the Prime Minister is one of these commissioners, which is why she is formally styled ‘First Lord of the Treasury’).

The Lord High Chancellor has custody of the Great Seal and is formally responsible for preparing and sealing official documents such as Letters Patent and Royal Proclamations.[7] He also advises the Queen on certain judicial appointments and exercises a portion of the Crown’s ecclesiastical patronage in her name.[8] The Lord High Chancellor performs a range of statutory functions as well, such as certifying the sovereign’s incapacity under the Regency Act 1937. Since 2007, the position of Lord High Chancellor has been combined with that of Secretary of State for Justice.

Aside from the Lord High Chancellor, the other Great Officers of State have sinecure jobs. I’ve discussed the offices of Lord President and the Lord Privy Seal elsewhere, but while neither job is particularly onerous, they do receive salaries under the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975. Nowadays, these offices are usually given to the Leader of the Commons or the Leader of the Lords since those positions have no statutory basis.[9]

The Lord Great Chamberlain oversees those portions of the Palace of Westminster that aren’t under the control of either House of Parliament (e.g., the Sovereign’s Robing Room and the Royal Gallery); he also oversees Westminster Hall and the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft along with the Speakers of both Houses.[10] He also plays a role in the State Opening of Parliament.[11] The office is hereditary, and the current occupant is the Marquess of Cholmondeley.[12] Because of his parliamentary duties, the Lord Great Chamberlain retained an automatic seat in the House of Lords after the rest of the hereditary peers were removed in 1999.

The Earl Marshal serves as a sort of national master of ceremonies, organizing events such as coronations, state funerals, and the State Opening of Parliament. He also serves as head of the College of Arms, but while his name appears on all grants of arms, the day-to-day work of the College is done by the heralds. Like the Lord Great Chamberlain, the post of Earl Marshal is hereditary, and it has been held by the Howard family since 1672. The Earl Marshal also remains a member of the House of Lords even though he is a hereditary peer.

The Lord High Admiral is the titular head of the Royal Navy. In recent years, the office was often put into commission like the office of Lord High Treasurer, but in 1964 it was taken out of commission and assumed by the Queen. She held the post until 2011, at which point she conferred it on the Duke of Edinburgh to mark his ninetieth birthday.

While most of the Great Officers of State have little political power nowadays, they nevertheless sit near the top of the official Order of Precedence for England and Wales. In fact, the Lord High Steward and the Lord High Chancellor even outrank the Prime Minister! So from a purely honorific standpoint, the Lord Presidency of the Council remains the highest office achieved by a person of color to date.

NOTES

[1] Herbert Henry Asquith and Winston Churchill were both Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, and Prime Minister, while Harold Macmillan and John Major were Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, and Prime Minister. Rab Butler and Sir John Simon served as Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary.

[2] Ramsay MacDonald combined the offices of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, while the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary all at once, albeit for less than a month.

[3] The most recent exception to this rule occurred when Lord Carrington served as Foreign Secretary from 1979-1982.

[4] Scotland has its own Great Officers of State.

[5] Not to be confused with the Lord Steward, who is a current member of the Royal Household.

[6] Not to be confused with the Lord Chamberlain, who serves as the head of the Royal Household.

[7] In practice, these functions are delegated to the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery and the staff of the Crown Office.

[8] Most of these posts are parochial appointments. The Lord High Chancellor’s portion of the Crown’s ecclesiastical patronage is determined by the value of the benefice in 1535. If it was less than £20 per year, the Lord Chancellor makes the appointment in the Queen’s name, but if it was over that amount, Her Majesty makes the appointment on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Both the Lord High Chancellor and the Prime Minister are in turn advised by the Cabinet Office’s Honors and Appointments Secretariat.

[9] In a coalition government, the leader of the minor party will often become Lord President since the post of Deputy Prime Minister also lacks a statutory basis. Most recently, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg served as Lord President during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015.

[10] As the name implies, the Palace of Westminster is technically a royal palace. Until 1965, the Lord Great Chamberlain exercised oversight of the whole building.

[11] Most notably, he takes part in the Royal Procession and commands the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to summon the Commons.

[12] Technically, the office is held in gross, which means the office is actually held by multiple individuals. Everyone who holds a fraction of the office is nominally ‘Joint Hereditary Lord Great Chamberlain,’ but only one person exercises the office at any one time. Since the Marquesses of Cholmondeley hold the largest share of the office (½), they act as Lord Great Chamberlain every other reign. Otherwise, it is exercised by someone from one of the other families with shares in the office.

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