Slimming Down The Accession Council

The Daily Mail recently reported that only 200 Privy Counsellors will be invited to the next Accession Council. Typically, Council meetings are only attended by three or four Privy Counsellors drawn from the government of the day, but the Accession Council was one of two occasions when the full Council would be summoned.[1] Under the new plans, Cabinet ministers, ex-Prime Ministers, senior judges, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will be guaranteed invites, but other Privy Counsellors will have to enter a ballot if they wish to attend.

According to a letter from the Clerk of the Council quoted in the article, the reduced guest list is necessary “to deliver the first high-profile event of the King’s reign to the high presentational and safety standards required of the occasion.”

This change hasn’t been well received in some quarters. An anonymous ‘senior Privy Counsellor’ groused to the Mail that “'[i]t is utterly wrong to ban the great majority of Privy Counsellors from what is the most important meeting they will ever attend. Frankly, the whole thing is undignified.”

It’s worth remembering that the Accession Council is a purely ceremonial affair. By law, the monarch inherits the Crown the moment their predecessor dies, so the holding of the Accession Council is simply a matter of tradition. While I understand why some Privy Counsellors would be disappointed not to attend, inviting everyone seems like it could be a logistical nightmare. The Council is far larger than it used to be. In 1952, 191 Privy Counsellors attended the first part of the Council and 175 attended the second part.[2] If everyone showed up to Charles’ Accession Council, there would be over 700 people in attendance. The fact that Privy Counsellors from outside the government of the day will still attend (albeit in fewer numbers) seems like a common-sense way to honor the spirit of the occasion while keeping things manageable.

The Mail suggests that the slimmed-down guest list might be part of a move to publicly broadcast the Accession Council for the first time. If that comes to pass, it will be a welcome development. The Queen’s reign has seen the Monarchy become more and more accessible to the general public. The presentation of high-society debutants was replaced by garden parties attended by a wider cross section of society, and walkabouts have become a staple of visits that were once dominated by receiving lines of local worthies. Broadcasting the Accession Council seems like a logical next step. After all, the whole point of these proceedings is to formally announce the sovereign’s accession to the nation, so letting the public see as much of the ceremony as possible would be a sensible move.

[1] The other occasion is when a sovereign announces their intent to marry. However, this tradition may be a Victorian innovation, as I haven’t been able to find evidence of it before Queen Victoria announced her engagement to Prince Albert.

[2] The first part of the Council is conducted without the sovereign present and includes representatives of the City of London and Commonwealth High Commissioners. The main business is the making of the Accession Proclamation. The second part is the monarch’s first Privy Council, and it’s only attended by Privy Counsellors. Among other things, the sovereign takes an oath regarding the security of the Church of Scotland and issues a slew of administrative Orders (e.g., authorizing the continued use of their predecessor’s seals until new ones can be approved).

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2 Responses to Slimming Down The Accession Council

  1. richgreenhill says:

    Am I right in thinking that, while the term “Accession Council” dates only to 1901, the practice dates to the delicate accession (in absentia) of James I, and has been maintained ever since?

    Footnote [1] provokes the intriguing question of why it is invariably said nowadays that the entire Privy Council membership is summoned on – and only on – the demise of the crown and the announcement of the sovereign’s intention to marry.

    Curiosity aroused, am surprised to find no evidence of the above formulation before the mid(?) 20th century.

    While late-Victorian publications indeed refer to Victoria’s 1839 betrothal announcement as the (then) most recent example of a full Privy Council, they glaringly fail to state that summonses to all members were in any circumstance required by convention.

    Rather, Maitland (lecturing in 1888, printed 1909) merely speculates: “Possibly a formal meeting of the whole Privy Council would be summoned at the beginning of a new reign” (Edward VII’s 1901 full meeting is duly footnoted). Maitland goes on to observe: “A full meeting was held in 1839 when the queen’s approaching marriage was announced.” But nothing more general is deduced.

    Similarly, Ewald (1870) notes the example of 1839 without inferring any general rule, let alone asserting that the full council should always be convened on betrothal or accession

    Almost as vague, Todd (1889): “On extraordinary occasions, the ministers determine to whom the summonses shall be addressed. The whole council is rarely convoked; the last time it was called together was on November 23, 1839, to receive her Majesty’s declaration of her intended marriage. On this occasion eighty-three privy councillors were present.” (On the previous page, Todd states that “Upon ordinary occasions, Privy Council summonses might be sent [only] to the ministers, the great officers of the household, and to the archbishop of Canterbury.” cf Turner (1927), who calculates that of the 30 PC meetings in mid-1613, the lord privy seal and the chancellor of the exchequer each attended 29, the archbishop of Canterbury being the next keenest, attending 27. “Some of the other [twenty-three] members never came….” At least Canterbury remains on today’s A list for accessions, even if he is otherwise now uninvited.)

    Echoed by Chambers’s Encyclopædia (1896): “In ordinary cases only the ministers, the great officers of the Household, and the Archbishop of Canterbury are summoned; but on some extraordinary occasions summonses are sent to the whole council.” 1839 then given as an example.

    So it indeed took until the past century for a pattern to be perceived. Whether or not that perception is consistent with earlier precedents, it seems to have crystallised with a fixedness that, like many ancient traditions, is ahistorical if not illusory.

    • jasonloch says:

      Yes, the accession of James I was the first time that the Council proclaimed a new monarch. Before that, the new sovereign proclaimed their own accession.

      The information you’ve turned up is quite interesting. One wonders if the advent of modern methods of communication and transportation didn’t help crystallize the practice.

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