What Happens At The Accession Council?

Although the King inherited the crown the moment his mother died, today’s Accession Council marks one of the first constitutional milestones of his reign. In this post, I’ll look at what’s likely to happen during the ceremony.

Before 1603, the new monarch would issue a proclamation announcing their accession to the kingdom.[1] But James I and VI was in Scotland when he succeeded Elizabeth I, so a council of grandees took responsibility for making the necessary proclamation. This practice has prevailed ever since, though Charles II was proclaimed by both Houses of Parliament following the restoration of the monarchy.[2] Today, the Accession Proclamation is an exception to the normal rule that proclamations are made by the sovereign acting on the advice of their Privy Council.

Traditionally, every Privy Counsellor would be summoned to the Accession Council, but this time attendance will be limited to around 200. For the first time in history, the proceedings will be broadcast to the public. The Council itself consists of two parts.

Part I is attended by Privy Counsellors (including the Queen Consort and the Duke of Cornwall and Cambridge), representatives of the City of London, Commonwealth High Commissioners, and certain other officials. However, the King will not attend. The main item on the agenda will be approving the Accession Proclamation, but the Council will also make a number of Orders related to the dissemination of the proclamation and the firing of gun salutes.[3] Leading figures will then sign the Accession Proclamation.

Part II will be attended by the King. This will be his first Privy Council meeting and so it will only be attended by Privy Counsellors. The King will make a personal declaration and then he will take an Oath relating to the security of the Church of Scotland. He will then sign two copies of the Oath—one will go to Scotland to be preserved in the Court of Session’s Book of Sederunt while the other will be added to the Privy Council’s records. The King in Council will then make a number of Orders relating to administrative matters such as the continued use of the late Sovereign’s seals.[4] Remaining attendees will sign the Accession Proclamation, which will then be read at various places throughout the United Kingdom.

Normally, the Lord President of the Council plays a leading role in both parts of the Council. However, that role is technically vacant at the moment. Although the late Queen approved Penny Mordaunt’s appointment, she died before she could make the necessary declaration in Council. It will be interesting to see if this leads to any changes in the ceremonial.   

[1] Examples of various Accession Proclamations through the ages can be found here.

[2] There had been attempts to proclaim him following his father’s execution, but their efficacy was disputed.

[3] Because they are made by the Council itself without the Sovereign’s involvement, they are Orders of Council rather than Orders in Council.

[4] An Order will even be made for the Privy Seal even though it hasn’t been used for anything since the 19th century.

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2 Responses to What Happens At The Accession Council?

  1. Froghole says:

    Many thanks. Have just watched it, and its screening is an interesting historical document in its own right, given that it has never before been recorded (though one or two routine privy council meetings have been filmed over 30 years’ ago). The only pictorial records have been paintings, such as that by David Wilkie of Victoria’s accession council.

    It is interesting that ballots were taken of the members of the council, it having swelled considerably in size in recent decades (due to lavish appointments within parliament and the great increase in the size of the Court of Appeal), though the aristocratic and Commonwealth elements have declined significantly. P. J. Patterson – for example – resigning from it in recent weeks; I suspect that most of the Anglophone Caribbean will shift to republican constitutions within a matter of months or a few years, along with Australia, where the reputation of the crown has never recovered from the dismissal.

    It was also interesting to see how some of the proclamations (for example, of the oath to preserve the Church of Scotland) were signed by only a few privy councillors, whilst the proclamations in the second part were being signed by a great many. As it happens, the Kirk, which is very modestly endowed, is undergoing drastic upheaval at present via the Radical Action Plan, approved by the General Assembly in 2019, which is resulting in vast numbers of ancient parishes being liquidated, along with a significant number of presbyteries. One of the proximate reasons for this great rationalisation was the refusal of the devolved administration to make up the loss of income for the support of church buildings when Heritage Lottery subventions were reduced in 2016. Therefore, quite what the oath to ‘protect’ the rapidly declining Kirk actually means in practice, is moot.

    The other thing which interested me was the reference to the continued use of the late sovereign’s seals. My understanding is that the seals, and the matrices for those seals, are broken on the demise of the crown, and it will be interesting to see whether that will happen this time.

    Oh, and the other thing, is how very much more scruffy almost everyone is (including the earl marshal, the clerk to the council and certain of the heralds), compared to 1952 or previous accessions!

    Many thanks again.

    • Froghole says:

      Sorry, there were a couple of other thing, which is that during the first part of the council, the declaration was signed, in the following order, by the ‘witnesses’: Prince of Wales, the Queen (whom everyone seems to be calling ‘queen consort’), the [lord] president, the prime minister, the two archbishops, the lord chancellor, the lord privy seal, the president of the Supreme Court, and the earl marshal. So, it was not quite in accordance with my understanding of the order/warrant of precedence: the Queen should presumably have come before her stepson; the archbishops and lord chancellor should have come before the lord president and prime minister, the lord chancellor should have come between the two archbishops, the president of the Supreme Court should have come before the lord privy seal. This is, of course, a petty point, but such pettiness can sometimes be revealing of perceived relative status.

      Also, it was interesting to see the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, being prominent, although he has not been sworn of the council, and is not a member of the household, etc. In 1952 Sir Norman Brook (unlike Lord Hankey) was not clerk to the council, and had not yet been sworn of the council; I wonder whether he had been asked to attend: he certainly did not sign (https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/39458/supplement/757, though I spotted a couple of individuals who were not on the council: Sir Frank Newsam, permanent under-secretary at the Home Office, and Krishna Menon, high commissioner for India). If Brook had not been invited, then Mr Case’s presence affirms the significant development in the constitutional status of the secretary of the cabinet and head of the home civil service since 1952.

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