“During the reigns of the Norman monarchs, the English Crown was advised by a royal court, which consisted of magnates, clergy and officers of the Crown. This body originally concerned itself with advising the Sovereign on legislation, administration and justice. Later, different bodies assuming distinct functions evolved from the court. The courts of law took over the business of dispensing justice, while Parliament became the supreme legislature of the kingdom. Nevertheless, the Council retained the power to hear legal disputes, either in the first instance or on appeal. Furthermore, laws made by the Sovereign on the advice of the Council, rather than on the advice of Parliament, were accepted as valid.
Powerful Sovereigns often used the body to circumvent the courts and Parliament. For example, a committee of the Council — which later became the Court of the Star Chamber — was during the fifteenth century permitted to inflict any punishment except death, without being bound by normal court procedure. During Henry VIII‘s reign, the Sovereign, on the advice of the Council, was allowed to enact laws by mere proclamation. The legislative pre-eminence of Parliament was not restored until after Henry VIII’s death. Though the royal Council retained legislative and judicial responsibilities, it became a primarily administrative body. The Council consisted of forty members in 1553, but the Sovereign relied on a smaller committee, which later evolved into the modern Cabinet.
The Council developed significantly during the reign of Elizabeth I (see image) gaining political experience, so that there were real differences between the Privy Council of the 1560s and that of the 1600s.
By the end of the English Civil War, the monarchy, House of Lords and Privy Council had been abolished. The remaining house of Parliament, the House of Commons, instituted a Council of State to execute laws and to direct administrative policy. The forty-one members of the Council were elected by the Commons; the body was headed by Oliver Cromwell, the de facto military dictator of the nation. In 1653, however, Cromwell became Lord Protector, and the Council was reduced to between thirteen and twenty-one members, all elected by the Commons. In 1657, the Commons granted Cromwell even greater powers, some of which were reminiscent of those enjoyed by monarchs. The Council became known as the Protector’s Privy Council; its members were appointed by the Lord Protector, subject to Parliament’s approval.
In 1659, shortly before the restoration of the monarchy, the Protector’s Council was abolished. Charles II restored the royal Privy Council, but he, like previous Stuart monarchs, chose to rely on a small committee of advisers.
The Acts of Union 1707 united England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain, replacing the Privy Councils of both countries with a single body, the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
According to the Oxford dictionary the definition of the word “privy” in Privy Council is an obsolete one meaning “Of or pertaining exclusively to a particular person or persons; one’s own“, insofar as the Council is personal to the Sovereign.”