1902 Encyclopedia > Great Officers of State

Great Officers of State




GREAT OFFICERS OF STATE. All the principal ministers of the British crown are popularly called the great officers of state. Under this designation are more or less accurately included the premier for the time being, the other members of the cabinet, and the leading functionaries of the court. But properly speaking the great offices of state are only nine in number, and it is to the holders of them alone that the description of "the great officers of state" strictly and distinctively applies. They are the lord high steward, the lord high chancellor, the lord high treasurer, the lord-president of the privy council, the lord-keeper of the privy seal, the lord great chamberlain, the lord high constable, the earl marshal, and the lord high admiral. Of these, three—the lord chancellor, the lord-president of the council, and the lord privy seal— are the first and second always and the third almost always cabinet ministers. The offices of two more—those of the lord treasurer and the high admiral—are now executed by commission, the chief of the lords commissioners, known severally as the first lord of the treasury and the first lord of the admiralty, being likewise members of the cabinet, while the first lord of the treasury is usually at the head of the Government. But, although it has become the rule for the treasury and the admiralty to be put in commission, there is nothing except usage of longer or shorter duration to prevent the crown from making a personal appointment to either of them, and the functions which formerly appertained to the lord treasurer and the high admiral are still regularly performed in the established course of the national administration. The four offices of the high steward, the great chamberlain, the high constable, and the earl marshal stand on a different footing, and can be regarded at the present day as little else than survivals from an earlier condition of society. They have practically ceased to have any relation to the ordinary routine of business in the country or of ceremonial in the palace, and the duties associated with them have either passed entirely into abeyance or are restricted within extremely narrow limits, save on certain occasions of exceptional pomp and solemnity. All of them were once hereditary, and, taking the three kingdoms together, they or their counterparts and equivalents continue to be held by right of inheritance in one or other of them even now. The prince of Wales is the hereditary great steward of Scotland, and the earl of Shrewsbury is the hereditary grand seneschal of Ireland. The great chamberlainship of England is held jointly by Lady Willoughby de Eresby and Lord Carrington on the one part and on the other part by the marquis of Cholmondeley. The hereditary high constable of Scotland is the earl of Erroll, and the hereditary earl marshal of England is the duke of Norfolk. It is of the great offices of the steward, the chamberlain, the constable, and the marshal that we shall at present speak, the rest of those we have mentioned being dealt with under their proper headings, or in the articles CABINET, MINISTRY, PRIVY COUNCIL, and ROYAL HOUSEHOLD.





Lord high steward. The lord high steward of England ranks as the first of the great officers of state. His office is called out of abeyance by commission under the great seal only for coronations and for trials by the House of Lords. At the former he bears the crown of St Edward immediately before the sovereign in the procession to Westminster Abbey, and he presides at the latter on the arraignment of a peer or a peeress for treason or felony. From the reign of Richard II. to that of Henry VII. it was the duty of the lord high, steward to sit judicially in the court of claims to hear and determine all claims to render services of grand serjeanty to the king or queen at his or her coronation. Since the accession of the house of Tudor, however, this function has generally been discharged by a specially appointed commission, or a committee of the privy council. According to the tradition once current among lawyers and antiquaries, the steward of England was, under the Norman and Angevin kings, the second personage in the realm, the viceroy in the absence and the chief minister in the presence of the sovereign. Coke says, on the more than doubtful authority of an ancient manuscript, that his office was to superintend under the king and next after the king the whole kingdom and all the ministers of the law within the kingdom in time of both peace and war. But of this there is no satisfactory evidence. It is not improbable that the steward of England may for a short period after the Conquest have occupied a position analogous to that of the Saxon heah-gerefa or that of the Norman seneschal, or of the two in combination. But, as Stubbs points out, the chief minister and occasional viceroy, either alone or with others, of the Conqueror and his earlier successors was the person to whom the historians and the later constitutional writers give the name of justiciarius with or without the prefix "summus" or "capitalis." He adds that most likely the Norman seneschalship was the origin of the English justiciarship, that under Henry II. the seneschal of Normandy receives the name of justiciar, and that it is only in the same reign that the office in England acquires the exclusive right to the definite name of "summus" or "capitalis justitiarius" or "justitiarius totius Anglias." But whatever may have been his original condition the steward had been by that time at the latest eclipsed in his most important functions by the justiciar, and he makes, as Stubbs observes, in his official capacity no great figure in English history. By the reign of Henry II. at any rate all connexion between the stewardship and the justiciarship had come to an end; and, while the second retained its authority unimpaired until its extinction, the first be-came a grand serjeanty, primarily annexed to the barony of Hinckley, it is said, and afterwards to the earldom of Leicester. On the attainder of Simon de Montfort the earldom and stewardship were forfeited, and both were granted by Edward I. to his brother Edmund Plantagenet, earl of Lancaster, from whom they descended to the daughter and eventual heiress of Henry Plantagenet, duke of Lan-caster. She was the first wife of John of Gaunt and the mother of Henry IV. On the accession of her son to the throne they became merged in the crown, from which period the stewardship has been revived only hac vice from time to time as occasion required. It is indeed to John of Gaunt that the pre-eminent position accorded to the office since the end of the 14th century is really due. It emerged from the comparative obscurity in which it had rested for nearly three hundred years as soon as he became the tenant of it by courtesy in right of his deceased wife. As far as any records show to the contrary he was the first steward of England who took part in the coronation of a king or queen, and he was certainly the first steward of England who sat in the court of claims or who presided at a trial by the House of Lords. It seems to have been by him also that the precedence of the stewardship before all the other great offices of state was secured, a restoration or aug-mentation of rank which is the more remarkable in that the steward of Scotland gave place to the chamberlain and the seneschal of Ireland gave place to the constable of the two kingdoms respectively. John of Gaunt may be regarded, in fact, as the creator of the lord high stewardship and all its privileges and prerogatives as they have existed from his days to our own.





Lord high chamberlain. The lord great chamberlain of England ranks as the sixth great officer of state. Whenever the sovereign attends the palace of Westminster the keys are delivered to him, and he is for the time in command of the building. At the opening or closing of the session of parliament by the sovereign in person he disposes of the sword of state to be carried by any peer he may select, and walks himself in the procession on the right of the sword of state, a little before it and next to the sovereign. He assists at the introduction of all peers into the House of Lords on their creation, and at the homage of all bishops after their consecration. At a coronation he receives the regalia from the dean and chapter of Westminster, and distributes them to the personages who are to bear them in the ceremony. On that day it is his duty to carry the sovereign his shirt and wearing apparel before he rises and to serve him with water to wash his hands before and after dinner. The chamberlain was originally a financial officer; his work, Stubbs says, was rather that of auditor or accountant than that of treasurer; he held a more definite position in the household than most of the other great officers, " and in the judicial work of the country he was only less important than the justiciar." The office was hereditary in the Veres, earls of Oxford, from the reign of Henry I. to the reign of Charles I., when it passed through an heiress to the Berties, Lords Willoughby de Eresby, and afterwards earls of Lindsey and dukes of Ancaster, and from the Berties it was transmitted through coheiresses to the present inheritors of the dignity. The Stuarts, dukes of Lennox, were hereditary great chamberlains of Scotland in the 16 th and 17 th centuries. The office on their extinction was granted by Charles II. to James, duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch, on whose attainder it passed to Charles, duke of Bichmond anu Lennox, by whom it was surrendered to the crown in 1703.

Lord high constable. The lord high constable of England ranks as the seventh of the great officers of state. His office is called out of abeyance for coronations alone, when it is his duty to assist in the reception of the regalia from the dean and chapter of Westminster, and during the coronation banquet to ride into Westminster Hall on the right hand of the champion. The constable was originally the commander of the royal armies and the master of the horse. He was also one of the judges of the court of chivalry or court of honour. The constableship was granted as a grand serjeanty with the earldom of Hereford by the empress Maud to Milo of Gloucester, and was carried by his heiress to the Bohuns, earls of Hereford and Essex. Through a coheiress of the Bohuns it descended to the Staffords, dukes of Buckingham ; and on the attainder of Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, in the reign of Henry VIII. it became merged in the crown. The Lacys and Verduns were hereditary constables of Ireland from the 12th to the 14th century; and the Hays, earls of Erroll, have been hereditary constables of Scotland from early in the 14th century until the present time.

Earl marshal. The earl marshal of England ranks as the eighth of the great officers of state. He is the head of the college of arms, and has the appointment of the kings-of-arms, heralds, and pursuivants at his discretion. He attends the sovereign in opening and closing the session of parliament, walking opposite to the lord great chamberlain on his or her right hand. It is his duty to make arrangements for the order of all state processions and ceremonials, espe-cially for coronations and royal marriages and funerals. Like the lord high constable he rides into Westminster Hall with the champion after a coronation, taking his place on the left hand, and with the lord great chamberlain he assists at the introduction of all newly-created peers into the House of Lords. The marshal appears in the feudal armies to have been in command of the cavalry under the constable, and to have in some measure superseded him as master of tho horse in the royal palace. He exercised joint and co-ordinate jurisdiction with the constable in the court of chivalry, and afterwards became the sole judge of that tribunal. The marshalship of England was made hereditary in the Clares and Marshals, earls of Pembroke, in the reign of Stephen or Henry II., and through a co-heiress passed to the Bigots, earls of Norfolk, and by Boger Bigot, fifth earl of Norfolk, it was surrendered with his other dignities to Edward I. It was granted by Edward II. to his brother Thomas of Brotherton, earl of Norfolk, and, after it had been variously disposed of by Edward III., was by Richard II. erected into an earldom and conferred on Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, who was the great-grandson and heir of Thomas of Brotherton. One of the coheiresses of the Mowbrays was the mother of John Howard, duke of Norfolk, who was created earl marshal by Richard III. After several attainders and partial restorations in the reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts, the earl marshalship was finally entailed by Charles II. on the male line of the Howards, with many specific remainders and limitations, under which settlement it has regularly descended to the present duke of Norfolk. The Clares and Marshals, earls of Pembroke, and the Lords Morley appear to have been hereditary marshals of Ireland from the invasion of the island until the end of the 15th century. The Keiths were Earls Marischal of Scotland from the institution of the office by James II. in 1458 until the attainder of George, the tenth earl, in 1716.

On the subject of the great offices of state generally, see Stubbs, Constitutional History, ch. xi.; Freeman, Norman Conquest, ch. xxiv.; Gneist, Constitution of England, ch. xvi., xxxv., and liv.; also Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. liii., and Bryce, Holy Roman Empire, ch. xiv. (F. DR.)



The above article was written by: F. Drummond.



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