great council and king's council

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great council and king's council. It can hardly be claimed that scholarship has yet entirely clarified the problem of medieval councils. The discussion is haunted by difficulties of nomenclature, the fluidity of the situation, and the fact that many developments were on an ad hoc basis. It is not even clear whether one can speak of more than one council, or whether they should be regarded as aspects of, or variants on, one body.

Elementary prudence dictated that medieval monarchs should seek the advice of their greatest subjects and should be seen to have their support. Anglo-Saxon monarchs had the witan. Norman and Plantagenet monarchs had their council, under various names. As business became more complex, councils tended to divide into specialized bodies, though with much overlapping of personnel. Two bodies have been suggested, the great council and the king's council (curia regis). The great council began as a meeting of the tenants-in-chief and barons and was largely advisory. The three traditional crown-wearings, at Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun, were good opportunities to consult the great men of the realm, but such infrequent meetings could not deal with day-to-day administration or requests for justice. Nor would great magnates necessarily wish, or be able, to devote much of their time to routine matters. Consequently a smaller and more specialized council developed, consisting of household officers, sometimes in attendance on the king in his progresses, sometimes at Westminster. This was the king's council, though it was not formally an institution with defined functions until the later 13th cent.

At times the great council attempted to take a more detailed role in government—against Henry III in 1258—but such arrangements were rarely successful for long. The growth of Parliament was bound to encroach upon its importance by offering another body which could claim to speak for the nation. By the early modern period, the great council was but an echo. In the desperate crisis of 1640, Charles I summoned a great council to York, after a lapse of centuries, but the peers who responded merely suggested calling a Parliament. In 1688, James II having fled, another assembly of peers advised William of Orange to summon a Convention or Parliament.

The king's council, on the other hand, survived and coped with an ever-increasing volume of business. In the 16th cent. it threw off the Star Chamber to take over more judicial work, and in Henry VIII's reign developed into the Privy Council, with a small membership of hard-pressed administrators, meeting most days. For a hundred years it was the main engine of executive government, but after the Civil War and Restoration, it began to lose ground to the cabinet council and the cabinet.

J. A. Cannon