1. Why use this guide?
You should use this guide for advice on how to find records at The National Archives created by and relating to the Privy Council, a group of advisers to the monarch that emerged during the middle ages. These records provide insights into the policies and day-to-day problems and issues of government between the 14th and 20th centuries, covering a broad range of affairs, including:
- law and order
- trade and industry
- colonial policy
- naval and military policy
- education and public health
2. Essential information
Privy Council papers have been subject to losses and dispersal. Many Privy Council papers were treated as private papers by the clerks of the Council, with the result that survival may occur amongst private collections held outside The National Archives. Some earlier papers were destroyed in a fire in 1698.
Though there is a specific department for Privy Council records at The National Archives (department code PC), many Privy Council papers, and papers related to or sent to the Council, can be found in other departments, most notably in state papers (department code SP), both foreign and domestic.
3. Early records 1386-1540
The earliest Privy Council records date from 1386, when it was known as the King's Council. Many surviving pre-1540 records relating to the Privy Council and its predecessor can be found within the following departments and record series:
- in records of the Privy Seal Office: PSO 1
- in records of Chancery: C 49
- in records of the Exchequer: E 28, E 30, E 39, E 175, E 364
Most of the early Privy Council records can be found in the British Library.
4. Privy Council correspondence 1481-1971
4.1 Main record series
The most significant record series for Privy Council correspondence is PC 1 (1481-1946 but mostly post-1700).
Privy Council correspondence can also be found in:
- PC 6 (1660-1900)
- PC 7 (1825-1952)
- PC 8 (1860-1971; indexes in PC 9)
- PC 12 (1898-1949; indexes for 1860 onwards in PC 9)
Transcripts of correspondence to and from the Privy Council can be found in PC 2.
4.2 Other record series
Correspondence between the Privy Council and other government departments can be found in some of the records of those departments. Below are listed some of the most significant record series of this kind:
- T 9 (1793-1922, Treasury out-letters to the Privy Council)
- SP 45 and SP 46 (1696-1752, Privy Council minutes, including Council warrants, letters and memoranda)
- HO (various Home Office record series; for more details see Subject areas, below)
4.3 Subject areas
A huge range of subjects are covered within Privy Council correspondence. You can search for specific subject areas through our catalogue. Search using any or all of the record series listed in this section of the guide, and a keyword relevant to your subject.
Series PC 1 is split into dozens of sub series, each covering a discrete subject area. The sub series can be viewed in our catalogue. For more information on subjects covered and the kinds of documents you can find in PC 1, see the series description.
Below is an overview, along with some significant examples, of some of the subjects covered in Privy Council correspondence. Some or all of the relevant record series are listed in each case:
- Defence and law and order
For example, during the War of American Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars
- Colonial policy and affairs
Particularly the American and West Indian colonies. An index to PC 1/46/1-PC 1/57/85B can be found in Volume 6 of the Acts of the Privy Council Colonial series - see Published finding aids and resources, below)
- Foreign affairs
Particularly the French Revolution
- Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man
PC 1, PC 6, PC 8, HO 98 and HO 99
- Ecclesiastical policy
Including reports of recusancy and returns of papists
- Military and naval affairs
PC 1, PC 6
Including militia returns and petitions for relief and maintenance from the widows of army and naval officers
- Trade and financial policy
Including trading companies, the regulation of smuggling, war embargoes and the coinage, the affairs of the East India Company and reports from the Board of Trade
- Convicts, criminals and prisons
PC 1/67-92, PC 8, HO 11, HO 13, HO 17, HO 18, HO 42, HO 44, HO 45 and HO 145
- Royal ceremonial and state occasions
PC 1, PC 8
- Local government
PC 1, PC 8, PC 12
Including charters of incorporation
5. Privy Council registers 1540-1964
Privy Council registers are found in series PC 2. The Privy Council began to keep its own register before 1540 but the earliest surviving registers date from that year. The registers can be supplemented, from 1670 to 1928, by surviving minutes in PC 4 which include items of business which did not necessarily result in orders or other action.
Each register contains its own subject index. There are also subject indexes compiled in the 1840s for 1628-1645 and 1660-1714, and these are bound in the relevant register. There is a draft copy of the subject index for 1660-1714 in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew.
There are transcripts of the registers for 1631-1636, allowing you to bypass the demands of deciphering the seventeeth century handwriting of the originals. The transcripts can be found in Z BOX 1/41-45.
5.1 What can you find in the registers?
The registers are arranged by reign and date. Most include:
- minutes of proceedings
- some texts of proclamations
- reports of privy council committees
- lists of members of the Privy Council and occasionally lists of the membership of its committees with transcripts of official oaths
- maps (particularly from the 1890s)
- revised King's regulations and Admiralty instructions issued by order in Council
- petitions to the Council, often referred to in relation to actions taken as a result of them; they are not usually fully transcribed
- transcripts of outgoing letters and warrants
It should be noted that in judicial appeals not all final decisions were necessarily recorded in the register.
5.2 Missing registers
There are no registers for some date ranges, though some of the gaps can be filled using alternative sources, including the collections in the British Library. See table below for details:
|Missing date range||Alternative source|
|10 May 1545 to 28 January 1547||British Library (reference BL Add. Mss. 5476)|
|June 1582 to February 1586||None|
|1 January 1602 to 1 May 1613||None|
|30 August 1645 to 3 May 1649 (the registers are blank during the Civil War period)||Records of the Council of State in the Interregnum are in SP 18, SP 25, SP 26 and SP 27|
6. Legislative functions
The Privy Council is responsible for the issue of proclamations, Orders in Council and statutory instruments. References can be found in the registers, but this is not necessarily the best place to look and the series listed below may prove more useful.
6.1 Royal proclamations
Royal proclamations, often referred to simply as proclamations, are formal announcements made by the King or Queen and vary greatly in nature, from declarations of war or states of emergency, to the summoning or dissolution of Parliament. They were, also, declarations of law.
These proclamations were usually issued with the agreement of the Privy Council and can therefore be found in Privy Council papers. You can find them and documents related to them within the following record series:
- SP 45 includes draft proclamations for consideration by the Privy Council 1625-1804 and 1706-1741
- PC 2 includes texts of proclamations in full
- C 66 includes the enrolments of proclamations
- C 82 and C 83
- SP 12 and SP 14 include collections of original printed proclamations
6.2 Statutory instruments and Orders in Council
The Crown, government ministers and other bodies are often given the power to make laws through a process known as delegated or secondary legislation. This legislation is expressed in the form of statutory instruments (known as statutory rules and orders before 1948).
Many statutory instruments are recorded in published works, allowing you to bypass the need to consult original documents at The National Archives. For more details see the Published finding aids and resources section, below.
From 1893 statutory rules and orders were classified in the same way as acts of parliament, as 'public' or 'local' and 'personal' or 'private'. 'Local' statutory rules and orders and statutory instruments are not published in the annual volumes of rules, orders and statutory instruments (see section 8.3 in Published finding aids and resources, below); surviving rules and orders and instruments from 1922 are in the series TS 37. If you do not know the year and number you need to use the registers in TS 76.
Orders in Council are a form of statutory instrument, made by the sovereign with the advice of the Privy Council. These are published in the same way as statutory instruments, and can be found in the following record series:
For the earlier period you should also search the State Papers (SP). For the later period they may be found in the series of the originating government department; try searching for 'Order in Council' within the relevant series. If you are unsure of whether the Order originated from the Privy Council or another department you can check the registers in TS 76 for 1894 to 1998. The registers also allow you to trace the responsible authority, so you can narrow your search by government department.
Orders in Council are also published in the London Gazette, from 1665, which contains a subject index from 1848, available online and in ZJ 1.
7. Background information
Medieval in origin, the Privy Council was at its apogee during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Originally known as the King's Council, its purpose was to serve as a group of advisers to the reigning King or Queen. The group varied in size and composition over the years but generally consisted of the chief ministers of state, a few bishops, secular peers and senior royal household officials.
As well as its advisory role, it served judicial and administrative functions. Its jurisdiction covered offences against the king's person or property and appeals from petitioners, and its authority was expressed through the conciliar courts (for example Star Chamber) until the mid 17th century. The judicial work of the Privy Council in appeals after 1834 can be found in the records of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (PCAP series).
8. Published finding aids and resources
Of the published works listed below, some provide references to records of Privy Council at The National Archives, whilst others provide reproductions of the records themselves.
Entries in the Privy Council register can be traced using:
- Privy Council of England, Proceedings and Ordinances, 10 Richard II-33 Henry VII (1386-1542), edited by Sir Harris Nicolas, 7 volumes (Record Commission, 1834-1837)
- Acts of the Privy Council of England, 1542-1631, ed. J R Dasent, E G Atkinson, J V Lyle, R F Monger and P A Penfold, 45 volumes (London, 1890-1964). View online via British History Online.
Privy Council registers for 1637 to 1645 have been copied in the following published work:
- Privy Council registers preserved in the Public Record Office reproduced in facsimile : 1 June, 1637-[August, 1645] 12 volumes (London, 1967-1968)
8.2 Royal proclamations
For modern printed texts of proclamations, see P L Hughes and J F Larkin, eds., Tudor Royal Proclamations, 1485-1605 (Yale, 1964, 1969), and Stuart Royal Proclamations, 1603-1646 (Oxford, 1973, 1983).
8.3 Statutory instruments
Annual editions of Statutory Rules and Orders are published from 1890. From 1987 statutory instruments are published on the Legislation website. Most of the publications below are available in The National Archives Library.
Table of Government Orders
The Index of Statutory Rules and Orders and Statutory Instruments ..., (this notes instruments in force)
Data-sets of Statutory Instruments, Legislation.gov.uk
Annual Volumes of Statutory Instruments; from 1980 unpublished SIs are noted
Guide to Government Orders: indexing S R and Os and S Is in force 31st December annual volumes (London, 1952-1961)
Index to Government Orders annual volumes (London, 1963-1995)
9. Further reading
E R Adair, The sources for the history of the Council in the 16th and 17th centuries (Historical Association, 1924)
J F Baldwin, The King's Council in England during the middle ages (Oxford, 1913)
Catalogue of British Official Publications not published by HMSO (Chadwyck Healy, annually)
G R Elton, The sources of history, England 1200-1640 (London, 1969)