The Crown, Government, the English executive in 1700

English Government
Kensington Palace
Kensington Palace, residence of
Queen Anne, by MrsEllacot
Headed by:Queen Anne

1 The Crown in 1700

1.1 The power of the crown

The crown was the government of England. That is the monarch and his secretaries. Its powers were / are known as the royal prerogative. While its power had been severely limited by parliament, it was still very important

1.2 The royal prerogative

The Royal Prerogative originated from the original medieval tasks of the monarch, i.e. providing for internal and external security. Some monarchs tried to change this into absolute rule. A long struggle then resulted in the Glorious Revolution, which confirmed that the crown's authority was not more extensive than what it was by the law of the land, and was limited by the laws made by parliament1). In other words: the royal prerogative consisted of those things the monarch could still do without consent of parliament. These were:

  • The Royal Prerogative
  • Appointing a prime minister (first done in 1721)
  • Appointing secretaries
  • Authority over the armed forces
  • All decisions related to foreign affairs
  • Dissolving parliament
  • Granting royal pardons
  • Granting of honours
  • Appointing (arch)Bishops of the church of England

The list of the royal prerogative is quite similar in 1700 and 300 years later. The main difference is that most of it is now exercised by the prime minister. Before the first appointment of a prime minister in 1721, the monarch exercised his prerogative alone, or in conjunction with his secretaries. Even so: King William and Queen Anne could not exercise it without support of the Commmons.

1.3 The Crown held the key to appointments

The Members of Parliament of Queen Anne's time did not receive a salary, and had to invest heavily to get into parliament. This meant that most of them wanted to get some return on investment by getting themselves a job or commission in which they could reimburse themselves for their labors. This could then be done by the attached salary, but also by methods that would nowadays be called corruption and fraud.

In a situation where only the monarch had the power to appoint civil servants, including the members of government, this meant that everyone seeking a profitable public or military career needed the favor of the monarch and or his secretaries. This of course gave the crown great influence over members of parliament.

1.4 Appointment of secretaries

The appointment of secretaries by the sovereign deserves special consideration. Who would become e.g. secretary of state was dependant on the equilibrium between the favour the sovereign had for someone, the prestige the sovereign had with parliament and the parliamentary support the candidate commanded. This way Sunderland was appointed secretary of state through massive Whig support though Anne detested him. On the other hand Anne could sack Godolphin in 1710 though he had good parliamentary support. But this had also to do with the right of the sovereign to dissolve parliament and decree elections, and manipulate them to some degree. A parliament that had public opinion against it could thus be blackmailed with the threat of elections.

1.5 Appointments without a prime minister

Before the appointment of Walpole as first prime minister, the monarch was still the first executor of the royal prerogative. After the Glorious Revolution it became clear that for major things he needed parliamentary support, even when it was part of the royal prerogative. This meant involving his secretaries, who would influence appointments. Other parts of the prerogative, like appointing officers in the armed forces, were up to the king.

2 Departments of the Government

2.1 The Court

The court was not only the palace where the monarch lived, but also an institute employing about a thousand persons, amongst whom were about a dozen M.P.'s. Though Parliament was now more important, it was still the place to be socially and could still provide wealth and privilege. This was especially true for about two dozen members of the House of Lords who filled posts at court.

2.2 The Treasury

The Treasury was the department concerned with getting money for the government. It controlled all affairs concerning taxation, and also some sub-departments like Customs, Excise, the Mint and the Tax Office. It was quite professional about its work and employed thousands of officials.

2.3 The Exchequer

The Exchequer was the mirror image of the Treasury. It was a department concerning itself with spending money and controlling this. It still sported a lot of bought offices and sinecures (see J.H. Plumb.)

2.5 The Army and Navy boards

The large navy and army generated a lot of clerical business. The departments handling it employed thousands of officials.

6 Notes

1) The Case of proclamantions said: Also it was resolved, that the King hath no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him.' and 'The law of England is divided into three parts, common law, statute law, and custom'. The crown's authority in internal and external security did not originate in a law by parliament (statute law). Outside of that traditional authority the crown's authority did not exist without a law by parliament.