There were nine great offices of state that were recognised in the British medieval and early modern state which were, in order of precedence, as follows:-

As noted above, the holders of these offices were often later known by somewhat grander titles with the Lord Treasurer for example, being known as the 'Lord High Treasurer' and the Constable of England often adopting the style of 'Lord High Constable' etc. Generally speaking, the grander the title became, the less significant the office actually became; and indeed the importance of these offices declined with the rise of parliamentary government and in particular the gradual shift of power to the House of Commons.

The fate of these nine great offices has been somewhat mixed:-

The four offices of the Great Chamberlain of England, the Constable of England, the Steward of England and the Marshal of England are now regarded as little more than medieval relics whose remaining duties are almost entirely ceremonial. (Or "survivals from an earlier condition of society" as the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica puts it.)

Both the offices of Marshal of England and the Great Chamberlain of England are now hereditary, the former is held by the Howard Dukes of Norfolk, whilst the latter is now shared between a number of families; the offices of the Constable of England and the Steward of England are generally vacant with temporary appointments only being made when the need arises. (Generally speaking, that means when there is a coronation.)

The office of the Lord Treasurer and the Lord Admiral have long since been put into commission; that is their functions being carried out by a board or committee, whose members where collectively known as the 'Lords of the Treasury' and the 'Lords of the Admiralty' respectively. The head of the former committee, the First Lord of the Treasury is now more commonly known as the Prime Minister whilst the post of First Lord of the Admiralty having been cabinet post for many years was finally merged into that of the Secetary of State for Defence in 1964.

The remaining three offices continue in existence and are normally cabinet posts.

The office of Lord Chancellor remains an appointment of some constitutional significance and is normally a cabinet post occupied by a senior lawyer as he or she retains responsibility over the judicial system. (Although there are currently proposals to abolish this role.) The Lord President of the Privy Council continues to oversee the functions of the Privy Council (being that part of the British Government that deals with the exercise of the prerogative powers of the Crown.) The Lord Privy Seal, whose traditional responsibility was to act as custodian of the sovereign's private seal is effectively unemployed as the privy seal itself was abolished long ago, but continues as a minister without portfolio. The office is now normally now combined with that of Leader of the House of Lords.

In a modern sense the phrase 'Great Offices of State' is also sometimes used to refer to any of the more important contemporary cabinet posts such as those of the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer.


The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for

Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)

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