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As far as the early English state was concerned the Secretary of State was the officer responsible for the monarch's confidential correspondence. There was generally only one Secretary of State until the reign of Henry VIII, when the volume of work became such that it was common to apoint a second principal secretary, and on the 20th October 1662 it was decided to regularise this practice by appointing a Secretary of State for the Northern Department and a Secretary of State for the Southern Department which subsequently both became formal departments of state on the accession of William III and Mary II in 1689.

As far as domestic government business was concerned there was no established division of responsibilities between the two departments which tended to vary in accordance with the capabilities and whims of the secretaries in office at the time. The distinction between the Southern and Northern departments related entirely to the conduct of foreign or diplomatic business, with the Secretary of State for the Southern Department being concerned with France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, Ireland, and the Channel Islands, as well as the North American colonies, or at least until the separate Colonial Office was established in 1768.

Initally it was the practice to appoint the "more experienced" or "more socially elevated" Secretary of State to the Southern Department, however that practice was discontinued in 1706, whilst from 1707 onwards both Secretaries of State were responsible for the affairs of the new unified state of Great Britain rather than England following the Act of Union with Scotland. The distinction between the Northern and Southern departments continued until March 1782 when they were reorganised into the separate Home and Foreign Offices.



  • ‘Secretaries of state for the southern department (1662–1782)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for SECRETARY OF STATE

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