The use of a small or privy seal by the sovereign can be traced back at least to the reign of John, when letters patent or close are occasionally found issued under such a seal; but sometimes the seal was used as in later times as the authority for the issue of letters under the great seal. It was then kept by clerks of the Chamber, but under Henry III the custody of the small or privy seal became attached to the Wardrobe, and until the last years of Edward II's reign the Keeper of the Privy Seal is to be identified with the Controller of the Wardrobe.
The crown's need for a second seal arose from the development of the Chancery into a department of state with its own offices outside the Royal Household. With the privy seal at his immediate disposal, the king could authorise letters from wherever he might be, for the direction of Chancery and other departments in London and elsewhere, for diplomatic correspondence, or for direct communication with private subjects.
History and Functions
In 1311 the importance of the privy seal led the lords ordainers to remove it from the Wardrobe and place it in the care of its own keeper. The first in the series of keepers of the privy seal can be identified in 1312. The Privy Seal Office now developed as the third great department of state, but although it had its own headquarters in London the keeper continued to attend the king until the middle of the fifteenth century, when the King's Secretary emerged as an influential member of the royal administration.
The privy seal became one of the necessary steps in the ordinary method of passing an instrument under the great seal. Privy Council ordinances of the reign of Henry VI laid down that 'all bills when the king of his good grace hath granted them be delivered to his secretary and letters to be conceived upon them directed under the signet to the keeper of the privy seal and from thence under the privy seal to the chancellor of England'. This was the procedure for the most important purposes in which the great seal was employed, and first received Parliamentary authority by an act of 1535.
As a consequence of the Walton Ordinances in 1338 the Exchequer would accept only great or privy seal warrants as authority for expenditure, either by itself or by accounting departments. The Privy Seal Office retained the function the seal had exercised in the Wardrobe of being used in the conclusion of indentures for military service. Another duty of the medieval office was that of acting as secretariat for the king's Council.
By the seventeenth century, there were four Clerks of the Privy Seal. They attended the Office in rotation, for a calendar month at a time, either in person or by deputy, in order to sign the writs and assist in sealing them. Fees originally seem to have gone to the clerk in attendance; later they were pooled and divided equally. In 1798, a single deputy was doing all the work of the Office. After payments to him, the secretary, keeper and servants of the Office, and once other costs had been met, there usually remained more than £200 a year for the four sinecurist clerks of the privy seal. In 1817 it was enacted that future clerks of the privy seal should perform their duties in person, in return for regular salaries, and that the surplus of fees should be paid into the Consolidated Fund.
The provisions of the act of 1535 for the passing of instruments under the great seal remained substantially in force until 1851, when the Signet Office was abolished and the signet bill ceased to be the Lord Privy Seal's authority for his warrant to the Lord Chancellor. The sign manual warrants, which thereafter took the place of signet bills, were sent on to the Lord Chancellor, after being passed and entered by the Lord Privy Seal. By the Great Seal Act 1884 the necessity of passing any instrument under the privy seal was abolished and the Privy Seal Office ceased to exist, warrants for passing instruments under the great seal being thenceforth prepared by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery.
The post of Lord Privy Seal continued to exist after the abolition of the Privy Seal Office. In the twentieth century he or she was a 'non-departmental' minister with no administrative duties attached to his office. The post was filled by a senior politician whose advice was required in Cabinet but who did not wish to undertake heavy administrative work, or by a minister appointed to it to undertake certain specific duties, which relate to the individual rather than the office.