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Chancellor in United Kingdom


The chancellor in England

In England the office of chancellor dates back to the reign of Edward the Confessor, the first English king to use the Norman practice of sealing instead of signing documents; and from the Norman Conquest onwards the succession of chancellors is continuous. The chancellor was originally, and long continued to be, an ecclesiastic, who combined the functions of the most dignified of the royal chaplains, the king’s secretary in secular matters, and keeper of the royal seal. From the first, then, though at the outset overshadowed by that of the justiciar, the office of chancellor was one of great influence and importance.

As chaplain the chancellor was keeper of the king’s conscience; as secretary he enjoyed the royal confidence in secular affairs; as keeper of the seal he was necessary to all formal expressions of the royal will. By him and his staff of chaplains the whole secretarial work of the royal household was conducted, the accounts were kept under the justiciar and treasurer, writs were drawn up and sealed, and the royal correspondence was carried on. He was, in fact, as Stubbs puts it, a sort of secretary of state for all departments. “This is he,” wrote John of Salisbury (d. 1180), “who cancels (cancellat) the evil laws of the realm, and makes equitable (aequa) the commands of a pious prince,” a curious anticipation of the chancellor’s later equitable jurisdiction. Under Henry II, indeed, the chancellor was already largely employed in judicial work, either in attendance on the king or in provincial visitations; though the peculiar jurisdiction of the chancery was of later growth.

By this time, however, the chancellor was “great alike in Curia and Exchequer”; he was secundus a rege, i.e. took precedence immediately after the justiciar, and nothing was done either in the Curia or the exchequer without his consent. So great was his office that William FitzStephen, the biographer of Becket, tells us that it was not purchasable (emenda non est), a statement which requires modification, since it was in fact more than once sold under Henry I., Stephen, Richard and John (Stubbs, Const. Hist. i. pp. 384-497; Gneist, Const. Hist. of England, p. 219), an evil precedent which was, however, not long followed.

The judicial duties of the chancellor grew out of the fact that all petitions addressed to the king passed through his hands. The number and variety of these became so great that in 1280, under Edward I., an ordinance was issued directing the chancellor and the justices to deal with the greater number of them; those which involved the use of the great seal being specially referred to the chancellor. The chancellor and justices were to determine which of them were “so great, and of grace, that the chancellor and others would not despatch them without the king,” and these the chancellor and other chief ministers were to carry in person to the king (Stubbs ii. 263, note, and p. 268).

At this period the chancellor, though employed in equity, had ministerial functions only; but when, in the reign of Edward III., the chancellor ceased to follow the court, his tribunal acquired a more definite character, and petitions for grace and favour began to be addressed primarily to him, instead of being merely examined and passed on by him to the king; and in the twenty-second year of this reign matters which were of grace were definitely committed to the chancellor for decision. This is the starting-point of the equitable jurisdiction of the chancellor, whence developed that immense body of rules, supplementing the deficiencies or modifying the harshness of the common law, which is known as Equity (q.v.).

The chancellor in Parliament

The position of the chancellor as speaker or prolocutor of the House of Lords dates from the time when the ministers of the royal Curia formed ex officio a part of the commune concilium and parliament. The chancellor originally attended with the other officials, and he continued to attend ex officio after they had ceased to do so. If he chanced to be a bishop, he was summoned regularly qua bishop; otherwise he attended without summons. When not a peer the chancellor had no place in parliament except as chancellor, and the act of 31 Henry VIII. cap. 10 (1539) laid down that, if not a peer, he had “no interest to give any assent or dissent in the House.” Yet Sir Robert Bourchier (d. 1349), the first lay chancellor, had protested in 1341 against the first statute of 15 Edward III. (on trial by peers, etc.), on the ground that it had not received his assent and was contrary to the laws of the realm.

From the time, however, of William, Lord Cowper (first lord high chancellor of Great Britain in 1705, created Baron Cowper in 1706), all chancellors have been made peers on their elevation to the woolsack. Sometimes the custody of the great seal has been transferred from the chancellor to a special official, the lord keeper of the great seal (see Lord Keeper); this was notably the case under Queen Elizabeth (cf. the French garde des sceaux, below). Sometimes it is put into commission, being affixed by lords commissioners of the great seal. By the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 it was enacted that none of these offices could be held by a Roman Catholic (see further under Lord High Chancellor). The office of lord chancellor of Ireland, and that of chancellor of Scotland (who ceased to be appointed after the Act of Union of 1707) followed the same lines of development.

Chancellor of the exchequer

The title of chancellor, without the predicates “high” or “lord,” is also applied in the United Kingdom to a number of other officials and functionaries of varying rank and importance. Of these the most important is the chancellor of the exchequer, an office which originated in the separation of the chancery from the exchequer in the reign of Henry III. (1216-1272). His duties consisted originally in the custody and employment of the seal of the exchequer, in the keeping of a counter-roll to check the roll kept by the treasurer, and in the discharge of certain judicial functions in the exchequer of account. So long as the treasury board was in active working, the chancellorship of the exchequer was an office of small importance, and even during a great part of the 19th century was not necessarily a cabinet office, unless held in conjunction with that of first lord of the treasury. At the present time the chancellor of the exchequer is minister of finance, and therefore always of cabinet rank (see Exchequer).

Chancellor of the duchy

The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster is the representative of the crown in the management of its lands and the control of its courts in the duchy of Lancaster, the property of which is scattered over several counties. These lands and privileges, though their inheritance has always been vested in the king and his heirs, have always been kept distinct from the hereditary revenues of the sovereign, whose palatine rights as duke of Lancaster were distinct from his rights as king.

The Judicature Act of 1873 left only the chancery court of the duchy, but the chancellor can appoint and dismiss the county court judges within the limits of the duchy; he is responsible also for the land revenues of the duchy, which are the private property of the sovereign, and keeps the seal of the duchy. His appointment is by letters patent, and his salary is derived from the revenue of the duchy. As the judicial and estate work is done by subordinate officials, the office is practically a sinecure and is usually given to a minister whose assistance is necessary to a government, but who for one reason or another cannot undertake the duties of an important department. John Bright described him as the maid-of-all-work of the cabinet.

Ecclesiastical chancellors

The chancellor of a diocese is the official who presides over the bishop’s court and exercises jurisdiction in his name. This use of the word is comparatively modern, and, though employed in acts of parliament, is not mentioned in the commission, having apparently been adopted on the analogy of the like title in the state. The chancellor was originally the keeper of the archbishop or bishop’s seals; but the office, as now understood, includes two other offices distinguished in the commission by the titles of vicar-general and official principal (see Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in this legal Encyclopedia). The chancellor of a diocese must be distinguished from the chancellor of a cathedral, whose office is the same as that of the ancient scholasticus.

Chancellorship of the universities

The chancellor of an order of knighthood discharges notarial duties and keeps the seal. The chancellor of a university is an official of medieval origin. The appointment was originally made by the popes, and the office from the first was one of great dignity and originally of great power. The chancellor was, as he remains, the head of the university; he had the general superintendence of its studies and of its discipline, could make and unmake laws, try and punish offences, appoint to professorial chairs and admit students to the various degrees (see Du Cange, s. “Cancellarii Academiarum”).

In England the chancellorship of the universities is now a more or less ornamental office and is conferred on noblemen or statesmen of distinction, whose principal function is to look after the general interests of the university, especially in its relations with the government. The chancellor is represented in the university by a vice-chancellor, who performs the administrative and judicial functions of the office. In the United States the heads of certain educational establishments have the title of chancellor. In Scotland the foreman of a jury is called its chancellor. (1)


  • Lord Chancellor
  • Note: the main entry on Lord chancellor is located here.

  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Note: the main entry on chancellor of the Exchequer is located here.

  • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • Note: the main entry on chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is located here.

  • Chancellor of the High Court
  • Note: the main entry on chancellor of the High Court is located here.

  • Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Concept of Chancellor

    The following is an old definition of Chancellor [1], a term which has several meanings:1. In England, several officers bear this name.


    Notes and References

    1. Meaning of Chancellor provided by the Anderson Dictionary of Law (1889) (Dictionary of Law consisting of Judicial Definitions and Explanations of Words, Phrases and Maxims and an Exposition of the Principles of Law: Comprising a Dictionary and Compendium of American and English Jurisprudence; William C. Anderson; T. H. Flood and Company, Law Publishers, Chicago, United States)


    Notes and References

    1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

    See Also

    • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
    • Lord Chancellor
    • Chancellor of the Exchequer
    • Master of the Rolls
    • Lords Commissioners of Trade and Plantations
    • Chancellor of the High Court
    • Lord Privy Seal
    • Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
    • Royal Courts
    • Court of King’s Bench
    • Rival Courts
    • Exchequer
    • Court of Exchequer

    Further Reading

    Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v. “Cancellarius”; W. Stubbs, Const. Hist. of England (1874-1878); Rudolph Gneist, Hist. of the English Constitution (Eng. trans., London, 1891); L.O. Pike, Const. Hist. of the House of Lords (London, 1894); Sir William R. Anson, The Law and Custom of the Constitution, vol. ii. part i. (Oxford, 1907);

    Concept of Chancellor

    Traditional meaning of chancellor [1] in the English common law history: The judge of a court of equity. The highest officer of a university, usually an honorary position. A president, or judicial officer. Chancellor of a diocese: he assists a bishop in law matters, and holds his consistory court. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: he presides over the Duchy Court. Chancellor of the Exchequer: he formerly presided in the Exchequer, with the barons of that court, over whom he took precedence, and looked out for the interests of the Crown; and sat also in the equity side under the Lord High Treasurer. Now the principal finance officer of the government. The Lord High Chancellor is the highest judicial officer of the realm, supreme judge of the Court of Chancery, Keeper of the Great Seal, privy councillor, and Prolocutor of the House of Lords.


    Notes and References

    1. Based on A concise law dictionary of words, phrases and maxims, “Chancellor”, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1911, United States. This term and/or definition may be absolete. It is also called the Stimson’s Law dictionary, based on a glossary of terms, included Chancellor.

    See Also

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    • Article Name: Chancellor
    • Author: Gareth H. Jones
    • Description: History The chancellor in England In England the office of chancellor dates back to the reign of Edward the Confessor, the [...]

    This entry was last updated: August 16, 2020


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