The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Secretary of State


United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, a Secretary of State is a senior Cabinet Minister in charge of a Government Department. Secretary of State positions can be created without primary legislation; and legislation refers to 'Secretary of State', which is a notional position split between all the Secretaries of State depending upon the functions.


The ancient English monarchs always had in attendance a learned ecclesiastic, known at first as their clerk, and afterwards as "Secretary", who conducted the royal correspondence; but it was not until the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 15581603) that these functionaries gained the title "Secretaries of State". Upon the direction of public affairs passing from the Privy Council to the Cabinet after 1688 the Secretaries of State began to assume those high duties which now render their office one of the most influential of an administration.

Until the time of Henry VIII (reigned 15091547), monarchs generally had only one Secretary of State, but at the end of his reign a second Principal Secretary appeared. Owing to the increase of business consequent upon the Union with Scotland, a third Secretary gained appointment in 1708, but, with a vacancy occurring in this office in 1746, the third Secretaryship disappeared until 1768, when a newly re-instituted Third Secretary began to take charge of the increasing colonial administrative work. In 1782 the office was again abolished, and the charge of the colonies transferred to the Home Secretary; but owing to the war of the First Coalition with France in 1794 a third Secretary re-appeared to superintend the activities of the War Department, and seven years later the colonial business became attached to his Department. In 1854 a fourth Secretary of State gained the exclusive charge of the War Department, and in 1858 a fifth Secretary (for India) began duties.

Principal Secretary of State (c. 12531539)

  • John Maunsell 1253
  • Francis Accursii 1278
  • John de Benstede 1299
  • William de Melton 1308
  • Robert Braybrooke 1379
  • John Profit (1402–1412)
  • John Stone (1415–c. 1420)
  • William Alnwick (c. 1420–c. 1422)
  • William Hayton (?–1432)
  • Thomas Beckington (1439–1443)
  • Thomas Manning (1460–1464)
  • William Hatcliffe (1464–1480)
  • Oliver King (1480–1483)
  • John Kendal (1483–1485)
  • Richard Fox (1485–1487)
  • Oliver King (1487–1492) (probably)
  • Thomas Routhall (1500–1516)
  • Richard Pace (1516–1526)
  • William Knight (1526–1528)
  • Stephen Gardiner (1528–1531)
  • Thomas Cromwell (1533–1536)
  • Thomas Wriothesley (1536 – January 1544)

Two Secretaries of State, 15391668

Current Positions

The honorific title First Secretary of State is awarded occassionally. It is currently held by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott MP.

Obsolete Positions

United States

Main article: United States Secretary of State

In the federal government of the United States of America, the main role of the Secretary of State is to supervise and conduct foreign policy. He (or she) is head of the United States Department of State.

In the individual states of the United States, the Secretary of State is normally an administrative officer responsible for certifying elections and maintaining corporate registrations. In some states, the Secretary of State handles driver's licenses and license plates and certifies state documents and notaries public. Ordinarily this not a particularly powerful position; however, because the Secretary of State is generally responsible for certifying elections, this position can occasionally become important. For example, the Secretary of State of Florida, Katherine Harris, played an important role in deciding the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election.

In many states the state secretary of state is often third in line to assume the office of governor upon death or resignation of the incumbent, after the lieutenant governor.


The Canadian Cabinet used to have a Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who acted as the country's Foreign Minister, but this position was abolished in 1993 and a new position of Minister of Foreign Affairs was created. From 1867 to 1993 there was also a Secretary of State for Canada who was a Cabinet minister whose duties varied over time but who was responsible for the Department of Secretary of State until it was abolished. From 1993 to 2003, several MPs were styled Secretary of State with a specific policy areas and assist Cabinet Ministers but these were not themselves members of Cabinet. In the current Cabinet these positions are styled Ministers of State.

Holy See

The so-called Cardinal Secretary of State presides over the Secretariat of State , which is the most important dicastery of the Roman Curia.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 21:31:15
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01