England's navy was originally governed by a Great Officer of State called the Lord High Admiral of England. Early in the 18th century this office was placed in the hands of commissioners known as the Board of Admiralty. The board derived its powers from the royal prerogative; no act of Parliament defined or circumscribed them, except inasmuch as the discipline of the navy was regulated by a Naval Discipline Act. In pure law the members of the Admiralty Board shared a joint and equal responsibility, but an order in council in 1869 conferred overriding powers on the First Lord of the Admiralty. He was directly responsible to Parliament for the navy.
The Admiralty differed from other British service departments in that it functioned as an operational authority, sometimes actually issuing direct orders to ships at sea. In the 20th century there were usually 10 members of the Board of Admiralty; 3 were members of Parliament, 6 were naval officers, and 1 was permanent secretary.