‘In all debatable matters of importance domestic, or external, however, even Denethor had a Council and at least listened to what the Lords of the Fiefs and the Captains of the Forces had to say.’ (Tolkien, Letters, No. 244)
The Great Council of Gondor (S. Govadan Gondorim, Q. Alta Heren) is the Gondorian legislative body, embodiment of the land itself. It consists of 300–600 Dúnedain of equestrian rank (Heren Requain). The Council convenes under certain religious restrictions. Its sessions could only proceed after an invocation prayer to Eru Ilúvatar and Valar. The Council could also only meet between sunrise and sunset, and it could only meet in a consecrated place, originally the Dome of the Stars (Rond Giliath) in Osgiliath, after 1432 in the Halls of the Faithful (S. Thamas Elendili, Ad. Zadan an-Nimruzîri) at Pelargir. The Council gathered at Erukyermë, Erulaitalë and Eruhantalë each year, and whenever the King summoned the Council using a royal writ. After king Narmacil it became a tradition to summon the Council to debate new legislation to the summer court of Minas Anor during Erulaitalë.
When the Realm of Gondor was established in Middle-earth in II 3320, the Council of Pelargir swore allegiance to Elendil as the king of Númenor in exile. Not wanting to intrude upon the internal affairs of the Pelargirean League, his sons Isildur and Anárion formed a second, royal council to debate matters of common concern to the Dúnedain in Gondor. This Great Council, Govadan Gondorim as it was called in sindarin or Alta Heren in most serene quenya, was to be comprised of three hundred leading Dúnadan households and represented by the heads of the families. The first action of the Council of Gondor was to establish a new hallow at which the worship of Eru Ilúvatar might be carried out according to the Namnar Númenórëo.
According to Gondorian Chronicles the Council included initially only 50 men, retainers and bannermen of Isildur and Anárion. It was quickly brought up to 300 with some local supporters, but the 50 Faithful families who came from Númenor to Endor in five ships retained their higher rank and precedence, having been saved by Eru Ilúvatar himself (as they claimed) and being thus chosen leaders of the Faithful community. Members of the fifty families then styled themselves as herenya, the Exalted. Membership was originally restricted to the heads of the families, but the practice was discontinued in the 8th century to include cadet branches and those siblings who could come up with the assigned property prerequisite. Sons would still inherit their seat only after their father's death.
The Great Council of Gondor held three principal responsibilities: 1) It functioned as the council to the king, 2) as the ultimate repository for the executive power, and 3) as a legislative body in concert with the king. The most far-reaching influence of the Council has been the right to elect and ordain new kings. While the kingship was technically always inherited, it was actually the Council of Gondor who validated each new king. The first king to be elected by the Council of Gondor was Meneldil, son of Anárion, who proclaimed the kingdom of Gondor independent from the line of Isildur in the north. After that, the Council has been called upon three times to replace and nominate the king.
When king Tarannon Falastur's marriage with queen Berúthiel (Barûthhîn) was proven infertile, Council of Gondor forced him to nominate his nephew Eärnil as his heir presumptive. The second ruling was to dispute the succession of half-northman Vinitharya and nomination of Castamir as the king and high priest of Gondor. The third affair arose when king Telemnar and his family perished in the Black Plague. Prince Vinyaran declined the succession and the Council of Gondor chose Minastir son of Minastan to become the twenty-seventh king of Gondor.
The Great Council's most significant task, outside of regal elections, was in its capacity as the king's council, and while the king could ignore any advice offered to him by the Govadan Gondorim, the council's growing prestige helped make the advice that it offered increasingly difficult to ignore. Technically the Council of Gondor could also make new laws, although it would be incorrect to view the Council's decrees as "legislation" in the modern sense. Only the king could decree new laws, although he often involved both the Great Council and his personal cabinet in the process.
In time the Great Council was expanded until it reached 600 members by the reign of Eärnil I. Extinct families were sometimes replaced by aspiring new ones and favourites of the kings, but otherwise the institution stratified and it became virtually impossible to rise to the status of Roechbin, until the bloodbath of Kin-strife purged its ranks. Several lords were killed in fighting, proscriptions ordered by Castamir, or popular revolts initiated by Eldacar's peasant supporters. In addition, more than a hundred members of the council, including eight herenya, withdrew to Umbar with their families and possessions when the Traditionalist League lost their civil war against Eldacar. To replenish the ranks of the knights, Eldacar ennobled many of his supporters, even if they were not technically eligible according to ancient law. Income prerequisite was lowered from 10 000 to 2 000 gold crowns per annum, and lineage was deemed pure enough if three of aspirants' four grandparents were of undiluted Númenórean blood.
After Kin-strife actual authority of the Great Council became negligible, as the King and his army held all power. As such, membership in the Council was source of prestige and social standing, rather than actual authority. The legislative powers of the Council were already minimal, but it still retained a range of powers over the provinces and held jurisdiction over criminal trials: Law of Númenor stipulated that members of the equestrian order could only be judged by their peers. Number of peers was in steady decline when the Great Plague decimated it further. In 1660, there were only 316 members of the Great Council left. King Tarondor created new peers by enfeoffing several deserving Dúnedain with margraviates in Lebennin, Calenardhon and Anfalas, and embracing the formerly shunned practice of accepting the seats to be bought by other memberes of the Council, to be held in trust by their selected retainers.
In core of the Council of Gondor was revered aristocracy of herenya, fifty families whose ancestry harked back to Númenor. These venerable families had come to Gondor with Isildur and Anárion and amassed fortunes beyond count. In 1650 the surviving thirty-three true-blooded families were richer than all the ordinary noble families combined and therefore able to exert insurmountable power.
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By the time of king Hyarmendacil II, most powers of the Great Council had been transferred to a more intimate circle of councilors, the Cabinet Council, whose chairman was the Steward of the Realm. The Cabinet Council became de facto government of Gondor, where policy was debated and laws formulated. The Great Council ceased to hear criminal cases, but retained power over their own knigthly order. The three yearly assemblies developed into fully religious and ceremonial occassions where the Council formally acknowledged royal decrees.
The Council of Gondor denied the claims of Arvedui and elected Eärnil II as the King of Gondor. Later, the Council was altogether dissolved by the Ruling Stewards and supplanted by a hereditary collegium of ministers, including the Lords of Lossarnach, Ringlo Vale, Morthond, Lamedon and Anfalas, and the Prince of Dol Amroth.