Charters have been used in Europe since medieval times to grant rights and privileges to towns, boroughs and cities. During the 14th and 15th century the concept of incorporation of a municipality by royal charter evolved.
Among the past and present groups formed by royal charter are the Company of Merchants of the Staple of England (13th Century), the British East India Company (1600), the Hudson's Bay Company, the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (since merged into Standard Chartered), the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), the British South Africa Company, and some of the former British colonies on the North American mainland, City livery companies, the Bank of England and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Between the 14th and 19th centuries, royal charters were used to create chartered companies – for-profit ventures with shareholders, used for exploration, trade and colonisation. Early charters to such companies often granted trade monopolies, but this power was restricted to parliament from the end of the 17th century. Until the 19th century, royal charters were the only means other than an act of parliament by which a company could be incorporated; in the UK, the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844 opened up a route to incorporation by registration, since when incorporation by royal charter has been, according to the Privy Council, "a special token of Royal favour or … a mark of distinction".
The use of royal charters to incorporate organisations gave rise to the concept of the "corporation by prescription". This enabled corporations that had existed from time immemorial to be recognised as incorporated via the legal fiction of a "lost charter". Examples of corporations by prescription include Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Universities and colleges
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, of the 81 universities established in pre-Reformation Europe, 13 were established ex consuetudine without any form of charter, 33 by Papal bull alone, 20 by both Papal bull and imperial or royal charter, and 15 by imperial or royal charter alone. Universities established solely by royal (as distinct from imperial) charter did not have the same international recognition – their degrees were only valid within that kingdom.
The first university to be founded by charter was the University of Naples in 1224, founded by an imperial charter of Frederick II. The first university founded by royal charter was the University of Coimbra in 1290, by King Denis of Portugal, which received Papal confirmation the same year. Other early universities founded by royal charter include the University of Perpignan (1349; Papal confirmation 1379) and the University of Huesca (1354; no confirmation), both by Peter IV of Aragon, the Jagiellonian University (1364; Papal confirmation the same year) by Casimir III of Poland, the University of Vienna (1365; Papal confirmation the same year) by Rudolf IV, Duke of Austria, the University of Caen (1432; Papal confirmation 1437) by Henry VI of England, the University of Girona (1446; no confirmation) and the University of Barcelona (1450; Papal confirmation the same year), both by Alfonso V of Aragon, the University of Valence (1452; Papal confirmation 1459) by the Dauphin Louis (later Louis XI of France), and the University of Palma (1483; no confirmation) by Ferdinand II of Aragon.
The University of Cambridge was confirmed by a Papal bull in 1317 or 1318, but despite repeated attempts, the University of Oxford never received such confirmation. The three pre-Reformation Scottish universities (St Andrews, 1413; Glasgow, 1451; Aberdeen, 1494) were all established by Papal bulls.
Following the reformation, establishment of universities and colleges by royal charter became the norm. The University of Edinburgh was founded under the authority of a royal charter granted to the Edinburgh town council in 1582 by James VI as the "town's college". Trinity College Dublin was established by a royal charter of Elizabeth I (as Queen of Ireland) in 1593. Both of these charters were given in Latin.
The Edinburgh charter gave permission for the town council "to build and to repair sufficient houses and places for the reception, habitation and teaching of professors of the schools of grammar, the humanities and languages, philosophy, theology, medicine and law, or whichever liberal arts which we declare detract in no way from the aforesaid mortification" and granted them the right to appoint and remove professors. But, as concluded by Edinburgh's principal, Sir Alexander Grant, in his tercentenary history of the university, "Obviously this is no charter founding a university". Instead, he proposed, citing multiple pieces of evidence, that the surviving charter was original granted alongside a second charter founding the college, which was subsequently lost (possibly deliberately). This would also explain the source of Edinburgh's degree awarding powers, which were used from the foundation of the college.
The royal charter of Trinity College Dublin, while being straightforward in incorporating the college, also named it as "mother of a University", and rather than granting the college degree-awarding powers stated that "the students on this College … shall have liberty and power to obtain degrees of Bachelor, Master, and Doctor, at a suitable time, in all arts and faculties". Thus the University of Dublin was also brought into existence by this charter, as the body that awards the degrees earned by students at Trinity College.
Following this, no surviving universities were created in the British Isles until the 19th century. The 1820s saw two colleges receive royal charters: St David's College, Lampeter in 1828 and King's College London in 1829. Neither of these were granted degree-awarding powers or university status. The 1830s saw an attempt by University College London to gain a charter as a university and the creation by Act of Parliament of Durham University, but without incorporating it or granting any specific powers. These led to debate about the powers of royal charters and what was implicit to a university.
The essence of the debate was firstly whether the power to award degrees was incidental to the creation of a university or needed to be explicitly granted and secondly whether a royal charter could, if the power to award degrees was incidental, limit that power – UCL wishing to be granted a royal charter as "London University" but excluding the power to award degrees in theology due to the secular nature of the institute. Sir Charles Wetherell, arguing against the grant of a royal charter to UCL before the Privy Council in 1835, argued for degree-awarding powers being an essential part of a university that could not be limited by charter. However, Sir William Hamilton, wrote a response to Wetherell in the Edinburgh Review, drawing in Durham University and arguing that the power to award specific degrees had been explicitly granted historically, thus creating a university did not implicitly grant degree-awarding powers.
UCL was incorporated by royal charter in 1836, but without university status or degree-awarding powers, which went instead to the University of London, created by royal charter with the explicit power to grant degrees in Arts, Law and Medicine. Durham University was incorporated by royal charter in 1837, but although this confirmed that it had "all the property, rights, and privileges which … are incident to a University established by our Royal Charter" it contained no explicit grant of degree-awarding powers. This was considered sufficient for it to award "degrees in all the faculties", but all future university royal charters explicitly stated that they were creating a university and explicitly granted degree-awarding power. Both London (1878) and Durham (1895) later received supplemental charters allowing the granting of degrees to women, which was considered to require explicit authorisation. After going through four charters and a number of supplemental charters, London was reconstituted by Act of Parliament in 1898.
The Queen's Colleges in Ireland, at Belfast, Cork, and Galway, were established by royal charter in 1845, as colleges without degree awarding powers. The Queens University of Ireland received its royal charter in 1850, stating "We do will, order, constitute, ordain and found an University … and the same shall possess and exercise the full powers of granting all such Degrees as are granted by other Universities or Colleges in the faculties of Arts, Medicine and Law". This served as the degree awarding body for the Queen's Colleges until it was replaced by the Royal University of Ireland.
The royal charter of the Victoria University in 1880 started explicitly that "There shall be and is hereby constituted and founded a University" and granted an explicit power of awarding degrees (except in medicine, added by supplemental charter in 1883).
From then until 1992, all universities in the United Kingdom were created by royal charter except for Newcastle University, which was separated from Durham via an Act of Parliament. Following the independence of the Republic of Ireland, new universities there have been created by Acts of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament). Since 1992, most new universities in the UK have been created by Orders of Council as secondary legislation under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, although granting degree-awarding powers and university status to colleges incorporated by royal charter is done via an amendment to their charter.
Several of the colonial colleges that predate the American Revolution are described as having been established by royal charter. Except for The College of William & Mary, which received its charter from King William III and Queen Mary II in 1693 following a mission to London by college representatives, these were either provincial charters granted by local governors (acting in the name of the king) or charters granted by legislative acts from local assemblies.
The first charters to be issued by a colonial governor on the consent of their council (rather than by an act of legislation) were those granted to Princeton University (as the College of New Jersey) in 1746 (from acting governor John Hamilton) and 1748 (from Governor Jonathan Belcher). There was concern as to whether a royal charter given by a governor in the King's name was valid without royal approval. An attempt to resolve this in London in 1854 ended inconclusively when Henry Pelham, the prime minister, died. However, Princeton's charter was never challenged in court prior to its ratification by the state legislature in 1880, following the US Declaration of Independence.
Columbia University received its royal charter (as King's College) in 1754 from Lieutenant Governor James DeLancey of New York, who bypassed the assembly rather than risking it rejecting the charter. Rutgers University received its (as Queen's College) in 1766 (and a second charter in 1770) from Governor William Franklin of New Jersey, and Dartmouth College received its in 1769 from Governor John Wentworth of New Hampshire. The case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, heard before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1818 centred on the status of the college's royal charter. The court found in 1819 that the charter was a contract under the Contract Clause of the US Constitution, meaning that it could not be impaired by state legislation, and that it had not been dissolved by the revolution.
The charter for the College of William and Mary specified it to be a "place of universal study, or perpetual college, for divinity, philosophy, languages and other good arts and sciences", but made no mention of the right to award degrees. The Princeton charter, however, specified that the college could "give and grant any such degree and degrees … as are usually granted in either of our universities or any other college in our realm of Great Britain". Columbia's charter used very similar language a few years later, as did Dartmouth's charter. The charter of Rutger uses quite different words, specifying that it may "confer all such honorary degrees as usually are granted and conferred in any of our colleges in any of our colonies in America".
Of the other colleges founded prior to the American Revolution, Harvard College was established in 1636 by Act of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and incorporated in 1650 by a charter from the same body, Yale University was established in 1701 by Act of the General Assembly of Connecticut, the University of Pennsylvania received a charter from the proprietors of the colony in 1753, Brown University was established in 1764 (as the College of Rhode Island) by an Act of the Governor and General Assembly of Rhode Island and Hampden-Sydney College was established privately in 1775 but not incorporated until 1783.
A number of Canadian universities and colleges were founded or reconstituted under Royal Charter in the 19th century, prior to confederation in 1867. Most Canadian universities originally established by royal charter were subsequently reincorporated by acts of legislature.
The University of King's College was founded in 1789 and received a royal charter in 1802 naming it, like Trinity College Dublin, "the Mother of an University" and granting it the power to award degrees. The charter remains in force.
McGill University was established under the name of McGill College in 1821 by a provincial royal charter issued by Lord Dalhousie as Governor General of British North America, which stated that the "College shall be deemed and taken to be an University" and should have the power to grant degrees.
It was reconstituted by a Royal Charter issued in 1852 by Queen Victoria, which remains in force.
The University of New Brunswick was founded in 1785 as the Academy of Liberal Arts and Sciences and received a provincial charter as the College of New Brunswick in 1800. In the 1820s it began giving university-level instruction and received a Royal Charter under the name "King's College" as a "College, with the style and privileges of an University" in 1827. The college was reconstituted as the University of New Brunswick by an act of legislature in 1859.
The University of Toronto was founded by royal charter in 1827 under the name of King's College as a "College, with the style and privileges of an University", but did not open until 1843. The charter was subsequently revoked and the institution replaced by the University of Toronto in 1849 under provincial legislation. Victoria University, a college of the University of Toronto, opened in 1832 under the name of the Upper Canada Academy giving "pre-university" classes and received a royal charter in 1836. In 1841 a provincial act replaced the charter, reconstituted the academy as Victoria College, and granted it degree-awarding powers. Another college of Toronto, Trinity College, was incorporated by an act of legislature in 1851 and received a royal charter in 1852 stating that it "shall be a University and shall have and enjoy all such and the like privileges as are enjoyed by our Universities of our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".
Queen's University was established by Royal Charter in 1841. This remains in force as the university's primary constitutional document and was last amended, through the Canadian federal parliament, in 2011.
Laval University was founded by Royal Charter in 1852, which granted it degree awarding powers and started that it would "have, posess and enjoy all such and the like privileges as are enjoyed by our Universities of our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". This was replaced by a new charter from the National Assembly of Quebec in 1971.
Bishop's University was founded, as Bishop's College, by an Act of Canadian Parliament in 1843 and received a royal charter in 1853 granting it the power to award degrees and stating that "said College shall be deemed and taken to be a University, and shall have and enjoy all such and the like privileges as are enjoyed by our Universities of our United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".
The University of Ottawa was established in 1848 as the College of Bytown. It received a Royal Charter under the name College of Ottawa raising it to university status in 1866.
The older Australian universities of Sydney (1850) and Melbourne (1853) were founded by acts of the legislatures of the colonies. This gave rise to doubts about whether their degrees would be recognised outside of those colonies, leading to them seeking royal charters from London, which would grant legitimacy across the British Empire.
The University of Sydney obtained a royal charter in 1858. This stated that "the Memorialists confidently hope that the
Graduates of the University of Sydney will not be inferior in scholastic requirements to
the majority of Graduates of British Universities, and that it is desirable to have the
degrees of the University of Sydney generally recognised throughout our dominions; and
it is also humbly submitted that although our Royal Assent to the Act of Legislature of
New South Wales hereinbefore recited fully satisfies the principle of our law that the
power of granting degrees should flow from the Crown, yet that as that assent was
conveyed through an Act which has effect only in the territory of New South Wales, the
Memorialists believe that the degrees granted by the said University under the authority of the said Act, are not legally entitled to recognition beyond the limits of New South Wales; and the Memorialists are in consequence most desirous to obtain a grant from us of Letters Patent requiring all our subjects to recognise the degrees given under the Act of the Local Legislature in the same manner as if the said University of Sydney had been an University established within the United Kingdom under a Royal Charter or an Imperial enactment" (emphasis in the original). The charter went on to "will, grant and declare that the Degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, Bachelor of Laws, Doctor of Laws, Bachelor of Medicine, and Doctor of Medicine, already granted or conferred or hereafter to be granted or conferred by the Senate of the said University of Sydney shall be recognised as Academic distinctions and rewards of merit and be entitled to rank, precedence, and consideration in our United Kingdom and in our Colonies and possessions throughout the world as fully as if the said Degree had been granted by any University of our said United Kingdom" (emphasis in the original). The University of Melbourne's charter, issued the following year, similarly granted its degrees equivalence with those from British universities.
The act that established the University of Adelaide in 1874 included women undergraduates, causing a delay in the granting of its charter as the authorities in London did not wish to allow this. A further petition for the power to award degrees to women was rejected in 1878 – the same year that London was granted that authority. A charter was finally granted – admitting women to degrees – in 1881.
The last of Australia's 19th century universities, the University of Tasmania, was established in 1890 and obtained a royal charter in 1915.
Guilds, learned societies and professional bodies
Guilds and livery companies are among the earliest organisations recorded as receiving royal charters. The Privy Council list has the Saddlers Company in 1272 as the earliest, followed by the Merchant Taylors Company in 1326 and the Skinners Company in 1327. The earliest charter to the Saddlers Company gave them authority over the saddlers trade; it was not until 1395 that they received a charter of incorporation. The Merchant Taylors were similarly incorporated by a subsequent charter in 1408.
Royal charters gave the first regulation of medicine in England. In 1462 the Barbers Company received the earliest known charter concerning surgery, charging them with the superintendence, scrutiny, correction and governance of surgeons in the City of London and its suburbs. A further charter in 1540 to the renamed Company of Barber-Surgeons specified separate classes of surgeons, barber-surgeons, and barbers. The Company of Surgeons separated from the barbers in 1745, eventually leading to the establishment of the Royal College of Surgeons by royal charter in 1800. The Royal College of Physicians of London was established by royal charter in 1518 and charged with regulating the practice of medicine in the City of London and within seven miles of the city. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland was established by royal charter in 1667 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1784.
The Royal Society was established in 1660 as Britain's first learned society and received its first royal charter in 1662. It was reincorporated by a second royal charter in 1663, which was then amended by a third royal charter in 1669. These were all in Latin, but a supplemental charter in 2012 gave an English translation to take precedence over the Latin text. The Royal Society of Edinburgh was established by royal charter in 1783 and the Royal Irish Academy was established in 1785 and received its royal charter in 1786.
New professional bodies were formed in Britain in the early 19th century representing new professions that arose after the industrial revolution and the rise of laissez-faire capitalism. These new bodies sought recognition by gaining royal charters, laying out their constitutions and defining the profession in question, often based on occupational activity or particular expertise. To their various corporate objectives, these bodies added the concept of working in the public interest that was not found in earlier professional bodies. This established a pattern for British professional bodies, and the 'public interest' has become a key test for a body seeking a royal charter.