ProjectsLibraryNotice BoardAbout UsContact Us
  Economic & Social Research Council Website
Royal charter

A royal charter is a formal grant issued by a monarch under royal prerogative as letters patent. Historically, they have been used to promulgate public laws, the most famous example being the British Magna Carta (great charter) of 1215, but since the 14th century have only been used in place of private acts to grant a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organisations such as boroughs (with municipal charters), universities and learned societies.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

Royal charters gave the first regulation of medicine in Great Britain and Ireland. The Barbers Company of London in 1462, received the earliest recorded charters concerning medicine or surgery, charging them with the superintendence, scrutiny, correction and governance of surgery. A further charter in 1540 to the London Guild - renamed the Company of Barber-Surgeons - specified separate classes of surgeons, barber-surgeons, and barbers. The London 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.

Royal charters continue to be used in the United Kingdom to incorporate charities and professional bodies, to raise districts to Borough status, and to grant university status and degree awarding powers to colleges previously incorporated by royal charter.

Individual chartered designations, such as chartered accountant or chartered engineer, are granted by some chartered professional bodies to individual members that meet certain criteria. The Privy Council's policy is that all chartered designations should be broadly similar, and most require Master's level qualifications (or similar experience). In January 2007, the UK Trade Marks Registry refused to grant protection to the American Chartered Financial Analyst trademark, as the word "chartered" in the UK is associated with royal charters, thus its use would be misleading. "Charter" and "chartered" continue to be "sensitive words" in company names, requiring evidence of a royal charter or (for "chartered") permission from a professional body operating under royal charter.The use of "chartered" in a collective trade mark similarly requires the association applying for the mark to have a royal charter as otherwise "the mark would mislead the public into believing that the association and its members have chartered status".