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A royal charter is a formal document issued by a monarch as letters patent, granting a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organisations such as cities (with municipal charters) or universities and learned societies. Charters should be distinguished from warrants and letters of appointment, as they have perpetual effect. Typically, a Royal Charter is produced as a high-quality work of calligraphy on vellum. The British monarchy has issued over 980 royal charters. Of these about 750 remain in existence. The earliest was to the town of Tain in 1066, making it the oldest Royal Burgh in Scotland, followed by the University of Cambridge in 1231. Charters continue to be issued by the British Crown, a recent example being that awarded to The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, in 2014.
Charters have been used in Europe since medieval times to create cities (that is, localities with recognised legal rights and privileges). The date that such a charter is granted is considered to be when a city is 'founded', regardless of when the locality originally began to be settled (which is often impossible to determine).
At one time, a royal charter was the sole means by which an incorporated body could be formed, but other means (such as the registration process for limited companies) are generally used nowadays instead.
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, 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).
The royal decree is the equivalent in Belgium of a Royal Charter. In the period before 1958, 32 higher education institutes had been created by royal charter. These were typically engineering or technical institutions rather than universities.
However, several non-technical higher education institutions have been founded, or refounded, under royal decree:
Since the Belgian state reform of 1988–1989, competency over education was transferred to the federated entities of Belgium. Royal decrees can therefore no longer grant higher education institution status or university status.
A Royal Charter is granted by Order in Council, either creating an incorporated body, or giving an existent one special status. This is an exercise of the Royal Prerogative, and, in Canada, there are hundreds of organisations under Royal Charters. Such organisations include charities, businesses, colleges, universities, and cities. Today, it is mostly charities and professional institutions who receive Royal Charters.
Application for a charter is a petition to the Queen-in-Council. To receive a Royal Charter, the organisation must have corporate members who have at least first degree level in a relevant field, consist of 5,000 members or more, be financially sound, and it must be in the public interest to regulate the institution under a charter. However, meeting these benchmarks does not guarantee the issuance of a Royal Charter.
Companies, corporations, and societies in Canada founded under or augmented by a Royal Charter include:
British royal chartered corporations operating in Canada
Cities under Royal Charter are not subject to municipal Acts of Parliament applied generally to other municipalities, and instead are governed by legislation applicable to each city individually. The Royal Charter codifies the laws applied to the particular city, and lays out the powers and responsibilities not given to other municipalities in the province concerned.
A number of Canadian universities and colleges were founded or reconstituted under Royal Charter.
Several Canadian private schools were founded or reconstituted under Royal Charter.
During British rule in Hong Kong which is between 1842 and 1997, a number of organisations had received Royal Charter:
A number of Irish institutions retain the "Royal" prefix, even though the Republic of Ireland severed all remaining connections between the state and the British monarch in 1949.
A more detailed list of current Irish institutions with Royal patronage is available here
A list of former Royal institutions with ties to Ireland, but they were mostly British institutions created in Ireland during British rule:
The University of South Africa received a Royal Charter in 1877. The Natal Yacht Club (Durban) received a Royal Charter in 1891, and is still known as  Royal Natal Yacht Club. The Natal Carbineers regiment received a Royal Charter in 1935, becoming known as the Royal Natal Carbineers until South Africa became a republic in 1961. The Royal Natal National Park's name remained unchanged, as did that of the Royal Society of South Africa, which received its Royal Charter in 1908.
Among the 750 or so organisations with Royal Charters are cities; the Bank of England; BSI Group; the BBC; theatres such as the Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Livery Companies; universities (mostly those founded before 1993) and learned societies; professional institutions, such as the Institution of Royal Engineers and charities.
A Royal Charter is the mechanism by which a British town is raised to the status of city. Most recently Chelmsford in Essex was granted a Royal Charter in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Inverness, Brighton & Hove and Wolverhampton were given their charters to celebrate the Millennium, and Preston, Stirling, Newport, Lisburn and Newry to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002.
Most British universities operate under Royal Charters, giving them the authority to award degrees. The most recent generation of UK universities were granted the power to award degrees by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 instead of by Royal Charter, while some other universities operate under Acts of Parliament. The University of Buckingham, The University of Law are the only private higher education institutions to have received a Royal Charter.
Most new grants of Royal Charters these days are reserved for eminent professional institutions, learned societies, or charities, who have a solid record of achievement and are financially stable. Though a royal charter is not necessary for them to incorporate or operate, it is often sought as recognition of "pre-eminence, stability and permanence" in representing their field of activity. For example, the five accountancy institutes which make up the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies each have a Royal Charter which allows their qualified members to style themselves Chartered Accountants.
The BBC operates under a Royal Charter which lasts for a period of ten years, after which it is renewed.
A Royal Charter changes a body from a collection of individuals into a single legal entity. Once incorporated by Royal Charter, amendments to the Charter and by-laws require government approval.
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.
A list of UK chartered professional associations can be found here.
Although several American universities which predate the American Revolution purport to hold royal charters, in a number of cases they were in fact created by a grant from a local council such as a colonial legislature.
American colleges popularly believed to have been established by Royal Charter, but actually by some other type of grant:
The distinction between the Letters Patent forming Dartmouth, Princeton, and Rutgers versus those documents founding William & Mary or King's College (Columbia University) is that the seal of the Province of New Hampshire appears on Dartmouth College's charter and that the seal of the Province of New Jersey appears on Princeton University's and Rutgers University's charters while the Great Seal of the Realm appears on the College of William and Mary and King's College documents.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was created by royal charter.