Regal Beginnings: The Royal Charter of 1841
...if the petitioners wanted the name “Queen’s College,” they’d have to appeal to his superior. Only Queen Victoria herself could bestow the honour of such a name.
Before Queen’s University was born, higher education in Canada was dominated by the Anglican King’s College in Toronto. By the 1840s, colonists of other denominations began to question this status quo, and a group of Kingston-area clerics and politicians (including an up-and-coming Kingston lawyer named John A. Macdonald) petitioned the colonial assembly for the right to establish a college that fit Presbyterian sensibilities. Governor General Lord Sydenham obliged with an act of parliament that brought the petitioners’ ambition to life.
When they began discussing the name of the new school though, Lord Sydenham had a caveat: if the petitioners wanted the name “Queen’s College,” they’d have to appeal to his superior. Only Queen Victoria herself could bestow the honour of such a name. Undeterred, William Morris, the chairman of the would-be college’s board of trustees, boldly petitioned Queen Victoria in London for a royal charter that would bless the fledgling college with a regal name.
Negotiations about the charter’s content stretched through much of 1841, but after lobbying and legal fees that amounted to a princely sum of £561, the trustees received their charter on October 16. Among its conditions was that the college’s buildings must be no further than three miles from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in downtown Kingston.
Contrary to common belief, the Queen’s charter was not signed by the good Queen herself. It was instead signed by a civil servant, Leonard Edmunds, who was the Commissioner of Patents. Moreover, despite the charter being “royal,” Queen’s must obtain a private act of Parliament if it wishes to alter the terms of its mandate. It would do so in 1889 to alter its relation with the Church of Scotland and again in 1912 to secularize itself and alter its status to that of a “university.”
In all, Queen’s has gone before Parliament nine times, the most recent in 2011 to ask for amendments that would give Queen’s Board of Trustees and University Council responsibility for their size and composition.