Royal Charter

  Consolidated Royal Charter(143 KB)

"Queen's College at Kingston" was incorporated by an Imperial Royal Charter issued by Queen Victoria on October 16, 1841, a date celebrated ever since as University Day.

[photo of the Royal Charter]

Courtesy Queen's Archives

Contrary to persistent myth, the Queen herself did not sign the charter; it was actually signed by Leonard Edmunds, a minor British government functionary who later gained fame in a major British political scandal.

The Charter established Queen's basic structure. Among other things, it created a Board of Trustees responsible for overseeing the operation of the University, provided for a Senate responsible for all academic matters, and created the post of Principal.

The charter remains the university's basic constitutional document, but it has been modified in numerous important respects by Parliament, which has authority over all amendments and additions.

In 1882, for example, it was changed to allow the creation of the University Council and the position of Chancellor. These had in fact existed at Queen's since 1874, when the University had commissioned the provincial legislature to amend the Charter to provide for them. In 1882, however, a court judgment in a case involving another institution revealed that the province had no such authority, so a federal statute repealing the desired amendments was quickly secured by Queen's.

The most important set of amendments came in 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1916, when the Charter was substantially changed so that Queen's could separate from the Presbyterian Church. At this time, the University also changed its name officially to "Queen's University at Kingston." In 1961, a private member's bill divided the offices of Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

Restoring the royal charter

[conservation team]
The archives conservation team with the charter

When the Reverend Thomas Liddell arrived in Kingston in December 1841 to begin his role as Queen’s first principal, his luggage contained more than clerical robes and academic books. Tucked into his trunk was an oddly-shaped tin canister — called a “banjo box” by today’s Queen’s archivists — which contained the college’s royal charter.

[The Royal Charter]
The Royal Charter

Inside the box was the rolled parchment charter and the heavy, round wax seal, complete with two images of Queen Victoria. While the Queen had left the signing of the charter to a civil servant, her seal gave the young college it license to operate.

Over the next century, the terms of the charter would be amended as the needs and circumstances of Queen’s changed. Royal charter colleges (there were six in Canada) require federal legislation to alter their privileges. Most notably, the Parliament in Ottawa in 1912 altered Queen’s original rights to strip the initial Presbyterian dedication out of the charter and make it a secular university.

Since the college had no official archives until 1961, the charter bounced around the campus from one home to another. Initially, it was stored in the vault of the university’s bank, then in the library’s so-called “Treasure Room,” a repository of rare books and artifacts. Lacking proper humidity and temperature controls, the charter’s delicate parchment and wax-resin seal deteriorated. The seal shrank and fragmented into five sections while the charter itself, left rolled in the banjo box, became creased and contracted. The bas-relief of Queen Victoria on the seal became indistinguishable.

Bringing the charter back to life

In the late 20th century, two events combined to halt the charter’s deterioration. In 1972, the Senate voted to create a 24-month MA program in art conservation, the only one of its kind in Canada. The new program was intended to provide a complement to the established success of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and Queen’s Art History Department. Queen’s would be the first university art conservation program in Canada. Ian Hodkinson, a highly regarded art conservator, was appointed to head the program In the late 1980s, the availability of skilled conservators, combined with Queen’s urge to celebrate its 150th anniversary, resulted in an effort to restore the charter to its original grandeur.

Urged on by the Sesquicentenary Committee, Queen’s conservation program graduates Margaret Bignell and Thea Burns began a painstaking restoration of the charter in the summer of 1989. The three-layer parchment proclamation was cleaned, re-humidified and delicately stretched back into its original configuration. The fractured seal was cleaned of built-up debris and grime, then reunified by applying wax-resin to the fissures. They carefully tried to bring better definition of Queen Victoria on the face of the seal. Finally, a new storage container was constructed so that the charter would never again have to be rolled in its banjo box. The whole restoration took hundreds of hours and, when it was completed in time for the 1991 sesquicentennial, attracted global attention in art conservation circles.

Now restored, the charter was sent to the University Archives. To celebrate the 150th anniversary, the university decided to commission a replica. A new seal was made using master moulds at the Public Record Office in London. Digital photography was used to replicate the parchment declaration. In the spirit of the sesquicentennial, the Arts and Science and Commerce student societies generously paid for the replica, which was then installed in a wall cabinet in the John Deutsch University Centre for all to view.  

The most recent amendment was in 1996 when the composition of the Board of Trustees was expanded to include students, faculty, and staff.

The charter itself consists of three sheets of parchment with handwritten script and decorative borders, all attached at the bottom by red cord to a large seal of green wax imprinted with pictures of Queen Victoria.

The document, somewhat faded but still legible, is held in the Queen's Archives. A fine replica of the Charter was donated to Queen's by students for the University's Sesquicentennial anniversary and is on permanent display in the John Deutsch University Centre.