The University's original charter

  • To see leaves of the original charter, click here
  • To view a printed copy of the charter, click here

In March of 1826 John Strachan, the Anglican rector of the town of York, left for London, England to lobby for a university for Upper Canada.  His objective was realized on 15 March 1827 when he obtained a royal charter for a "College, with the style and privileges of an be called 'King's College'",1 controlled, of course, by the Church of England. That, in itself, ensured that Strachan would have a battle on his hands for adherents to the Church of England were, even then, a distinct minority in the colony. It was also one he would lose. The College did not open until 1843, by which time the winds of political reform were buffeting the governing establishment. When the Reform party took power in 1848, the assault on the Church of England's control of the College could no longer be turned back. On 31 December 1849, King's College ceased toexist and was replaced the next day by the non-denominational University of Toronto. The new University assumed the properties and obligations of the old, along with most of its faculty, including John McCaul who had succeeded Strachan as president of King's in 1848 and now became the first president of the University of Toronto.

The charter was no longer needed as the University's activities were now governed by provincial legislation. What, then, became of it? It was retained by Strachan and passed by "apostolic succession" or "the laying on of hands" (according to the clerical wags of the day) to his successor as bishop of Toronto and to his successor, Arthur Sweatman. McCaul showed no public interest in it and at the University it "remained unclaimed and forgotten".2 There matters might have remained had it not been for Daniel Wilson, who succeeded McCaul as president in 1880.

Wilson, the foremost authority on the antiquities of Scotland before coming to Canada in 1853, recognized the role that official symbols played in facilitating a sense of pride and place in an institution. He had been instrumental in promoting the idea of a corporate seal and in designing a coat of arms for the University.3 While attending the installation of Francis Lindey Patton as president of Princeton in 1888, he was impressed by the role the College charter played in the ceremony.4 Back in Toronto, Wilson instituted a rigorous search for the King's College charter, but to no avail. The following year he learned by chance that Bishop Sweatman had produced it "on the occasion of a grand reception at St. Alban's Cathedral (now the chapel of Royal St. George's School) on the jubilee of the Bishopric." The church authorities were reluctant to part with the charter -- "its possession gave some colour to the pretense of spoliation and confiscation of the endowments of a Church University and their alienation to a godless institution" -- and Wilson had to enlist the support of the premier to get it back.5 On 18 January 1890, the bursar of the University was informed that "His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor... has been pleased to authorize and appoint you to receive from His Lordship the Bishop of Toronto....the Royal Charter of King's College, now represented by Toronto University."6

Seventy-seven years later the charter disappeared again. This time the culprit was "housecleaning". In the summer of 1967 the University hired a work crew to clear old records out of a vault in Simcoe Hall used by past bursars of the University. One of the workers, an 18-year old student, noticed an official looking case in red morocco leather that he set aside. On returning from lunch, he discovered it missing but was able to retrieve it from the truck that was departing for the City incinerator. He tried but failed to interest anyone in the Library in the document, so he took it home. It was only about two years later, when he examined it closely, that he realized it's significance.

University officials, meanwhile, were in a quandry. 1977, the University's sesquicentennial, was approaching and they could not locate the charter. David Claringbold, secretary to the Governing Council, enlisted the assistance of the then University Archivist, David Rudkin, who determined that in the 1930's the charter was held by the Bursar. (Claringbold was also searching for other historical records that had been stored in the vault and had been missing for some years.7) The University appealed for the charter's return in an article in the University of Toronto Bulletin on 5 March 1976, with a title worthy of Agatha Christie: 'The case of the missing charter: an Archives mystery.'

On a Friday in mid-July 1977, Claringbold received a letter from the former worker stating that he wished to return the charter during the University's sesquicentennial year. The University responded with alacrity. On the following Monday, July 18, eighty-seven years and seven months to the day Wilson wrestled it from the clutches of the Anglican Church, the charter was once again in the possession of the University. Mr. Claringbold immediately transferred it to the University Archives for safekeeping.

Here it has remained, in a purpose-built case; a document of historical curiosity and, occasionally, envy. About five years after its return, a proponent of the proposed private Wolfe's University of King's College tried to claim the charter for his institution. The University, understandably, declined the request.

The Charter of the University of King's College, 1827

Royal charters in England date from the 13th century and were granted by the sovereign on the advice of the Privy Council, hence the closing line on the King's College charter, "By writ of Privy Seal". Their original purpose was to create public or private corporations,which including towns, cities, and educational institutions, and to define their privileges and purpose. A royal charter set out a university's overall constitution and statutes and provided detail as to how it should operate in practice.

This design of the King's College charter follows the tradition laid down in the Middle Ages. It was written on vellum with a border that was mechanically produced (earlier ones were often more elaborate and hand drawn) and included an image of the reigning monarch (George IV in 1827).8 The text was laid out on lines (red in this case)that formed part of the design,and the charter was signed by the appropriate official ("Bathurst"), and with a large (15 cm) red solid wax seal affixed. Henry Bathurst (1762-1834), 3rd Earl of Bathurst,was Secretary for War and the Colonies in government of Lord Liverpool.

The seal displays the reverse side. George IV is suited in classical armour, with sword in right arm extended, his head (full face) filleted with a laurel wreath, on a horse prancing to left field line, with his official style in Latin, "Georgius quartus dei gratia Britanniarum rex fidei defensor" ("George the Fourth, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith").9  George IV was the last British monarch to be shown wearing the classical laurel wreath. The seal has a crack across its lower third and there is some injury elsewhere on it, especially on the monarch's left leg where the surface has flaked off.


1.  'The Charter of the University of King's College, at York, in Upper Canada York: R. Stanton,1831', UTARMS 0031.

2.  U of T Archives, B1965-0004/004(02), Daniel Wilson's Letters and Journals, p. 185-187, 10 December 1890 and 14 March 1891

3.  Harold Averill and Gerald Keith, 'Daniel Wilson and the University of Toronto,' in Elizabeth Hulse, ed. Thinking with both hands: Sir Daniel Wilson in the Old World and the New. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999, 150, 198 n. 78.

4.  UTA, B1965-0004/004(02), Daniel Wilson's Letters and Journals, p. 187, 14 March 1891.

5.  Ibid., p. 187-188, 14 March 1891.

6.  UTA, A1970-0024/057(01), Assistant Secretary, Province of Ontario, to J.E. Berkeley Smith, Bursar, University of Toronto, 18 December 1890.

7.  UTA, A1988-0044. Notes in accession case file by David Rudkin and copy of a memo from David Claringbold to the Chairman of the Governing Council and President John Evans, 19 July 1977.

8.  Birch, W. de G. Catalogue of seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the Department British London: The British Museum, 1887,Volume I, 80; J. Harvey Bloom. English seals. London: Methuen & Co., 1906, 92-96

9.  The steel-engraved image of George IV is by H. Adlard and is taken from the frontispiece to The life and times of His Late Majesty, George the Fourth: with anecdotes of distinguised persons of the last fifty years, by the Rev. George Croly.  London: James Duncan, 1830