City status in the United Kingdom is granted by the British monarch to a select group of communities. The holding of city status gives a settlement no special rights other than that of calling itself a "city". Nonetheless, this appellation carries its own prestige and, consequently, competitions for the status are hard fought. The status does not apply automatically on the basis of any particular criteria, although in England and Wales it was traditionally given to towns with diocesan cathedrals. This association between having a cathedral and being called a city was established in the early 1540s when King Henry VIII founded dioceses (and therefore cathedrals) in six English towns and also granted them all city status by issuing letters patent.
City status in Ireland was granted to far fewer communities than in England and Wales, and there are only two pre-nineteenth-century cities in present-day Northern Ireland. In Scotland, city status did not explicitly receive any recognition by the state until the nineteenth century. At that time, a revival of grants of city status took place, first in England, where the grants were accompanied by the establishment of new cathedrals, and later in Scotland and Ireland.
In the twentieth century, it was explicitly recognised that the status of city in England and Wales would no longer be bound to the presence of a cathedral, and grants made since have been awarded to communities on a variety of criteria, including population size.
The abolition of some corporate bodies as part of successive local-government reforms, beginning with the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act 1840, has deprived some ancient cities of their status; however, letters patent have been issued for most of the affected cities in order to ensure the continuation or restoration of their status. At present, Rochester, Perth and Elgin are the only former cities in the United Kingdom.
Until the 16th century, a town was recognised as a city by the English Crown if it had a diocesan cathedral within its limits. This means some cities today are very small, because they were unaffected by population growth during the Industrial Revolution—notably Wells (population about 10,000) and St David's (population about 2,000) (see Smallest cities in the United Kingdom). After the 16th century, no new dioceses (and no new cities) were created until the 19th century.
In 1836, Ripon was the first of a number of new dioceses to be created. Ripon Town Council assumed that this had elevated the town to the rank of a city, and started referring to itself as the City and Borough of Ripon. The next diocese to be created was Manchester, and the Borough Council began to informally use the title city. When Queen Victoria visited Manchester in 1851, the doubts surrounding the status of the town were raised. The situation was resolved when the borough petitioned for city status, which was granted by letters patent in 1854. This eventually forced Ripon to regularise its position, with its city status being recognised by a local Act of Parliament in 1865. The Manchester case established a precedent that any municipal borough in which an Anglican see was established was entitled to petition for city status. Accordingly, Truro, St Albans, Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Wakefield were all officially designated as cities between 1877 and 1888. This was not without opposition from the Home Office, who dismissed St Albans as "a fourth or fifth rate market town" and objected to Wakefield's elevation on grounds of population. In one new diocese, Southwell, a city was not created, because Southwell was a village without a borough corporation and therefore could not petition the Queen. The diocese covered the counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and the boroughs of Derby and Nottingham were both disappointed that they would not be able to claim the title of city.
The link with Anglican dioceses was broken in 1889 when Birmingham successfully petitioned for city status on the grounds of its large population and history of good local government. At the time of the grant, Birmingham lacked a cathedral, although the parish church later became a cathedral in 1905. This new precedent was followed by other large municipalities, with Leeds and Sheffield both becoming cities in 1893, and Bradford, Kingston upon Hull and Nottingham being honoured on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The last three had been the largest county boroughs outside the London area without city status.
Between 1897 and 1914, applications were received from a number of other boroughs, but only one was successful: in 1905, Cardiff was designated a city and granted a lord mayoralty as "the Metropolis of Wales".
In 1907, the Home Office and King Edward VII agreed on a policy that future applicants would have to meet certain criteria. This policy, which was not at the time made public, had the effect of stemming the number of city creations.
The 1907 policy contained three criteria:
However, well into the twentieth century it was often assumed that the presence of a cathedral was sufficient to elevate a town to city status, and that for cathedral cities the city charters were recognising its city status rather than granting it. On this basis, the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica incorrectly said that Southwell and St Asaph were cities.
The policy laid down by Edward VII was continued by his successor, George V, who ascended the throne in 1910. In 1911, an application for city status by Portsmouth was refused. Explaining the Home Secretary's reason for not recommending the King to approve the petition, the Lord Advocate stated:
...during the reign of his late Majesty it was found necessary, in order to maintain the value of the distinction, to lay down a rule as to the minimum population which should ordinarily, in connexion with other considerations, be regarded as qualifying a borough for that higher status.
Following the First World War, the King made an official visit to Leicester in 1919 to commemorate its contributions to the military victory. The borough council had made several applications for city status since 1889, and took the opportunity of the visit to renew its request. Leicester had a population of approximately 230,000 at the previous census, but its petition was granted as an exception to the policy, as it was officially a restoration of a dignity lost in the past. When the county borough of Stoke on Trent applied for city status in 1925, it was initially refused as it had only 294,000 inhabitants. The decision was overturned, however, as it was felt to have outstanding importance as the centre of the pottery industry. The effective relaxation of the population rule led to applications from Portsmouth and Salford. The civil servants in the Home Office were minded to refuse both applications. In particular, Salford was felt to be "merely a scratch collection of 240,000 people cut off from Manchester by the river". Salford's case, however, was considered favourably by the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, MP for a neighbouring constituency of Manchester. Following protests from Portsmouth, which felt it had better credentials as a larger town and as the "first Naval Port of the kingdom", both applications were approved in 1926.
In 1927, a Royal Commission on Local Government was examining local-authority areas and functions in England and Wales. The question arose as to which towns were entitled to be called cities, and the chairman, the Earl of Onslow, wrote to the Home Office to seek clarification. The Home Office replied with a memorandum which read:
The title of a city which is borne by certain boroughs is a purely titular distinction. It has no connexion with the status of the borough in respect of local government and confers no powers or privileges. At the present time and for several centuries past the title has been obtained only by an express grant from the Sovereign effected by letters patent; but a certain number of cities possess the title by very ancient prescriptive right. There is no necessary connexion between the title of a city and the seat of a bishopric, and the creation of a new see neither constitutes the town concerned a city nor gives it any claim to the grant of letters patent creating it a city.
In 1928, Plymouth submitted an application for city status. As the borough was larger than Portsmouth, and had recently absorbed Devonport and East Stonehouse, the King agreed to the request. However, he indicated that he had "come to an end of city making", and Southampton's application in the following year was turned down.
The next city to be created was Lancaster as part of the coronation celebrations of King George VI. With a population of a little over 50,000, Lancaster was stated to be an exception due to the town's "long association with the crown" and because it was "the county town of the King's Duchy of Lancaster". Following the Second World War, members of Cambridge Borough Council made contact with Lancaster officials for assistance in their application. Cambridge became a city in 1951, again for "exceptional" reasons, as the only ancient seat of learning in the kingdom not a city or royal burgh and to coincide with the 750th anniversary of the borough's first charter of incorporation. Croydon also applied in 1951, but failed as it was felt not to have a sufficient identity apart from Greater London, and reports on the conduct of local government in the town were unfavourable.
It was anticipated that the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 would lead to the creation of a city, and Preston and Southampton made approaches. In the event, the only civic honour given was that of a lord mayoralty to Coventry. Derby and Southwark made unsuccessful applications in 1955.
The planned reorganisations by the Local Government Commissions for England and Wales from 1958 effectively blocked new city grants. Southampton lodged a petition in 1958. Initially refused in 1959, pending the decision of the Commission, it was eventually allowed in 1964.
With the establishment of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England in 1966, city grants were again in abeyance in England. Attempts by Derby, Teesside and Wolverhampton to become cities were not proceeded with.
The Local Government Act 1972 abolished all existing local authorities (other than parish councils) in England and Wales. This meant that the various local authorities that held city status ceased to exist on 1 April 1974. In order to preserve city status, new letters patent were issued to the metropolitan-borough, non-metropolitan-district or successor-parish councils created by the 1972 Act. There were two exceptions: charter trustees were established for the City of New Sarum (or Salisbury), and special letters patent preserved the City of Rochester as part of the new Borough of Medway.
In 1977, as part of the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II, Derby received city status. In 1992, on the fortieth anniversary of the monarch's accession, it was announced that another town would be elevated to a city. An innovation on this occasion was that a competition was to be held, with communities being required to submit applications. Sunderland was the successful applicant.
This was followed in 1994 by the restoration of the dignity to St David's, historic see of a bishop.
Since 2000, city status has been awarded to four towns by competition on special occasions (see Modern practice of granting city status below). Three successful applicants in England have become cities, as well as one in Wales; these were Brighton and Hove and Wolverhampton in 2000, and Preston and Newport in 2002.
Scotland had no cities by royal charter or letters patent prior to 1889. The term city was not always consistently applied, and there were doubts over the number of officially designated cities. The royal burghs of Edinburgh and Perth anciently used the title civitas, but the term city does not seem to have been used prior to the fifteenth century. Unlike the situation in England, in Scotland there was no link between the presence of a cathedral and the title of city. Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh were accepted as cities by ancient usage by the eighteenth century, while Perth and Elgin also used the title. In 1856, the burgh of Dunfermline resolved to use the title of city in all official documents in the future, based on long usage and its former status as a royal capital. The status was never officially recognised.
In 1889, Dundee was granted city status by letters patent. The grant by formal document led to doubts about the use of the title city by other burghs. In 1891, the city status of Aberdeen was confirmed when the burgh was enlarged by local Act of Parliament. The Royal Burgh of Inverness applied for promotion to a city as part of the jubilee honours in 1897. The request was not granted, partly because it would draw attention to the lack of any charter granting the title to existing cities. Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow were constituted "counties of cities" by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929. The Act made no statement on the title city for any other burgh. In 1969, the Home Secretary, James Callaghan stated that there were six cities in Scotland (without naming them) and Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Elgin, Glasgow and Perth were the only burghs listed as cities in 1972.
The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 completely reorganised Scotland's local administration in 1975. All burghs were abolished, and a system of districts created. The four districts of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow had City included in their titles by the Act. The 1975 districts were replaced with the present council areas by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 in 1996, and the same four cities were designated.
Since the 1996 reorganisation, two more Scottish cities have been designated: Inverness as part of the millennium celebrations, and Stirling in 2002, to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. In the case of both these cities, there are no city councils and no formal boundaries, and the letters patent simply state that the "town" has the status. In January 2008, a petition to matriculate armorial bearings for the City of Inverness was refused by Lord Lyon King of Arms on the grounds that there is no corporate body or legal persona to whom arms can be granted.
City status in Ireland tended historically to be granted by royal charter. There are many towns in Ireland with Church of Ireland cathedrals which have never been called cities. In spite of this, Armagh was considered a city, by virtue of its being the seat of the Primate of All Ireland, until the abolition of Armagh's city corporation by the Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act 1840. The only historic city with a charter in present-day Northern Ireland is Derry, created a city in 1604, and renamed "Londonderry" by a subsequent charter of 1613.
In 1887, the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria was celebrated, and the Borough of Belfast submitted a memorial to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland seeking city status. Belfast based its claim on its similarity to two English boroughs that had received the honour—the seaport of Liverpool and the textile centre of Manchester—and the fact that it had (at the time) a larger population than the City of Dublin. Following some legal debate, city status was conferred in 1888. The grant of the honour on the grounds of being a large industrial town, rather than a diocesan centre, was unprecedented. Belfast's example was soon followed by Birmingham and Dundee in England and Scotland respectively.
In 1994, Armagh's city status was restored. In 2002, Lisburn and Newry were two of the five towns in the UK that were granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II to mark her Golden Jubilee. In the case of Lisburn, the status extends to the entire local-government district. Newry, like Inverness and Stirling in Scotland, has no formal boundaries or city council. The letters patent were presented to representatives of Newry and Mourne District Council on behalf of the city.
According to a Memorandum from the Home Office issued in 1927,
If a town wishes to obtain the title of a city the proper method of procedure is to address a petition to the King through the Home Office. It is the duty of the Home Secretary to submit such petitions to his Majesty and to advise his Majesty to the reply to be returned. It is a well-established principle that the grant of the title is only recommended in the case of towns of the first rank in population, size and importance, and having a distinctive character and identity of their own. At the present day, therefore, it is only rarely and in exceptional circumstances that the title is given.
In fact, a town can now apply for city status by submitting an application to the Lord Chancellor, who makes recommendations to the sovereign. Competitions for new grants of city status have been held to mark special events, such as coronations, royal jubilees or the Millennium.
Some cities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have the further distinction of having a Lord Mayor rather than a simple Mayor—in Scotland, the equivalent is the Lord Provost. Lord Mayors have the right to be styled "The Right Worshipful The Lord Mayor". The Lord Mayors and Provosts of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, City of London and York all have the further right to be styled "The Right Honourable the Lord Mayor" (or Provost), although they are not members of the Privy Council as this style usually indicates. The style is associated with the office, not the person holding it, so "The Right Worshipful Joe Bloggs" would be incorrect.
There are currently 66 recognised cities (including 30 Lord Mayoralties or Lord Provostships) in the UK: 50 cities (23 Lord Mayoralties) in England, five cities (two Lord Mayoralties) in Wales, six cities (four Lord Provostships) in Scotland and five cities (one Lord Mayoralty) in Northern Ireland.
In Ireland, as a historical result of English rule, the head of local government of Dublin is also the Lord Mayor of Dublin. While previously retaining the formal title of Right Honourable, this was repealed in 2001. In addition, there is also a Lord Mayor of Cork.
Rochester was recognised as a city from 1211 to 1998. On 1 April 1974, the city council was abolished, becoming part of the Borough of Medway, a local-government district in the county of Kent. However, under letters patent the former city-council area was to continue to be styled the "City of Rochester" to "perpetuate the ancient name" and to recall "the long history and proud heritage of the said city". The city was unique, as it had no council or charter trustees and no mayor or civic head. In 1979, the Borough of Medway was renamed as Rochester-upon-Medway, and in 1982 further letters patent transferred the city status to the entire borough. On 1 April 1998, the existing local-government districts of Rochester-upon-Medway and Gillingham were abolished and became the new unitary authority of Medway. Since it was the local-government district that officially held city status under the 1982 letters patent, when it was abolished, it also ceased to be a city. The other local-government districts with city status that were abolished around this time (Bath and Hereford) had decided to appoint Charter Trustees to maintain the existence of the city and the mayoralty. However, Rochester-upon-Medway City Council had decided not to. Medway Council apparently only became aware of this when, in 2002, they discovered that Rochester was not on the Lord Chancellor's Office's list of cities.
The holding of city status gives a settlement no special rights other than that of calling itself a "city". Nonetheless, this appellation carries its own prestige and, consequently, competitions for the status are hard fought.
Most cities have "city councils", which have varying powers depending upon the type of settlement. There are unitary authorities (including metropolitan and London boroughs) that are responsible for all local-government services within their area. (The only London borough having city status is the City of Westminster). Many cities have ordinary district councils, which share power with county councils. At the bottom end of the scale, some cities have civil-parish councils, with no more power than a village.
Some cities have no council at all. Where they used to have a city council but it has been abolished they may have Charter Trustees, drawn from the local district council, who appoint the mayor and look after the city's traditions.
Most "cities" are not, in fact, cities in the traditional sense of the word (that is, a large urban area) but are local-government districts which have city status and which often encompass large rural areas. Examples are the City of Canterbury and City of Wakefield. The largest "city" district in terms of area is the City of Carlisle, which covers some 400 square miles (1040 km²) of mostly rural landscape in the north of England, and is larger than smaller counties such as Merseyside or Rutland. The City of Sheffield contains part of the Peak District National Park. This is, however, merely a curiosity and has had no impact on the general usage of the word city in the UK, which has unambiguously retained its urban meaning in British English. Residents of the rural parts of the "City of Carlisle" and the like might be aware of the name of their local council, but would not consider themselves to be inhabitants of a city with a small c.
Equally, there are some cities where the local-government district is in fact smaller than the historical or natural boundaries of the city. Five examples of this are Manchester (where the traditional area associated includes areas of the neighbouring authorities of Trafford, Tameside, Oldham, Bury and the City of Salford), Kingston upon Hull (where surrounding areas and villages that are effectively suburbs, such as Cottingham, come under East Riding of Yorkshire Council), Glasgow (where suburban areas of the city are located in East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire), Wolverhampton (areas of the neighbouring authorities of Walsall, Dudley and South Staffordshire) and, most obviously, London (Greater London outside the City of London).
This contrasts with the situation in the United States, where the primary meaning of the word city is any area contained within city limits, completely disregarding whether or not that area is recognisable as a traditional "city".
At each census the government produces a report called "Key Statistics for Urban Areas", which separates the population of the actual town or city from the population of the area controlled by the council bearing its name.
City-status grants have been used to mark special royal and other occasions. The first competition was held in 1992, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Queen's reign. Sunderland was the winner. In 1994, two historic seats of Bishoprics—St David's and Armagh—were granted city status. They had been considered cities historically, but this status had lapsed.
For the city applications in 2000, held to celebrate the millennium, the following towns and boroughs requested city status:
The three winners were Brighton and Hove, Wolverhampton and Inverness, which were subsequently dubbed "Millennium Cities".
For the 2002 applications, held to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee, the entrants included all of the above towns except Southwark, together with Greenwich and Wirral in England, Dumfries in Scotland and Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Craigavon and Newry in Northern Ireland. There was controversy in the rest of the UK—especially in Wales—over the fact that two of the three winners of the 2000 competition were English towns, so 2002 was run as four separate competitions. The winners in Great Britain were Preston in England, Newport in Wales, and Stirling in Scotland. In Northern Ireland it was decided to award city status to two entrants: Lisburn (predominantly unionist) and Newry (predominantly nationalist) so that offence would not be caused to either community. Exeter was awarded Lord Mayoralty status in a separate application.
City status is conferred by letters patent and not by a royal charter (except historically in Ireland). There are twenty towns in England and Wales that were recognised as cities by "ancient prescriptive right"; none of these communities had been formally declared a city, but they had all used the title since "time immemorial", that is, prior to 3 September 1189.
The holding of city status brings no especial benefits other than the right to be called a city. All cities where a local-government unit that holds that status is abolished have to be re-issued with letters patent reconfirming city status following local-government reorganisation where that holder has been abolished. This process was followed by a number of cities since 1974, and York and Hereford's status was confirmed twice, in 1974 and again in the 1990s. Failure to do so leads to the loss of city status as happened at Rochester in 1998 (see above), and also previously in St David's and Armagh, although both of these latter have regained city status since losing it. All three of these had been cities since time immemorial before the loss of city status.
Charters originated as charters of incorporation, allowing a town to become an incorporated borough, or to hold markets. Some of these charters recognised officially that the town involved was a city. Apart from that recognition, it became accepted that such a charter could make a town into a city. The earliest examples of these are Hereford and Worcester, both of which received charters in 1189.
The formal definition of a city has been disputed, in particular by inhabitants of towns that have been regarded as cities in the past but are not generally considered cities today. Additionally, although the Crown clearly has the right to bestow "official" city status, some have doubted the right of the Crown to define the word city in the United Kingdom. In informal usage, city can be used for large towns or conurbations that are not formally cities. The best-known example of this is London, which contains two cities (the City of London and the City of Westminster) but is not itself a city.
There are currently 66 officially designated cities in the UK, of which eight have been created since 2000 in competitions to celebrate the new millennium and Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002. The designation is highly sought after, with over 40 communities submitting bids at recent competitions.
In relation to the fact that being the seat of a Church of England diocese is no longer sufficient or necessary to gain city status, a number of cathedral towns exist. Towns with cathedrals may nevertheless be referred to as "cities" by their inhabitants—particularly in the case of St Asaph and Rochester.
|Bury St Edmunds||St Edmundsbury Cathedral||1914|
previously a city (vide supra)
|St Asaph||St Asaph Cathedral||historic|
The 1911 Encyclopeædia Britannica refers to Llandaff, Southwell and St Asaph as cities.
In total there are 16 English and Welsh towns that have city status but do not have Anglican cathedrals within their borders—Bath (a former cathedral), Brighton and Hove, Cambridge, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds, Nottingham, Plymouth, Preston, Salford, Southampton, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Swansea, Westminster (although Westminster Abbey was a cathedral briefly during the reign of Henry VIII) and Wolverhampton.
The national church of Scotland, the Church of Scotland, is presbyterian in governance with no bishops or dioceses, and thus has high kirks rather than cathedrals. However, the pre-Reformation dioceses do have extant cathedrals.
As noted above, both Perth and Elgin were recognised as cities prior to 1975. Additionally, five other pre-Reformation sees—Brechin, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Kirkwall and St Andrews—are often referred to as cities. Dornoch, Fortrose and Whithorn also possess pre-Reformation cathedrals.
Stirling, which was awarded city status in 2002, has never had a cathedral.
In Ireland, as noted above, possession of a diocesan cathedral has never (except in the anomalous case of Armagh) been sufficient to attain this status.
In spite of this, the 1911 Encyclopeædia Britannica refers to Armagh (Armagh had lost city status in 1840) and Lisburn as cities. Armagh subsequently regained city status formally in 1994 and Lisburn achieved city status in 2002.
Newry is the only city in Northern Ireland that does not have a Church of Ireland cathedral within its borders.
As noted above, in ordinary discourse, city can refer to any large settlement, with no fixed limit.
There are certain towns which have large urban areas, which could qualify for city status on the grounds of their population size. Some have applied for city status and had the application turned down. Northampton is one of the most populous urban districts not to be a London Borough, metropolitan borough, unitary authority or city; on this basis, the council claims that it is the largest town in England.
The government-published "Key Statistics for Urban Areas 2001" show that the following are the ten largest urban sub-areas outside London not a part of a city or having a city as a component:
See List of towns and cities in England by population for further examples.
City status in modern times is sometimes granted to urban areas, and sometimes to local-government areas such as civil parishes and boroughs, the boundaries, and hence populations, of which are not necessarily the same.
The cities of Stirling and Inverness provide examples here. Stirling Council's application for city status was specifically for the urban area of the (now former) Royal Burgh of Stirling—proposed city boundaries were included, and so not all of the council area has city status. Equally, the granting of city status to Newport is granted to the "Town of Newport in the County Borough of Newport", while Birmingham's is granted to the "Borough of Birmingham".
This leads to the oddity whereby city status can be granted to areas which include more than one town. "Federal" cities of this type include Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland and Brighton and Hove; in all these cases a borough was formed to govern an area covering several towns and then city status was granted to the borough afterwards.
The largest local authorities to have applied for city status in the recent competitions are: