Cities in England and Wales

Why are some places called 'cities' and others only 'towns'? Is it related to a location having a cathedral? Do cities have special priviledges? These and many other questions are answered in the following text.

City status in England and Wales

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 (each having a cathedral in the see city) in six English towns and also granted them city status by issuing letters patent.

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 to ensure the continuation or restoration of their status. At present, Rochester, St Asaph, Perth and Elgin are the only former cities in the United Kingdom. Despite the lack of formal status the first three places are commonly referred to as "cities", at least by their inhabitants.

It is important to note, however, that the suffix "City" does not, in itself, denote city status; it may be appended to UK locations for reasons of historical association (eg: White City) or for marketing purposes (eg: Stratford City).

Ancient Cities

In the 16th century, a town was recognised as a city by the English Crown if it had a diocesan cathedral within its limits. This association between having a cathedral and being called a city was established when Henry VIII founded dioceses (each having a cathedral in the see city) in six English towns and also granted them city status by issuing letters patent. Some cities today are very small because they were granted city status in the 16th century, then were unaffected by population growth during the Industrial Revolution - notably Wells (population about 10,000) and St David's (population about 2,000). 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; its city status was recognised by Act of Parliament in 1865. This led to the unusual position of Ripon, with the diocese cathedral, having city status whilst the rapidly expanding conurbation of Leeds - in the same diocese - did not. 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 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 an Anglican cathedral, although the parish church later became a cathedral in 1905. This new precedent was followed by other large municipalities: Leeds and Sheffield became cities in 1893, and Bradford, Kingston upon Hull and Nottingham were 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".

The Status of Westminster

The London Government Act 1899 abolished the existing local authorities within the County of London and replaced them with 28 Metropolitan Boroughs. Among the bodies to be dissolved was the Court of Burgesses of the City of Westminster. William Burdett-Coutts, one of Westminster's Members of Parliament, brought forward an amendment to rename the proposed borough of Greater Westminster to City of Westminster. This was intended to give "recognition to the title which the area ... had possessed for over three and a half centuries". He felt that if the status was not retained for the new borough it "must necessarily disappear altogether". The amendment was rejected by the government, however, with the First Lord of the Treasury, Arthur Balfour, believing it would be "an anomaly which, I think, would be not unnaturally resented by other districts which are as large in point of population as Westminster, although doubtless not so rich in historical associations". The government eventually relented, with Balfour stating that "as soon as the necessary arrangements under the London Government Act have been completed, there will be conferred on the Borough of Westminster, as constituted under the Act, the title of city, originally conferred in the time of Henry VIII". Letters patent were duly issued granting the title of "city" to the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Westminster.


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:
(1) a minimum population of 300,000.
(2) a "local metropolitan character"—this implied that the town had a distinct identity of its own and was the centre of a wider area.
(3) a good record of local government.

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 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 that 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 Wolverhampton, 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. In the meantime, the administration of London was reformed under the London Government Act of 1963. While the City of London was permitted to continue in existence largely unchanged, Westminster was merged with two neighbouring authorities (Paddington and St Marylebone) to form a new London borough from 1 April 1965. In December 1963 it was announced that a charter was to be granted incorporating the new authority as "Westminster", and that the Queen had accepted the advice of the Home Secretary to raise the London borough to the title and dignity of city.

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.

In Wales, Swansea campaigned for city status throughout the 1960s. The campaign came to a successful conclusion in 1969, in conjunction with the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales.

1974 Reorganisation and New Cities

The Local Government Act of 1972 abolished all existing local authorities outside London (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. 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. Because some of the new boroughs or districts covered areas much wider than the previous city, this had the effect that city status was awarded to a number of local government districts which were not themselves towns and included a number of towns and villages outside the urban areas from which the districts took their names, for example the cities of Bradford, Leeds and Winchester. There were three exceptions: charter trustees were established for the Cities of Lichfield and New Sarum (or Salisbury) which were neither districts or parishes, 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, the Home Office identified nine candidates for city status: Blackburn, Brighton, Croydon, Derby, Dudley, Newport, Sandwell, Sunderland and Wolverhampton. Ultimately, Derby received the award as the largest non-metropolitan district not already designated a city. In April 1980 a parish council was created for Lichfield, and the charter trustees established six years earlier were dissolved. City status was temporarily lost until new letters patent were issued in November of the same year. 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, and communities would be 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. 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.

Greater London

Other than the cities of London and Westminster, no local authorities in the Greater London area have been granted city status. The Home Office had a policy of resisting any attempt by Metropolitan Boroughs to become cities even when their populations, and other proposed claims as qualifying criteria, might otherwise have made them eligible. It was felt that such a grant would undermine the status of the two existing cities in the capital. The Metropolitan Borough of Southwark made a number of applications, but in 1955 the borough's town clerk was told not to pursue the matter any further. Outside the boundaries of the county, the County Borough of Croydon made three applications, all of which were dismissed as it was not seen as being sufficiently separate from London. When the successor London Borough of Croydon applied in 1965 the Assistant Under Secretary of State summarised the case against Croydon: "...whatever its past history, it is now just part of the London conurbation and almost indistinguishable from many of the other Greater London boroughs".

The same objections were made when the London Boroughs of Croydon and Southwark unsuccessfully entered the competition for city status to mark the millennium: Croydon was said to have "no particular identity of its own" while Southwark was "part of London with little individual identity". When the most recent competition was held to mark the Golden Jubilee of 2002, Croydon made a sixth application, again unsuccessful. It was joined by the London Borough of Greenwich, which emphasised its royal and maritime connections, while claiming to be "to London what Versailles is to Paris".

Current practice of granting city status

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 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 John Smith" 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 modern practice, competitions are held for cities that wish to gain the distinction of a Lord Mayor. The 2002 competition was entered by Bath, Cambridge, Carlisle, Chichester, Derby, Exeter, Gloucester, Lancaster, Lincoln, St Albans, St David's, Salford, Southampton, Sunderland, Truro, Wolverhampton and Worcester; the successful candidate was Exeter.

List of Officially Designated Cities (with dates of grant) in England and Wales, as of 2011:

Bath, Birmingham, Bradford, Brighton and Hove (2000), Bristol
Cambridge (1951), Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Coventry
Derby, Durham
Ely (1974), Exeter (2002)
Kingston upon Hull
Lancaster, Leeds, Leicester, Lichfield, Lincoln, Liverpool, City of London
Manchester (1854)
Newcastle upon Tyne, Newport (2002), Norwich, Nottingham
Peterborough, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Preston (2000)
St David's (1995), Salford, Salisbury, Sheffield, Southampton, St Albans, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Swansea (1969)
Truro (1877)
Wakefield, Wells, Westminster (1963), Winchester, Wolverhampton (2000), Worcester

Royal Boroughs in London

In 2012 Greenwich joined an exclusive group as the fourth local authority to become a royal borough and the first new one for more than 80 years. The new legal status was made official with a Royal Charter signed by the Queen. It is home to many former royal residences, including Eltham Palace, once a royal nursery for the use of Henry VII's children. It also has several buildings with royal status including the Old Royal Naval College, built on the site of the old Greenwich Palace where Elizabeth I, Mary I and Henry VIII were born.

The new regal status of Greenwich is, in effect, similar to a person being awarded an honour, but far more exclusive, since the only others members of the club are Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston-upon-Thames.

Windsor, as the home of Windsor Castle, actually took the name before it was officially received. King George V allowed Windsor to be called a royal borough to "regularise a situation that already existed".

Kensington received its royal title after a wish left in the will of Queen Victoria who was born and brought up at Kensington Palace. Her son King Edward VII conferred the status in 1901. It was later combined with Chelsea to form the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which remained 'Royal'.

There is a historical rivalry between 'Kensington and Chelsea' and the 'City of Westminster'. The latter, being a "City" borough is precluded from having royal status, despite being home to Buckingham Palace.

Kingston first received its royal status in 1200 from King John, allowing borough to collect its own taxes. Today people there see it as a mark of a proud history of links with the Crown.

Greenwich council has conceded that royal status does not provide any additional powers, resources or funding, but said it was a "very special honour" nonetheless, and would be used to "lever in further inward investment into the borough". It has particular significance as it was one of the first actions to mark the year of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

While other boroughs with royal links and without "City" status could potentially join royal ranks in the future, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said: "The Royal Household has made clear that the grant of Royal Borough status to Greenwich in 2012 will be a very rare and exceptional mark of Royal favour."


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