City status in the United Kingdom

Until the nineteenth century, city status in England and Wales was associated with the presence of a cathedral, such as York Minster.

City status in the United Kingdom is granted by the monarch of the United Kingdom to a select group of communities: as of 2014, there are 69 cities in the United Kingdom – 51 in England, six in Wales, seven in Scotland and five in Northern Ireland.[1] The holding of city status gives a settlement no special rights. This appellation carries its own prestige and competition for the status is hard-fought.

The status does not apply automatically on the basis of any particular criteria, though 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 granted them 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-19th-century cities in present-day Northern Ireland. In Scotland, city status did not explicitly receive any recognition by the state until the 19th 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 20th 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 and Elgin are the only former cities in the United Kingdom. The name "City" does not, in itself, denote city status; it may be appended to place names for historic association (e.g. White City) or for marketing or disambiguation (e.g. Stratford City). A number of large towns (such as those with over 200,000 residents) in the UK are bigger than some small cities, but cannot legitimately call themselves a city without the royal designation.[citation needed]


England and Wales

Pre-19th century

The initial cities (Latin: civitas) of Britain were the fortified settlements organised by the Romans as the capitals of the Celtic tribes under Roman rule. The British clerics of the early Middle Ages later preserved a traditional list of the "28 Cities" (Old Welsh: cair) which was mentioned by Gildas[3] and listed by Nennius.[4]

In the 16th century, a town was recognised as a city by the English Crown if it had a diocesan cathedral within its limits, for which 22 dioceses existed in England & Wales (see City status conferment further in the article). This association between having a cathedral and being called a city was established when Henry VIII founded new dioceses (each having a cathedral in the see city) in six English towns and also granted them city status by issuing letters patent,[5] demonstrating these were discrete procedures. Some cities today are very small because they were granted city status in or before the 16th century, then were unaffected by population growth during the Industrial Revolution—notably Wells (population about 10,000) and St Davids (population about 2,000). After the 16th century, no new dioceses (and no new cities) were created until the 19th century in England (a further city was created in Ireland during the rule of King James I in the 17th century).


A long-awaited resumption of creating dioceses began in 1836 with Ripon. 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 formed was Manchester and its Borough Council began informally to use the title city. When Queen Victoria visited Manchester in 1851, widespread doubts surrounding its status were raised. The pretension was ended when the borough petitioned for city status, which was granted by letters patent in 1853. This eventually forced Ripon to regularise its position; its city status was recognised by Act of Parliament in 1865. From this year Ripon bore city status whilst the rapidly expanding conurbation of Leeds – in the Ripon 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, which 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 it 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.[6]


Birmingham was the first English town without an Anglican cathedral to be granted city status. Birmingham City Council meets at the Council House.

The link with Anglican dioceses was broken within England in 1889 when Birmingham successfully petitioned for city status (it was pre-empted in Ireland by Belfast in 1888) 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.[6]

Between 1897 and 1914, applications were received from a number of other boroughs, but only Cardiff was successful in 1905 being 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".[7][8] 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".[9][10] Letters patent were duly issued granting the title of "city" to the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Westminster.[11]


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:

  • A minimum population of 300,000.
  • A "local metropolitan character"—this implied that the town had a distinct identity of its own and was the centre of a wider area.
  • A good record of local government.[6]

However, well into the 20th 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.[12][13]

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.[14] 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, who had once been 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.[6]

In 1927, a Royal Commission on Local Government was examining local council 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.[15]

In 1928, Plymouth submitted an application for city status. As the borough had more inhabitants than Portsmouth and had 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.[6] The next city to be created was Lancaster as part of the celebrations of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 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.[16] 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.[6]


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; 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.[17] In the meantime, the administration of London was reformed under the London Government Act 1963. While the City of London was permitted to continue in existence largely unchanged, Westminster was merged with two neighbouring authorities to form a new London borough from 1 April 1965.[18] 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.[19] This example, of a successor local authority to a merged local government entity taking on that former entity's city status, was to be replicated in many instances as a result of the 1972/74 local government reforms across England and Wales (see below).

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.[20]

1974 reorganisation and new cities

The Local Government Act 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.[21] To preserve city status new letters patent were issued to the most relevant metropolitan borough, non-metropolitan district or successor parish councils created by the Act.[22] Some of these came to cover local government districts many times wider than the previous city, even taking in many square miles of rural land outside the urban areas, for example the cities of Bradford, Leeds and Winchester. Three non-local authority preservations arose: here charter trustees were established for the cities of Lichfield and Salisbury (or New Sarum) being neither districts nor civil parishes, and special letters patent for a time preserved the city of Rochester.[23]

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.[6] Ultimately, Derby received the award as the largest non-metropolitan district not already designated a city.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] This was followed in 1994 by the restoration of the dignity to St David's, historic see of a bishop.[27] Since 2000, city status has been awarded to towns or local government districts by competition on special occasions. A large number of towns have applied for the honour in recent decades including Blackpool, Colchester, Croydon, Gateshead, Ipswich, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Reading and Swindon. Four successful applicants in England have become cities, as well as two in Wales; in 2000 for the Millennium Celebrations, the new cities were Brighton and Hove and Wolverhampton; in 2002 for the Queen's Golden Jubilee it was Preston and Newport, and in 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee it was Chelmsford and St Asaph.[28][29][30][31]

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.[6] 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".[6]

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".[6] 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".[6] In this vein Greenwich joined Kingston-upon-Thames and Kensington and Chelsea in London in having the title of Royal Borough in 2012.[32]


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".[33] 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.[34] 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. Whilst the two other local government districts with city status (Bath and Hereford) that were abolished around this time decided to appoint charter trustees to maintain the existence of the city and the mayoralty, Rochester-upon-Medway City Council did not do so. 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.[35][36] In 2010, it started to refer to the "City of Medway" in promotional material, but it was rebuked and instructed not to do so in future by the Advertising Standards Authority.[37]


Scotland had no cities by royal charter or letters patent before 1889.[38] The nearest equivalent in pre-Union Scotland was the royal burgh. 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 before the 15th 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 18th century, while Perth and Elgin also used the title.[6] 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.[6]

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.[6] 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.[6][39]

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, three more Scottish cities have been designated: Inverness as part of the millennium celebrations, Stirling in 2002 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee and Perth in 2012 to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.[31] In the case of these three cities, there are no city councils and no formal boundaries. 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.[40]

Ireland and Northern Ireland

City status in Ireland tended historically to be granted by royal charter. There are many towns in Ireland with Church of Ireland cathedrals that 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. Derry was given its first charter by James I in 1604, but the garrison was attacked and destroyed by Cahir O'Doherty in 1608.[41] The present city is the result of a second charter granted in 1613 to members of the London guilds, as part of the Plantation of Ulster, providing for the building of a walled city, which was renamed Londonderry.[42]

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 in England and Dundee in Scotland.[6]

In 1994, Armagh's city status was restored.[27] 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.[43] 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.[44]