A couple of weeks ago Facebook annoyed me when a post reminded me that the city of Christchurch had been founded on 31st of July 1856.  But why was I annoyed?  Because yet again this founding was ascribed to a Royal Charter when actually it was by virtue of the Letters Patent.

The difference between a Royal Charter and Letters Patent can be confusing.  Basically a Royal Charter is an instrument of incorporation and is often a formal royal grant.  Letters Patent are open letters, issued under the Great Seal.  The latter get their name from the fact that the Great Seal is pendant that is hanging at the bottom of the document.

The Letters Patent, issued to the Diocese amongst other things

  • Established the boundaries of the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch following the resignation of George Augustus Selwyn of part of the Diocese of New Zealand
  • Instructed John Bird Sumner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to consecrate Henry John Chitty Harper to be the first Bishop of the newly established Diocese
  • Gave Harper, as Bishop of Christchurch the power and authority to ordain priests and deacons, to grant them licenses and to visit and examine his clergy
  • Gave Harper and his successor Bishops of Christchurch the right to create Dignitaries in the Cathedral Church, Archdeacons and a Vicar General


  • Constituted the City of Christchurch with these words

“…  And we do further by these our Letters Patent ordain and constitute the Town of Christchurch in the said Diocese of Christchurch to be a Bishops See and the seat of the said Bishop and do ordain that the said Town of Christchurch shall be a City And we do further thereby ordain and declare that the Church of Christ Church in the said Town or City shall be the Cathedral Church and the See of the said Bishop of Christchurch and his successors…”

What does this all mean?

When a person is ordained a Diocesan Bishop they need a Cathedral, so that they can be installed as the Bishop of that particular place.   This involves the Bishop taking their place on the cathedra or seat within that Cathedral.  This is known as a See (Diocesan ) seat. In 1856 Christchurch the Church of St Michael and All Angels was the Pro Cathedral, and so the Bishop took his seat (cathedra) in that Church.

This tradition of assigning city status to a location with a Cathedral has a long history in the United Kingdom.  The association began when Henry VIII  elevated Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough to city status when they were chosen as the seats of newly established Dioceses.   So it was the Queen Victoria made Christchurch a City within that tradition.