A royal charter is a document that establishes an organisation deriving its legal authority from the position, though not the person, of the sovereign of a nation. In the United States, it is usually taken to refer to bodies legally incorporated by the authority of a British monarch before 1776.
A royal charter is not the same thing as royal patronage, which is legal, social, official, and sometimes financial recognition bestowed upon an organisation that has already been established. Such organisations are entitled to use the word "Royal" in their names, such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, though not all elect to do so, such as the Honourable East India Company. Most organisations established by royal charter automatically have some form of royal patronage, though not all organisations with royal patronage were necessarily established by royal charter.
A charter establishing an organisation need not be royal; they can originate from any source legally entitled to establish legal entities. The "royal" refers only to the sovereign authority that derives from the sovereign, as opposed to the sovereign authority devolved to or entrusted to or derived from an elected legislature. The US Congress, for example, chartered the Boy Scouts of America, and the state legislature of New York rechartered Columbia College of the State of New York in 1784.
The constituent colleges of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge were largely established by royal charter and granted royal patronage. Therefore, Anglophile colonists sought the same degree of recognition for their homegrown colleges.
Colleges and universities in the United States established originally by either royal charter or royal letters patent or powers devolved to royal governors include:
- College of William and Mary, chartered 1693 by William and Mary, and supposedly the only extant American university to still operate under the provisions of the royal charter, though presumably the parts about making sure "that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians" was quietly ignored.
- College of New Jersey (Princeton University), chartered 1746 by Governor Jonathan Belcher of New Jersey in the name of King George II.
- King's College (us), chartered 1754 by Acting Governor James DeLancey of New York in the name of King George II.
- Queen's College (Rutgers University), chartered 1766 by Governor William Franklin (Ben's rebellious son) in the name of King George III.
- Dartmouth College, chartered 1769 by Governor James Wentworth of New Hampshire in the name of King George III.