Royal connections link University to city
Stored away safely within the archives of the University of Leicester is a parchment document marked with the seal of Queen Elizabeth II. This is the University’s Royal Charter, a document that nearly all universities in the UK established before 1992 will have. It is a formal grant from the monarch granting special rights and privileges to a University - most importantly the right for these universities to award degrees. It also established Her Late Majesty The Queen, and her heirs and successors, as official Visitors of the University.
The Royal Charter was granted to the University College Leicester in 1957, giving us the status of a university in our own right for the first time. But the University’s connections to the Royal Family extend long before that, and are intimately entwined with the growth of the city of Leicester.
It was in the wake of the First World War that we saw the first efforts to establish a university for the people of Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland. On 12 November 1918, Dr Astley Clarke wrote to the local newspaper to announce the creation of the 'Leicester University Fund', to found a university as a living memorial for all local people who made sacrifices during the war.
In a landmark moment for Leicester, its city status was granted following a visit by George V and Queen Mary the following year. Many of our University founders met the King that day, who would go on to say in his speech:
"It is a matter of congratulation that Leicester proposes to establish a university. I welcome a scheme which, while bringing a liberal education within the reach of all, will establish that contact between research and industry, which is of vital importance to our future prosperity."
In 1921, the Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland University College became a reality, thanks to the commitment and generosity of the local community.
The Royal Family would pay frequent visit to the University in the coming years. In 1927, HRH The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) was received for a tour of the campus and planted a gingko bilboa tree tree in the grounds, much to the excitement of students.
And Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Philip, visited the campus in 1958 to present our Royal Charter and to open the original Percy Gee Building. We get a sense of the excitement that these events generated from some letters home in our archives written by a student called Sylvia Dowling, who notes that the Queen is wearing olive-green, and is particularly attentive to the Queen's hat!
On many occasions since, the University has played host to members of the Royal Family. Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, would later return on a solo visit to the University’s Space Research Centre, a part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, in 1999. Prince Edward, the Queen's youngest son, and his wife Sophie, Countess of Wessex and Forfar, visited the Richard Attenborough Centre in September 2002. HRH Prince Michael of Kent visited the Scarman Centre, forerunner of the Department of Criminology, and HRH The Duke of Kent visited the Departments of Engineering and Genetics in the same year.
Diana, Princess of Wales, accompanied by Lord Attenborough, opened the Attenborough Arts Centre in May 1997.
The Queen and Prince Philip also returned to our campus once again almost 50 years since their first visit, to formally open the David Wilson Library in 2008.
And most recently, the then-Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were welcomed onto campus to learn about the partnership work between Leicester City Football Club and the University in the local community. It was a fitting occasion for an institution established by the will of the people of Leicester nearly a hundred years before.
The University is also one of only a small number of universities to have been honoured with the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education on more than one occasion. The Prizes are the highest national honour awarded in UK further and higher education, granted by the Queen every two years, and awarded for developments in astronomy, space and planetary science; the discovery of genetic fingerprinting; and for the Inter-connected research and expertise in history, heritage and archaeology, highlighted by the discovery of Richard III.
With the sad passing of HM Queen Elizabeth II, the University joined the world in paying tribute to our longest-reigning monarch, and the University’s first Visitor. On behalf of the University, the President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, attended the State Funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on Monday 19 September 2022. A copy of the funeral programme is now held in the University Archives.
The University was privileged to be present for a number of occasions honouring Her Majesty, including the Reading of the Proclamation at Peace Memorial Park in Wigston on 11 September, a Special Meeting of Leicester City Council at Leicester Town Hall on 13 September, and the Lord Lieutenant’s Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, held at St James the Greater Church on 18 September.
The University also contributed messages to the National Royal Book of Condolence, Leicestershire County Council Book of Condolence, Leicester City Council Book of Condolence and Oadby and Wigston Borough Council Book of Condolence. The debt owed to Her Majesty by the University is best expressed in the words of Professor Canagarajah:
“Her memory lives on not simply in the buildings that she opened but in the very purpose of our existence as a University established under her authority. In the year that we celebrated the centenary of our foundation, we give thanks for her role as a defining figure of our time.”