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City Status in the United Kingdon

John Beckett investigates the thorny, and sometimes illogical, issue of what makes a City.

After a two-year competition involving dozens of would-be ‘cities’, the government announced in December 2000 that Brighton and Hove, Wolverhampton and Inverness would become cities as part of the Millennium celebrations. Few people outside the Home Office have much idea as to how and why city status is conferred on some towns rather than others or what, if any, benefits the promotion brings. Some will tell you that a city ought to have a cathedral or a university, or both. Others will tell you that a city automatically has a Lord Mayor rather than a mayor; but not many will be able to say whether there are any real advantages to be gained from the change in status. So why did thirty-nine towns the length and breadth of the United Kingdom enter the Millennium competition, how have cities traditionally been ‘made’, and why does England have so many more cities than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Cities were traditionally linked to cathedrals. As new dioceses were created in Anglo-Saxon England, the towns in which they were located enjoyed the status of cities. This practice was continued by Henry VIII after the Reformation, but from the sixteenth century onwards no new dioceses were founded, and no new cities were created. Then, in 1836, the new diocese of Ripon was set up to serve the industrialising West Riding of Yorkshire, and the government accepted that the same principles should apply. Consequently city status was conferred, being confirmed by the City of Ripon Act (1865). Manchester became a diocese in 1844, and a city in 1853. Subsequently the waiting time declined, and city status followed almost immediately on the founding of the dioceses of St Albans (1877), Truro (1877), Liverpool (1880), Newcastle (1882), and Wakefield (1888). Southwell (1884) did not become a city, largely it seems because no one made the necessary application to the Home Office.

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