Letters Patent

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An example of recent letters patent from the Queen of the United Kingdom.
Original vellum letters patent signed by King Charles I in 1637.

Letters Patent (always in the plural and always capitalized) are a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a Monarch, Princess, Prince and/or by High Nobility, a president, or other head of state, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation. Letters patent can be used for the creation of corporations or government offices, or for the granting of city status or a Coat of Arms. Letters Patent also may be used to grant various offices such as Lord Lieutenancies, ecclesiastical ministries and High Court judgeship’s. New peerages are also created by letters patent.


Letters Patent are so named from the Latin verb pateo, to lie open, exposed, accessible.[1] The originator's Seal was attached from the document, so that it did not have to be broken in order for the document to be read. In Latin meant "that which is written" or "writing", in the sense of letters of the alphabet placed together in meaningful sequence on a writing surface, not a specific format of composition as the modern word "letter" suggests. Thus letters patent do not equate to an open letter, but rather to any form of document, deed, contract, letter, despatch, edict, decree, epistle etc.[2] made public. They are called "Letters" (plural) from their Latin name Litterae Patentes, used by medieval and later scribes when the documents were written in Latin. This loanword preserves the collective plural "Letters" (Litterae) Latin language uses to denote a message as opposed to a single alphabet letter (littera).[3]


Letters Patent are a form of open or public proclamation[4] and a vestigial exercise of extra-parliamentary power by a monarch or president. Prior to the establishment of a Parliament system, the Monarch usually ruled with the aid of the Nobility and selected advisors by the issuing of his personal written orders, open or closed. They can thus be contrasted with the Act of Parliament, which is in effect a written order by Parliament, approved by the Monarch whose signature gives it force. No explicit government approval is contained within Letters Patent, only the seal or signature of the Monarch.

For expository simplicity, the Monarch signs a warrant instructing the issue of the Letters Patent which are prepared in the Crown Office in the Lord Chancellors Department. Letters Patent are issued for the appointment of representatives of the Crown, such as Governors and Governors-General of Commonwealth realms, as well as appointing a Royal Commission. In the United Kingdom they are also issued for the creation of peers of the realm. A particular form of Letters Patent has evolved into the modern patent (referred to as a utility patent or design patent in United States patent law) granting exclusive rights in an invention (or a design in the case of a design patent).[5] In this case it is essential that the written grant should be in the form of a public document so other inventors can consult it to avoid infringement and also to understand how to "practice" the invention, i.e., put it into practical use. In the Holy Roman Empire, Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary, an Imperial Patent was also the highest form of generally binding legal regulations, e. g. Patent of Toleration, Serfdom Patent etc. They can be as simple as a Royal signing a napkin to an elaborate commissioned piece on vellum costing thousands of Euros.

Today the exercise of the royal prerogative by issuance of Letters Patent are still written instructions or orders from the Sovereign, whose order is law, which were made public to reinforce their effect. According to the United Kingdom Ministry of Justice, there are 92 different types of Letters Patent issed by its Monarch. The Patent Rolls are made up of office copies of English (and later United Kingdom) Royal Letters Patent, which run in an almost unbroken series from 1201 to the present day, with most of those to 1625 having been published.

United Kingdom Commonwealth

In Commonwealth realms, Letters Patent are issued under the prerogative powers of the head of state (The Monarch), as an Executive or Royal Prerogative. They are a rare, though significant, form of legislation which does not require the consent of the House of Lords nor the House of Commons. Letters Patent may also be used to grant royal assent to legislation.

United States

The primary source of Letters Patent in the United States are intellectual property patents and land patents, though Letters Patent are issued for a variety of other purposes. They function dually as public records and personal certificates. In the United States, the forgery of Letters Patent granted by the President of the United States is a crime subject to fine, imprisonment up to ten years or both. Without Letters Patent, a person is unable to assume an appointed office. Such an issue prompted the Marbury v. Madison suit, where William Marbury and three others petitioned the United States Supreme Court to order James Madison to deliver their letters for appointments made under the previous administration.


  1. Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised by Marchant & Charles, 260th. thousand
  2. Cassell's Latin Dictionary, op.cit., p.321
  3. Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised by Marchant & Charles, 260th. thousand: "Literae, Plur: that which is written; Cicero: Dare alicui literas (plur) ad aliquem: to give to a messenger a letter for a third person"
  4. Turpyn, R. (1846). The Chronicle of Calais: In the Reigns of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. to the Year 1540. Ed. from Mss. in the British Museum (Vol. 35). Camden society.
  5. Hill, T. A. (1923). Orgin and Development of Letters Patent for Invention. J. Pat. Off. Soc'y, 6, 405.