Letters Patent constituting the office of Governor-General of Australia (UK)

This document signed by Queen Victoria on 29 October 1900 established the office of the governor-general of Australia. Known as the 'Letters Patent', it comprises two large pages of parchment measuring 60 centimetres x 58 centimetres with an elaborately decorated border that includes the royal coat of arms and figures representing justice, defence, agriculture and science and mercy. Two supporting angels also appear in the border. A large heading says 'Victoria, By the Grace of God'. Attached by a cord to the second page is the Queen's royal seal inside a round black shellacked metal case.

Educational value

  • The Letters Patent, seen here, established one of the most important offices in the new nation of Australia, that of the monarch's representative, the governor-general. The signing of the Letters Patent by the Queen legally established this office. The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, passed by the British Parliament, the royal assent to that Act, the Royal Instructions to the Governor-General, and the Letters Patent are the key documents creating the Commonwealth of Australia.

  • While the wording of the Letters Patent appears to grant considerable authority to the governor-general, including that he or she is commander-in-chief of Australia's military forces, in practice the office has largely been symbolic. In Australia, as in the United Kingdom, royal powers to appoint judges and ministers of state and to summon, prorogue or dissolve the federal parliament are exercised only under the advice of the ministers of the government in office at the time. An exception in Australia was the governor-general's dismissal of the government in 1975.

  • Australia is a constitutional monarchy, with the British monarch as the head of state. All bills passed by Australia's federal parliament require royal assent to become law. This is usually granted by the governor-general as the monarch's representative in Australia. Until the diplomatic post of British High Commissioner was established in 1936, the governor-general also acted as the de facto representative of the British Government in Australia.

  • Reflecting centuries of royal authority, the language of this document is highly formal and legalistic. It details the powers of the governor-general set out under the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900. As well, the Letters Patent outline the procedure for replacing the governor-general in the event of death, incapacity, removal or absence.

  • This document was made of high-quality durable materials, reflecting its importance as a legal instrument delegating some of the Queen's powers to her representative in the new nation. The document is housed in a wooden box lined with royal purple velvet, and with a red leather cover. In the centre of the lid is the royal coat of arms, embossed in gold. The document bears the name Muir Mackenzie, Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's office in the United Kingdom.

  • The signing of this document by Queen Victoria on 29 October 1900 came after she had already appointed Australia’s first governor-general on 14 July 1900. He was the Scottish-born seventh Earl of Hopetoun, John Adrian Louis Hope (1860–1908). Known as Lord Hopetoun, he was sworn in as Governor-General at the Commonwealth of Australia inauguration ceremony in Centennial Park in Sydney on 1 January 1901, when the Letters Patent were read out.