The annual celebration of Charter Day at William & Mary was initiated by President John Stewart Bryan on February 8, 1937. The first Charter Day was known as Founder's Day and included an academic procession with the faculty and students in academic regalia, walking from Jefferson Hall dormitory to Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall (present day Ewell Hall. Drawing on the reference of granting the Royal Charter to a President and Six Masters, President Bryan was joined on stage at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall by six professors. The choir sang "God Save the King," one professor read excerpts from the charter, and Wesley Frank Craven, visiting professor of history from New York University, gave the principal address about the historical background of the founding of William & Mary. President Bryan’s love of pomp and pageantry also led to the annual Yule Log Ceremony.
During the eighteenth century Transfer Day was the usual time of celebrating the birth of William & Mary by observing the anniversary of the Transfer of the Royal Charter from the founders of the College to the President and Masters of the College on August 15, 1729.
In 1859, the 166th anniversary of the College of William & Mary was celebrated on February 19 with an address by John Tyler, former president of the United States, and a reading of St. George Tucker’s celebratory poem by the poet himself. St. George Tucker was the grandson of the man for whom Tucker Hall is named.
The tradition of having Charter Day Speakers of note to address the audience carried over from the nineteenth century to the present. Once the new Phi Beta Kappa Hall was built in 1957, the Charter Day exercises were moved there from Ewell Hall (the first Phi Beta Kappa Hall). Since 1957, the majority of the Charter Day exercises were held in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. Exceptions include the 1968 Charter Day ceremony held in Blow Gymnasium for Sir Patrick Henry Dean – Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the U.S. The Right Reverend and Right Honorable Robert Wright Stopford, Bishop of London. The Charter Day ceremony in 1993 was held in William & Mary Hall with His Royal Highness Prince Charles as the speaker on the occasion of the College's 300th Anniversary.
Effective with the 2011 Charter Day, the ceremony was moved from Saturday morning to Friday afternoon and moved from Phi Beta Kappa Hall to William & Mary Hall.
Charter Day Celebration Exercises
The main characteristics of the Charter Day exercises has changed little over the years. The following is a listing of the main aspects of the present-day exercises in order from beginning to end.
- The William & Mary Choir sings the William & Mary Hymn and the National Anthem.
- Introductory remarks by the President of the College of William & Mary.
- Reading from the Royal Charter by the Provost.
- Reading from the Royal Proclamation by the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
- Presentation of the Charter Day awards, which include the James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership, Thomas Jefferson Award, Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy, Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, as well as honorary degrees. Winners of the Alumni Medallion (through 2010 awarded the Friday before the Saturday ceremony) are also recognized.
- Conferral of Honorary degrees.
- Charter Day Address by a guest speaker. [The newly-elected governor of Virginia customarily speaks at the first Charter Day after the election.]
- Closing remarks by the President.
- The choir sings the Alma mater and the William & Mary Hymn to close the program.
- Godson, Susan H. et. al., The College of William & Mary: A History, King and Queen Press, Society of the Alumni, College of William & Mary, 1993, pg. 72, 643.
- Charter Day, University Archives Subject File Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, William & Mary.
- Charter Day Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, William & Mary.
- Charter Day Website from the College of William & Mary. Accessed 17 January 2010.