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History of the University

... considering also the peace and quietness which flourish in the said city of St Andrews and its neighbourhood, its abundant supply of victuals, the number of its hospices and other conveniences for students, which it is known to possess, we are led to hope that this city, which the devine bounty has enriched with so many gifts, may become the fountain of science... Pope Benedict XIII, 1413

Early establishment

Scottish students in the Middle Ages were forced abroad to pursue their studies, with no national university to develop their academic abilities. By 1410 most had been driven to Paris from Oxford and Cambridge by the Wars of Scottish Independence with England. So when the Catholic Church was divided by two rival Popes – with Pope Boniface IX supported by the French Cardinals while Scotland remained faithful to Pope Benedict XIII – Scottish students found themselves in a difficult position. The time had come to establish a seat of learning, of international standing, back home in Scotland.

St Andrews was the obvious choice – the seat of the greatest bishopric in Scotland and location of a monastery noted as a centre for learning. In May 1410 a group of masters, mainly graduates of Paris, initiated a school of higher studies in St Andrews.

Wardlaw’s charter

By February 1411 the school had established itself sufficiently to obtain a charter of incorporation and privileges from the Bishop of St Andrews, Henry Wardlaw. This granted the masters and students recognition as a properly constituted corporation, duly privileged and safeguarded for the pursuit of learning. However, recognised university status and the authority to grant degrees could only be conferred by the Pope or the Emperor as heads of Christendom.

Papal blessing

Bishop Wardlaw turned to the exiled Pope Benedict XIII to seek his blessing and King James, despite being a prisoner of the English, added his weight to the petition. In return for Scotland’s loyalty, Pope Benedict readily agreed and on 28 August 1413 full University status was conferred by a series of six Papal Bulls – one of which survives to this day in the University of St Andrews museum, MUSA.

So it was that the Papal bulls began their five month journey, from the Spanish fortress in Peniscola where Pope Benedict was safely cloistered, over land and sea to St Andrews. They arrived in the town in February 1414 – to be welcomed with bells, bonfires, and great celebration.

Growing up

The early years of the young university were not without turbulence. In 1426, King James tried to move the university lock, stock and barrel to Perth. In 1470, several Masters and students were expelled for attacking the Dean with bows and arrows. In 1544 the University banned beards, the carrying of weapons, gambling and football.

By the middle of the 16th century, St Andrews had grown to encompass three colleges – St Salvator’s (1450), St Leonard’s (1511) and St Mary’s (1538). The buildings of St Mary’s College and St Salvator’s Chapel date from this period.

From the 1500s to the 1700s the University enjoyed a period of mixed fortunes. During this time St Salvator’s and St Leonard’s Colleges joined to form the United College which still survives today in a greatly enlarged form.

In the 19th century the University made considerable progress in developing teaching and research in the Arts, Divinity and the Biological and Physical Sciences. In 1897 the University was joined by a new academic centre in nearby Dundee and with it gained notable achievements in Medical and Applied Science. This association ended in 1967 with the foundation of a separate University of Dundee.

In the 1980s, St Andrews embarked on a broad programme of investment to boost its research capabilities, a strategy which has helped establish its reputation today as an international centre of research excellence.

In 2009, St Andrews became the first Scottish ancient to appoint a woman as Principal, recruiting Professor Louise Richardson from the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard, to lead it into its seventh century.

From mediaeval origins to modern thinking

International scholars have been coming to St Andrews to study, teachers to teach, and students to learn since the foundation in 1413. Through the centuries many great minds have been attracted to St Andrews, including – poet William Dunbar MA 1479, Benjamin Franklin honorary Doctor of Laws 1759, Nobel Prize Winner in medicine Sir James Black, James Gregory who designed the Gregorian telescope, Edward Jenner pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, Rudyard Kipling, John Stuart Mill, JM Barrie and John Napier the inventor of logarithms.

Although scholars will continue to debate the ‘official’ year of foundation, St Andrews will in 2011 begin celebrating 600 years of continuous existence during which time it has made an enduring contribution to the intellectual and cultural life of both Scotland and the wider world.


See also

  • University archives