A brief history of the University

Early establishment

Mediaeval Christian manuscript

With no national university to develop their academic abilities, Scottish students in the middle ages were forced to pursue their studies abroad. 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

Papal bull

Bishop Wardlaw turned to the exiled Pope Benedict XIII to seek his blessing. 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 Museums of the University of St Andrews.

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.

The six bulls included the bull of foundation and a bull confirming Wardlaw’s charter of 1412. Although the text of all six is known, only the confirmation of Wardlaw’s grant survives in the original and still bears its bulla or lead seal.

Growing up

St Salvator's College illustration

The early years of the young university were not without turbulence. In 1426, King James tried to move the university 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 university to appoint a woman as Principal, recruiting Professor Louise Richardson from the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard, to lead it into its seventh century. She was succeeded in 2016 by Professor Sally Mapstone.

St Andrews recently celebrated 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.

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:

  • William Dunbar, poet (MA, 1479)
  • John Napier, the inventor of logarithms (student, 1563)
  • James Gregory, designer of the Gregorian telescope (Regius professor of Mathematics, 1668)
  • Benjamin Franklin (honorary Doctor of Laws, 1759)
  • Edward Jenner, pioneer of the smallpox vaccine (MD, 1792)
  • John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist (Rector, 1865)
  • JM Barrie, author (Rector, 1919)
  • Rudyard Kipling, author (Rector, 1922)
  • Sir James Black, Nobel Prize winner in medicine (MB ChB, 1946).