A Brief History of The University of St Andrews

University Of St Andrews
University Of St Andrews | © llunàtica81/Flickr
Tori Chalmers

Highly ranked and draped in tradition, the University of St Andrews is both the first university in Scotland and the third oldest in the English-speaking world. But where did this seat of endless innovation and academic excellence begin?

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The seed for St Andrews University was first planted in 1410 after a cluster of Augustinian clergymen formed an academic society with classes and lectures in divinity, logic, philosophy and law. Before this, Scotland was starved of any real learning institution. Due to the Scottish Wars of Independence, Scots students had no choice but to seek academic enlightenment abroad and left Oxford and Cambridge for Paris. Something had to be done.

College Hall, within the 16th century St Mary’s College building of St Andrews University

Scots were left in an even greater predicament due to the two duelling popes — Pope Boniface IX favoured by the French cardinals and Pope Benedict XIII supported by the Scots. Thanks to its status as the leading Scottish bishopric and its learned monastery, St Andrews was the perfect place to soothe academic turmoil and Scotland’s students. By 1411, the classes proved so successful that they led to a charter of incorporation and privileges from Henry Wardlaw, the Bishop of St Andrews. All this attention garnered its status as a safe haven of higher learning and a ‘properly constituted corporation’. Still, it wasn’t a recognised university.

Inside St Salvator’s Chapel

The Bishop sought official ‘university status’ from Pope Benedict XIII, who was in exile. Albeit a prisoner to England, King James also expressed his approval and voila — the good Pope accepted the application in 1413 and sent six papal bulls, which took five whole months to reach St Andrews from his hideout in Peniscola. The bulls descended upon Scottish soil in 1414 and the rest, as they say, is history!

View Across St Salvator’s Quad

Time went on and the university’s reputation continued to soar. The year 1544 witnessed the banning of beards, the possession of weapons, gambling and football. By 1897, the University joined with a college in Dundee, a union which lasted until 1967. A momentous year, 2009 saw St Andrews take the crown as the first Scottish ancient university to appoint a female Principal. There’s no telling what the next centuries will bring.

Courtyard of the United College
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