University of St Andrews Special Collections

Papal bull of foundation of the University of St Andrews, the first University in Scotland

This is the document upon which the University of St Andrews asserts its legitimacy. The only survivor of six bulls (so-called because of the lead ‘bulla’ or seal used to authenticate such documents) issued at Peniscola in Aragon in 1413, it is a letter sent from the Pope. It affirms a charter already issued by the bishop of St Andrews and authorises the university to award degrees that licensed its graduates to teach theology, canon and civil law, arts and medicine.

The bulls arrived in St Andrews on 3 February 1414 and were greeted by magnificent celebrations. According to the contemporary chronicler Walter Bower, there were solemn services in the cathedral, grand processions of clergy and even street parties in which the citizens indulged ‘in boundless merry-making and kept large bonfires burning in the streets … while drinking wine in celebration.’ The future of the town of St Andrews and of the Scottish nation had been transformed.

There was already a group of masters and scholars associated with the Augustinian priory in St Andrews before this document formally established the university there. At that time getting papal authority was one of only two possible ways to achieve university status. So this document is the charter of incorporation of the first university in Scotland and the 50th in Europe, marking the birth of the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. At a time of schism in the church when rival popes were competing for authority, Scotland remained affiliated to the pope in Avignon who granted the bulls, but since later popes of Rome didn’t countermand the acts made by their ‘anti-Pope’ predecessor, the date of foundation stands.

The six bulls were copied into University registers for safe keeping, which was just as well, since only this one from the original six now survives. It is likely that this is because it was kept safe with the records of St Mary’s College. The bull was stored in a charter cabinet there, with the silken cords of red and yellow thread bearing the lead seal tucked inside the folded parchment, forming a small parcel. In preparation for the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the foundation of the University of St Andrews the document was sent for conservation at the Dundee Book and Paper Conservation Studio. The conservators spent three weeks in 2009 giving the Bull a 600-year service, at a total cost of £600, just £1 for every year of its life. Work included surface cleaning, the repair of vulnerable edge tears, the realignment of the silk tag and the provision of a storage box and mount to allow the safe storage, transportation and display of the document.

The bull is used in teaching by the School of Management to introduce students to corporate identity and to the significance of foundation documents, and in Manuscript Studies. The original goes on display in the University Museum for very special occasions, where it is marvelled at by the university community and visitors alike.