On the 7th of January, 1451 (per the Gregorian calendar), a Papal Bull, issued by Pope Nicholas V, ordained that a university be founded in the city of Glasgow.
No bull, I kid you not, Glasgow University was founded by a ‘Papal Bull’. Whether you consider most of what has emanated from the Vatican over the centuries to be something resembling ‘bovine excrement’ or not, the ordainment by Pope Nicholas V that led to the creation of the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world has been for the greater good of mankind. For the last five and a half centuries, as you may read on its website, Glasgow University has “constantly worked to push the boundaries of what’s possible”. That has meant fostering the talents of no less than six Nobel Laureates, one Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and after a Scottish Parliamentary gap spanning three of those centuries, Scotland’s inaugural First Minister, Donald Dewar. To allay your curiosity, those six Nobel Prize winners were: Sir William Ramsay; Frederick Soddy; John Boyd Orr; Sir Alexander Robertus Todd; Sir Derek Barton; and Sir James Black. The greater good was served through the work of five of those six in the science of chemistry and the sixth won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949.
Not content with that roll of honour, many another equally if not more famous scholar has been associated with the University. Those include: Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic science; James Watt, who developed improvements to the steam engine; Lord Kelvin, who became its youngest ever Professor of Natural Philosophy, by a long way, and had the name of his baronial title given to a system of measuring temperature; John Logie Baird, the pioneer of television; Professor William Macquorn Rankine, who wrote the first authoritative textbook on engineering; Joseph Black, who introduced a modern understanding of gases; and his namesake, Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery. In addition, there is a roll call of literary giants that includes John Buchan, James Boswell, A. J. Cronin, Osborne Henry Mavor and Tobias Smollett.
To save you looking it up on Wikipedia, a ‘Papal Bull’ is simply the name for a charter issued by a Pope, being so named after the lead ‘bulla’ or seal that was affixed to such documents for authentication and to deter tampering. The ‘bullae’ of a Pope had an image of St. Peter and St. Paul on one side and the name of the issuing Pope on the other. Continuing that theme somewhat tenuously, the founder of Glasgow University was descended from the Turnbulls of Minto and was at the time, Scotland’s Lord Privy Seal. William Turnbull, the very man, who had been consecrated as Bishop of Glasgow in 1448, also became the University’s first Chancellor. Turnbull had studied at the University of St Andrews, founded forty years previous to its new rival, as well as on the Continent. He enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Douglas family and had important connections at the court of King James II. Not content with having that on his ‘curriculum vitae’, Turnbull was also known at the Papal court of the Italian Pope, Tommaso Parentucelli, who took his Papal moniker after his early mentor and predecessor as Bishop of Bologna; Niccolò Albergati.
In line with the multifarious politics and feuding of mid-15th Century Scotland, the foundation of the University became possible as a result of Turnbull’s connections with both the Royal and Papal courts. The ‘Bull’ was procured from the Pope at the request of James II and it authorised the founding of a university in the city of Glasgow, which was wonderfully described as being “a place of renown” where “the air is mild” and “victuals are plentiful”. The Pope, by his “apostolical authority”, ordained that the university should remain “in all times to come for ever, as well in theology and cannon and civil law as in arts, and every other lawful faculty.” His Holiness further decreed that the “doctors, masters, readers and students” of the new university “may brook and enjoy all and sundry privileges, liberties, honours, exceptions, and immunities” as had been granted previously to the Italian city of Bologna.
In such fashion, Glasgow University became part of the continental community of mediaeval European centres of learning. Like the Pope, who had been taught at Bologna, William Turnbull was the product of that community. So, too, were the Dominican Friars who came to teach at Glasgow, bringing with them a wealth of scholarship and intellectual ability, and who, incidentally, provided Glasgow’s first University premises. The academic tradition stemmed from the founding of the first latter day university at Bologna, under a grant of Frederick ‘Barbarossa’, sometime during the 12th Century. What then developed into the so called ‘Italian Model’ was subsequently adopted by St. Andrews in 1411, Glasgow as you’ve just read, in 1451, and Aberdeen in 1494. That early continental model differed from the later Oxford and Cambridge one in that universities weren’t so much led by the masters as by the ‘Dominus Rector’ on behalf of the students. In general, the students had the power to elect the ‘Rector’, who had the authority to hire and fire academics and tutors. Notwithstanding that fact, the Glasgow ‘Bull’ indicated that the position of ‘Rector’ be filled by “our reverend brother, William, Bishop of Glasgow, and his successors for the time being”. The post of Rector still exists in Scotland’s ancient universities, albeit it’s now a largely ceremonial appointment.
In the middle ages, the word ‘university’ didn’t have the meaning it does today. In fact, the Latin word ‘universitas’ should be translated as ‘corporation’ and scholars be seen as a group of professionals banded together in a cooperative enterprise to protect their rights in medieval cities. The term that would’ve been applied to what we now call a university was ‘studium generale’. A ‘studium’ was simply a school, whereas a ‘studium generale’ was a school where students could obtain the ‘licentiae ubique docendi’ – a license entitling the bearer to teach anywhere within Christendom, the granting of which became the hallmark of modern-day universities.
Not to be outdone, James II applied Scotland’s ‘Great Seal’ to his own document; one that granted the King’s firm peace and protection to the new university and its officials. That letter, issued at Stirling on the 20th of April, 1453, exempted the University and its associates from all manner of taxes, tributes, duties, and services. And that same year of His Lord, Bishop Turnbull granted the University ‘duty free’ trading rights within the city and authorised the ‘Rector’ to act as judge in civil and pecuniary cases involving members of the University or between its members and citizens of the city of Glasgow.