King's College may have been one of Europe's last medieval universities but its far-sighted mission has secured its survival through more than five centuries of change, writes Jennifer Carter
|King's College around 1640.
This anonymous oil painting is the earliest view of the College.
n 1500 Elphinstone's university had been teaching for five years, since gaining the Pope's authority to do so in 1495. It would be another five years before university life at King's College was formally launched with Elphinstone's charter of 1505. Meanwhile, work on King's focal building, the Chapel, had begun in 1498, and the Chapel was to be consecrated in 1509.
Those early years tell us much about the character of the institution - about Elphinstone's far-sighted and dedicated planning, about the financial struggle to establish one of Europe's last medieval universities, and about the breadth of Renaissance learning brought to Aberdeen by Elphinstone himself and his first Principal, Hector Boece. King's may have been small and remote, but from its inception it had strong European connections and the highest scholarly ambitions and standards.
Before the end of the fifteenth century 86 universities had been founded in Europe, 39 of them during that century. Most were concentrated in Italy, France and the Holy Roman Empire (especially in what is now Germany). Developments in northern and eastern Europe were fewer and later. For example, in Scotland, although St Andrews dates from 1411, Glasgow and Aberdeen were not founded until 1451 and 1495. In neighbouring Scandinavia the first two universities were founded at Copenhagen in 1475, and Uppsala in 1477. Some of the new fifteenth century universities were small and poorly endowed, and a number of pre-1500 universities failed to survive the political and religious vicissitudes of the following centuries. Aberdeen is proud to have a continuous tradition of learning and teaching from 1495 to today.
King's College, Aberdeen, was modelled on the Universities of Paris, Orleans and Bologna, showing the strength of European traditions. It was a college- university, unlike its older English counterparts (Oxford and Cambridge) which each had a number of colleges grouped together to form a university. In 1505 King's was provided with thirty six fully maintained staff and students - expanded to forty two in 1514. It was essentially a collegiate foundation, with walls protecting it from the outside world, and students living within under strict discipline. Besides the Chapel, the Great Hall and living accommodation, King's had its own kitchen and brewery, a well in the quadrangle, and a college garden to provide herbs and vegetables. The grammar school was just outside the walls, in front of the College.
These modest and practical arrangements supported an ambitious academic programme. Elphinstone's university was intended to supply Northern Scotland with scholars and teachers, priests, lawyers and doctors. It awarded not merely the degrees of bachelor and master of arts, but also the higher degrees in theology, law and medicine, which would enable their holders to study and teach in any university in Christendom. In that sense, although its mission has vastly expanded it has not essentially changed in five hundred years.
The religious and political storms of the Reformation rocked King's in the mid sixteenth century. Within a decade of 1560, when Protestantism triumphed in Scotland, King's had been purged of its Catholic staff, but it was still slow to accept the 'New Foundation' whereby advanced reformers like Andrew Melville sought to modernise teaching in the Scottish universities, in accordance with the ideas of the French Huguenot, Peter Ramus.
George Keith, fourth Earl Marischal, was one of those working to reform King's, and it was Keith who decided to set up a second college - Marischal College - in New Aberdeen in 1593. Again European influences are prominent, for Keith had completed his own education at the Calvinist academy in Geneva. The exact status of Marischal College is not clear from its charter, but that no overt threat to King's was intended is shown by the fact that the Principal of King's was one of those invited to select staff for Marischal. This he refused to do, thus inaugurating the rivalry which was to mark the relationship of the two colleges for the next 250 years.
The two colleges both claimed university status, and were to develop different emphases. King's remained collegiate, still trying as late as the eighteenth century to enforce residence on its students, while Marischal almost from the start allowed students to live in town. Marischal benefited from the growing size, wealth and prosperity of New Aberdeen compared with the smaller Old Aberdeen - the two were not united as a single burgh until 1891. But in educational matters and in political background the two colleges were similar. Sometimes (as in the earlier seventeenth century) King's took the lead academically, while at other times (as in the mid eighteenth century) it was Marischal which was the innovator. Both colleges supported the Stewarts in 1715, and both were purged as a result. Marischal lost its entire staff but one, and teaching was suspended for two years. At King's six out of ten academics were dismissed and the Chancellor resigned.
Paradoxically, despite this political upheaval, and continuing infighting at King's, as well as constant rivalry and legal battles between the two colleges (often acted out by their students in the streets of Old and New Aberdeen), the eighteenth century saw shining academic achievement at Aberdeen. Both King's and Marischal contributed substantially to the Scottish and European Enlightenment, and scholars from both colleges sank their institutional animosities to join in academic discourse in the Aberdeen Philosophical Society. After a number of failed attempts at merger in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, King's and Marischal were united by Act of Parliament as the University of Aberdeen in 1860.
From the later seventeenth century Aberdeen's world outlook broadened. Indeed, by the nineteenth century European links became temporarily less important, while links with the British Empire and a wider world increased. The first recorded overseas students began to come to Aberdeen in the late eighteenth century, mostly from expatriate families in America and the West Indies. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the numbers from overseas have grown. Even more striking was the exodus of Aberdeen students to follow careers abroad. In the seventeenth century many had studied or traded in Europe - some as far afield as Russia. From the later eighteenth century onwards hundreds of students pursued their careers in India and the Americas, in the Far East, in Africa and in Australasia. It was only with the fading of the British Empire in the mid twentieth century that European connections once more assumed their early importance.
In another sense too the University has come full circle, with the gradual shift away from the roughly equal division of numbers between Marischal and King's College. Marischal expanded during the nineteenth century, and in the great rebuilding effort culminating in 1906, in order to accommodate the growing teaching of Medicine and Science. But Medicine moved up to the new hospital site at Foresterhill in 1938, and from 1922 onwards Science and Engineering gradually migrated to Old Aberdeen, where they now occupy modern buildings surrounding the Chapel and the original heart of King's.
Dr Jennifer Carter is the General Editor of Quincentennial Studies in the History of the University of Aberdeen.