Separation of Roles of Principal and Professor of Divinity, 1620

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When Henry Charteris (c1565–1628) resigned as Principal of Edinburgh University and Professor of Theology in 1620, the two roles were permanently separated. A new Professorship of Divinity was created, and the Principal retained only a pastoral duty towards his students, with no teaching responsibilities.

Robert Rollock and Henry Charteris

The roles of Principal and of 'Professor of Theology' were originally united in the person of Robert Rollock (1555-1599). Rollock was the university's first Regent, tutoring the first intake of Edinburgh students after the opening of the University in 1583 through to their graduation as Masters of Arts in August 1587. In February 1586, he was appointed Principal of the University. When his class graduated, he did not resume the regenting cycle but was appointed 'Professor of Theology' in November 1587. In this capacity, he instructed those graduates who wished to stay on to prepare for the ministry. Rollock held the twin posts of Principal and Professor of Theology until his death in February 1599. Following Rollock's own death-bed advice, he was succeeded in both by Henry Charteris.

The University's historians Thomas Craufurd and Sir Alexander Grant argue that Charteris proved too retiring and unworldly to satisfy the Town Council of Edinburgh (then responsible for all university appointments). Accordingly, a plan was hatched to replace him as Principal with Patrick Sands (c1567-1635), whose brother-in-law, David Aikinhead, was an influential councillor and future Lord Provost of Edinburgh. A pretext was found to edge Charteris out in 1620, when he requested that his salary be raised to the same level as the City's Ministers. This had, in fact, been promised to Charteris, but the Town Council replied that it was not possible given the present state of University finances. It was suggested that he might profitably seek a church appointment. Charteris took the hint, resigned the Principalship in 1620, and accepted the call to become Minister of North Leith.

The Principalship of Patrick Sands

Patrick Sands was appointed Principal on 20 March 1620. He was among Edinburgh University's first batch of graduates in 1587, and had been employed as a Regent in October 1589. He had long since, however, left the university to practise as an Advocate at the Scottish Bar. Whatever his credentials for the Principalship, he was clearly unqualified to succeed Charteris as Professor of Theology. Consequently the Town Council, in consultation with the Kirk Session, created a separate Professorship of Divinity. Andrew Ramsay was appointed to the position, and took over the task of preparing graduates for the Ministry.

Despite being a layman, Sands was nonetheless required to preach in Greyfriars Kirk in the afternoons. Sir Alexander Grant suggests that his unsatisfactory performance in this capacity may have led to his resignation of the Principalship in October 1622. His successor Robert Boyd, and all subsequent Principals until Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) in 1859, was a Church of Scotland minister. Boyd resumed the title of 'Professor of Theology', previously held by Rollock and Charteris, but this was now ceremonial. Boyd and his successors took no role in preparing students for the ministry, which, from now on, remained the exclusive task of the Professor of Divinity. As 'Professor of Theology' the Principal limited himself to conducting family worship with the students and delivering a weekly homily on their Christian duties.

The Professorship of Divinity

The establishment of the new Professorship made no immediate concrete difference to the University's teaching regime. The Master of Arts remained the only degree offered, and there was no possibility of graduating in Divinity. The new Chair was, however, a first step towards the creation of a Faculty of Divinity, and thus towards the expansion of the 'Tounis College' into a modern-day university. At the same time, Andrew Young, senior Regent in the University was made 'public Professor of Mathematics' and the second regent, James Reid, 'public Professor of Metaphysics'. Again, this had little real effect on the University's educational system. The Regenting system, whereby each class was taught by the same tutors throughout the four years of its course, remained intact. The newly appointed professors merely had to deliver weekly lectures in their appointed subject to the highest classes in the university. Like the creations of the Chair of Divinity, these new appointments nonetheless represented a small but significant step towards specialization and the creation of a faculty system.

Equally significantly, the new Chair of Divinity rapidly began to attract private donations and bequests. Between 1618 and 1634, the Town Council received 8,475 merks from ten separate donors towards the upkeep of the Chair. In 1639, Bartilmo Somerville became the University's first major private benefactor, making a gift of 26,000 merks, of which 20,000 were for the endowment of a Chair of Divinity, and 6,000 to build a house for the Professor.

The Rectorship of Edinburgh University

In addition to his duties as Professor of Divinity, Andrew Ramsay was appointed Rector of the University. The posts of Principal and Rector had previously been united in the persons of Robert Rollock and Henry Charteris. As long as they were performed by the same person, the two roles appear to have been indistinguishable, merely comprising between them all the functions of leadership. The distinction did not immediately become any clearer when the roles were divided in 1620. Ramsay appears to have treated his appointment as Rector as purely nominal. When he resigned as both Professor of Divinity and Rector in 1626, he acknowledged that he had never exercised any functions in relation to the Rectorship. Nor, it would appear, did his successor as Rector, Sir Alexander Morison (1579-1631), Lord Prestongrange, a Judge of the Court of Session, who otherwise held no role at the University. (The Rectorship did not, then, remain a province of the Professor of Divinity. Ramsay was replaced in the Chair by the former Principal Henry Charteris. Grant suggests that the Town Council had too little faith in Charteris's administrative abilities to appoint him Rector.)

After Lord Prestongrange died in 1631, the Rectorship remained in abeyance until the appointment of Alexander Henderson (c1583–1646) in 1640, when the role was at last formally defined. While the Principal was responsible for the discipline, religious and moral control, and administration of the College, the Rector was to be ‘the eye of the Council of the Town’. He was to function as a supervisor or inspector on the Council’s behalf, but also as the spokesman for the College when making overtures to the Council. The Rectorship survived in this form until 1665, when the Town Council of Edinburgh resolved that the role of Rector should be held ex officio by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh. In real terms the Lord Provost had little or no involvement in the administration of the University. By 1858, when the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 put an end to the Town Council’s control of the University, the Rectorship had essentially fallen into disuse. As a result of the Act, a new office of Rector was formally constituted, to be elected by the University's staff and matriculated students.


  • Thomas Craufurd, History of the University of Edinburgh, from 1580 to 1646: To Which is Prefixed the Charter Granted to the College by James VI of Scotland, in 1582 (Edinburgh: Printed by A. Neill & Co., 1808)
  • Sir Alexander Grant, The Story of the University of Edinburgh during its First Three Hundred Years, 2 vols (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884)