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King's College - 1495

File:Priddey, James, King's College, Aberdeen, artist's proof paper print, embossed Warwick Galleries, 21.5x30.3, estate of George Scroggie.jpg

King's College, placed on the South side of Old Aberdeen, conspicuous beyond the rest of the Houses for the Neatness and Stateliness of its Structure.

'Tis Inferiour to no College in Scotland. One side of it is covered with Slate, the rest with Lead; the Church, and Turret or Steeple are of hewen Stone.

The Windows were of old remarkable for painted Glass, and some reliques of their ancient Splendor do yet remain. Here is a fine Monument of Bishop Elphingston.




Keywords: bishops, canon law, coats of arms, heraldry, judges, King's College, Aberdeen, portraits, priests, printing press, professors, rectors, University of GlasgowWilliam Elphinstone (26th Bishop) established a college dedicated to St Mary in the Nativity in 1495 following a successful petition for a Papal Bull. It later became known as King’s CollegeKing's College was built to house the University, which was founded by Bishop Elphinstone under a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI on 10 February 1495King's Tower is the figurehead of the University, and small wonder. The building is famous not only for its physical appeal, but for its symbolism: the pursuit of knowledge.  William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, from the original painting in King's College in Aberdeen. The family coat of arms is also illustrated.  William Elphinstone was born in Glasgow in 1431. He was one of the first students at the new University of Glasgow in the 1450s. In 1456 he graduated MA and was ordained to the priesthood. He studied in Paris and became an authority in canon law, spending several years as a professor in the subject in Paris and Orleans.  In 1471 Elphinstone returned to Glasgow, where Bishop Andrew Muirhead appointed him Episcopal Judge in the Diocese of Glasgow. He was chosen Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow in 1474.  Elphinstone's connection with Glasgow ceased when he was appointed Official of Lothian in 1478. In 1484 he became Bishop of Aberdeen, a post he held for thirty years. In 1494 he procured a papal bull founding King's College, Aberdeen, Scotland's 3rd University.

Three boars' heads, ragged at the neck, as if torn off, 3 above and 1 below, with a figure like the couple of the roof of a house striding over the lowest. Boars' head indicate ownership of a wild, extensive hunting-ground. The chevron, or couple, is generally taken to represent the setting up of a new house or branch of an old family. Above the shield is a Bishop's Mitre. The motto, "Non confundar," " I shall not be overwhelmed," indicates confidence in the day of judgment

Bishop Elphinstone has left very little documentary evidence concerning his construction of the Chapel so it was left to his Principal, Hector Boece, to provide an account of his life and works in 1522. Boece confirms, briefly, that he built the church "of hewn polished stone", with windows, ceilings, seats, elaborate and costly furnishings, the "steeple of great height, surrounded in stone work arched in form of an imperial crown", the leaded roof and 13 bells of "most melodious sound". In fact, Elphinstone must have left money for the completion of his project because some of the bells were not made until 1519, and it is likely that the crown tower was only finished after the enormous bells, over 5 feet wide, had been hoisted into position through the roof.

With relatively little documentation to help, we have to explore the Chapel itself to establish just what Bishop Elphinstone as patron would have commissioned. The patron was responsible for raising funds, which Elphinstone amply provided, and for specifying the general scheme, suggesting ideas he had seen elsewhere. Quite possibly technical details were sorted out by the able Rector, Alexander Galloway, who went on to complete Elphinstone's Bridge of Dee in 1522 and Greyfriars' Church (inset).

Funds were ready by 1497-98 when Elphinstone purchased wheelbarrows, gunpowder and carts from the Netherlands. The basic nature of these foreign imports is a reflection of the "men who are rude, ignorant of letters and almost barbarous" whom Elphinstone wished to educate in Aberdeen.  The Bishop would have chosen the plot of land: it was the nearest open space to the Cathedral along the old Via Regia (now the High Street), but somewhat boggy and bounded to the south by the wet banks of the Powis Burn at the bottom of the hill (now in a culvert).

A major decision was to construct the Chapel from Golden Moray Sandstone, brought expensively by boat from Covesea. This choice clearly indicated a rejection of the local but stubborn granite used at St Machar's Cathedral in favour of a softer stone which could be more readily carved.  The size of the building depended on how many staff and students Bishop Elphinstone anticipated filling his University. The Chapel can actually take about 300 people but in the first Foundation Charter of 1505, there were only 36 College members, rising to 42 in 1514.  

The Bishop, or his Master Mason, clearly knew about other significant buildings: King's Chapel was intended to be just slightly longer and wider than St Salvator's at St Andrews; and the bays are slightly longer than those in St Machar's nave. But proportions, a matter of spiritual significance, were much more important than the physical size.  The golden inscription on the West Front states that the Chapel was begun on 2 April, 1500. A learned Cleric, aware of Old Testament exegesis, would associate this day with the building of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol both of royal wisdom and supreme sanctity. Certain proportions in the Chapel suggest that it was intended to evoke the Temple, but it would require a theologian with Elphinstone's own books to recognise this.

Kings Chapel when used as the Library
Interior of King's College Chapel, c.1900. Work began on the College in 1500 and it took 6 years to complete the Chapel. This illustration shows the interior looking west,

The original Bishop Stewart's pulpit was on the right, through the nave and choir to the choir stalls and rood screen, with the antechapel behind it. Non-residents entered through the West door and occupied the Antechapel, while students entered from the College Library via a special staircase within the rood screen.

The central gallery of the screen is still used to house the organ. The 52 choir stalls, commissioned by Elphinstone, are "a unique survival as well as the finest of their King in Scotland".

The finely panelled Renaissance Pulpit of William Stewart (Bishop 1532-1545) bears his coat of arms and was originally in use in St. Machar's Cathedral.

The timber ceiling was constructed soon after 1506 and was probably designed by John Fendour. It consists of a diagonal arrangement of ribs and widely spreading foliage sprigs radiating from centre bosses.

The choir stalls and ceiling both show a strong Flemish influence. The Chapel restored, is still in use today for University Services and is a popular marriage venue for graduates.

Elphinstone owned a copy of bible commentaries which illustrated the Temple in medieval guise: it had a tower with windows and string courses, a crenellated parapet, and lean-to buildings hugging the side walls, just as the sacristy and treasury originally did on the south side of the Chapel. At both the Temple and the Chapel, the proportion of width to length was 1:3.5. At the Temple, the length of the holy of holies within the Great Chamber was 1:3. In the Chapel the same ratio applies to the Sanctuary (from the altar steps eastwards) within the choir (enclosed by the rood screen in its original location). Within the Temple, Solomon clad the walls and ceiling with carved wood as Elphinstone sheathed his choir with wooden stalls and ceiling. The creation of this Scottish Holy of Holies was surely devised by Elphinstone who then decided to be buried at its heart.  The selection of architectural details suggests a patron with a reasonably wide knowledge of foreign buildings, but also a team of masons and joiners who, within their localised building activity, had already assimilated many continental ideas. The plan with its long, narrow body and polygonal apse, is a convenient solution for a Collegiate Church and its immediate precursor is St Salvator's at St Andrews. The window tracery, with its flamboyant mouchettes and massive central mullions, is found in the Low Countries, around Liège; the wagon ceiling with its bursting stars of foliage has precedents in the town hall and St Giles Church, Bruges. St Andrews dates from 1411, Glasgow and Aberdeen were not founded until 1451 and 1495. In neighbouring Scandinavia the 1st 2 Universities were founded at Copenhagen in 1475, and Uppsala in 1477. Some of the new 15th century Universities were small and poorly endowed, and a number of pre-c.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.

The style had already come to Aberdeen where a similar ceiling was installed at St Nicholas' in 1495. The daring crown on the tower already had a precedent at St Nicholas, Newcastle but the closest parallel is with St Giles', Edinburgh built at almost the same time as King's.   

The stalls, the exquisite seating provided for Elphinstone's choristers and University members, look flamboyantly exotic but there is enough evidence from St Nicholas' to suggest that these are a local product, probably made by John Fendour.  

In a similar way, Elphinstone's portrait, now in Marischal Museum and once part of an altar piece, looks somewhat Flemish, but is likely to be by a Scot trained in the Netherlandish style. So, these comparisons indicate a well-travelled and discerning patron who was able to commission Scots artisans to carry out his plans.

The Crown is a very interesting piece of the College. It is an Imperial crown, not a Royal one, and the significance of this is often missed. The Imperial crown is a symbol of universal dominion, as opposed to a national one, and it is likely that this crown was incorporated into the architecture to support the Scottish Crown's claim to imperial authority within Scotland.

King's was provided with 36 fully maintained staff.  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.





King's College was founded by Bishop William Elphinstone under a Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI on 10th February 1495. Marischal College was founded as an independent University in 1593 and the two became the University of Aberdeen in the Fusion of 1860.






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Last modified: 01/09/2013