Copy of Address Given by Sir William Fraser, Principal University of Glasgow at Evening Service
At Bedrule around 1400 William Turnbull was born, and shortly thereafter baptised, in its medieval kirk. His kinsmen of Bedrule and Minto were often notorious for breaching the peace, though some were notable churchmen, abbots of nearby Jedburgh and Melrose. William would later describe himself as ‘of noble race by both parents’ and King James II would refer to their blood-relationship, that is through his mother, seemingly a Stewart of Minto. As a boy, William would hear of the disastrous fire that swept away much of Glasgow cathedral from the central tower eastwards to the upper chapterhouse, inflicting damage it took half a century to repair. William's father received the fortified house at Bedrule as a thank-offering from the Douglases for help afforded against England in the Border Wars. Other warlike Turnbulls died on French battlefields in the 100 Years' War. In a lawless countryside William grew up a devotee of law.
There being as yet no university at Glasgow, the youth continued his studies in the newly founded university of St Andrews. The leading figure there was the formidable Laurence of Lindores, famous in central europe for his Paris lectures on medieval physics and psychology but in Scotland more as an unbending inquisitor and foe of popular heresy. His St Andrews students were bound by oath to oppose Lollard heretics whose very existence was to Laurence a standing insult. Before graduating in 1419, Turnbull must also swear not to indulge a taste for fashionable footwear with pointed or pierced shoes or with showy' laces in primary colours and not to sport a shortcoat with slashed sides to it. As to texts, the only safe commentator was the Frenchman, Jean Buridan, as the opposing school of philosophical 'realists' were linked with heretical names like John Wyclif. (A few supporters of the older 'realism' of Albert the Great had already infiltrated the arts faculty, old enough not to be suspect, but years would pass before 'realism' became respectable again.)
After the Council of Constance which condemned the Wyclifites and elected a new Roman pope, the existing Avignon pope, Benedict XIII, was required to go, so that the scandal of the Great Schism and divided European loyalties as between two rival popes might end. St. Andrews university reluctantly withdrew its support from Benedict whose papal bulls a few years before had brought it into existence. Turnbull, with fellow-students from all corners of Scotland, witnessed this solemn withdrawal. Henceforth he was a pope's man to Martin V and a king's man to the Scottish kings. He graduated in arts in 1419, before proceeding to the school of canon law. In 1430 he is found as Dean of Faculty in arts at a difficult time when James I contemplated the university's transfer to a less out-of-the-way site at Perth away from the snell East Fife winds. The affair was as yet unsettled when Turnbull packed his bags and took the road to Louvain in Flanders, to study canon law in a new setting.
The St Andrews students had come to their university to study wisdom and instead found an ever more complex logic-chopping. One law 'student found fault with the whole arts course; logic was all sophisms and fallacies and even music shrugged off as mere 'sound modulations'. What was needed was a programme to bring wisdom and 'science' together, for the health both of the life of action and the life of contemplation.
After his spell at Louvain, Turnbull turned to sunnier places. One may speculate that he went to Bologna, but that, after early studies there, to avoid its costly graduation feast, made instead for Pavia where he took his doctorate in canon law in 1439. He had a succession of patrons. The Douglases were patrons of his rectory of Hawick, James II viewed him with a friendly eye and Pope Eugenius IV took him into his household. When he returned to Scotland, he soon won the trust of the king who made him his confidant, gave him his post as keeper of the privy seal and this for a time in conjunction with the office of royal secretary. The maverick William, Earl of Douglas, was, in spite of his flamboyant conduct abroad and his foreign connections, a provincial in comparison with the king's new director of policy to whom his behaviour was unworthy of the great name of Douglas and bordered on the anarchic. The chronicler, John Law, a former Ayr schoolmaster and Douglas partisan, who lived some time after the events, tried to foist the blame for Douglas's slaughter partly on Turnbull. Turnbull certainly wanted Douglas controlled, but it was the King's bad temper, always on a short fuse, that precipitated the Douglas death. Donald Balloch of Antrim, a cousin of the Lord of the Isles and ally of Douglas, attacked offshore islands along the Ayrshire coast where royal rents had been given to Turnbull along with the customs dues of Ayr and other west coast towns. Ayr felt particularly aggrieved as it felt its status as a trading centre entitled it to a university.
In 1447 Turnbull was appointed Bishop of Dunkeld, a diocese close to Perth and often governed from Perth, though Perth itself was in St Andrews diocese. The see of Glasgow unexpectedly became vacant and Turnbull, who had held Provand's Lordship, a detached portion of the bishop's barony, soon held the castle opposite his manse, when pope and king combined to advance him to the cathedral see of Glasgow in the difficu1t Douglas territory. Papal and royal favours were showered on the city. A ‘pardon’ for cathedral visitors in the jubilee year brought in revenues which the king was forced to pillage for a large loan to pay for his anti-Douglas manoeuvres. In 1451 Pope Nicholas V crowned his endeavours by a bull instituting a university in the city, which soon held its meetings in the restored upper chapter house of the cathedral, destroyed in the fire during Turnbull's boyhood and now in his manhood completed by him as the bishop's coat of arms on its western gable testifies. The only other place where this is found is on Scotland's national shrine at Dunfermline. (Also in the cathedral church is a monument to the Stewarts of Minto facing the spot where of old their altar to St Kentigern stood, commemorating the man whom Turnbul1 created Glasgow's first provost, another Stewart of Minto.)
The foundation bulls were proclaimed at Glasgow Cross on Trinity Sunday, 20 June 1451, but Turnbull was dead by September 1454. Tiny Glasgow as it was then joined the international fellowship of universities; Turnbull could hardly have envisaged the global invasion of 1951 when representatives of universities worldwide arrived in Glasgow to celebrate the fifth centenary.
The prologue to the ancient university statutes shows great concern with the worship of God. In its earliest form, it is initialled 'D.B.' by the first principal Duncan Bunch, a native of Perth, who had learnt 'sound doctrine' at the Albertist university of Cologne. Appropriately it is a Trinitarian document echoing the Trinity theme. With him Bunch brought another Cologne-trained teacher, a monk of Melrose. Even so, for the practical bishop, law was his main concern, and the law university of Bologna, 'freest of universities' his model. The prologue spoke nostalgically of the warm south wind from Italy that would modify Glasgow's icy blasts and darkened skies. It concludes with a prayer that gifts of knowledge might be matched by gifts of virtue:
'Let therefore our reason be so clearly enlightened that it may the more rapidly take hold of that Wisdom to know which is Truth, to love which is Virtue and to comprehend which the highest Good ...'
The city's subsequent development was to keep that ideal in mind.