A Precious Symbol: the medieval Mace of the University of Glasgow

By Aline Brodin:

Last Monday, the Archive Services welcomed Claire Robinson from the University of St Andrews, who is conducting research for an exhibition about European universities maces created pre-1600 to mark the University of St Andrews’ 600th anniversary.

Seal of the University of Glasgow, late 16th century (BL 319). We can see the Mace at the centre.

Seal of the University of Glasgow, late 16th century (BL 319). We can see the Mace at the centre.

The exhibition will bring together 14th and 15th century university maces from Heidelberg, Tübingen, Basel and Glasgow, and the crozier of Bishop Fox, founder of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to which we must add of course the three medieval maces of the University of St Andrews itself. The Museum Collections Unit will work in partnership with the School of Art History, and themes of the exhibition will include medieval craftsmanship, and symbolism and iconography.

As one of the oldest University in Britain, Glasgow has got its own medieval Mace, which is almost as old as the University itself. Made in 1465 in France, it has a silver shaft and a hexagonal head of gold and enamel work. The Mace had to be beautiful and impressive: it represents the University, its internal authority over its members and its independence from external control. That’s why it is depicted on the coat of arms of Glasgow University and on its seals.

This precious ceremonial tool is richly decorated, especially the head, which bears six coats of arms representing the arms of Scotland and of Glasgow, and of figures who played an important role in the history and the development of the University: Bishop William Turnbull, James, first Lord Hamilton, and Sir James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton. The last shield bears an inscription added in 1590, which reads: ‘Haec virga empta fuit publicis Academiae Glasguensis sumptibus A.D. 1465, in Galliam ablata A.D. 1560, et Academiae restituta 1590’, that is to say: ‘This rod was bought at the expense of the University of Glasgow in 1465; it was brought to France in 1560, and returned to the Academy in 1590’.

Drawing of the Mace and details of its coats of arms from the Munimenta Alme Universitatis Glasguensis (Glasgow: [Maitland Club], 1854), preface, p. xlii

Drawing of the Mace and details of its coats of arms from the Munimenta Alme Universitatis Glasguensis (Glasgow: [Maitland Club], 1854), preface, p. xlii

We can find in the archives of the University many records that tell its story. The earliest mention of the Mace is found in the Annales Universitatis Glasguensis (GUA 26613), which contain early grants of privileges, writs, names of persons incorporated and statutes of the University between 1451 and 1558. It states that David Cadzow, when he was elected Rector in 1460, gave 20 nobles towards the making of a mace. But it seems that this sum of money was not sufficient since five years later, four persons were appointed to tax the members of the University in order to gather further money for it. In 1490, it was decided that Mace would be improved.

The next record concerning the Mace is an inventory dating from 1582 (GUA 26614). It enlightens us about its fate during the Reformation, or rather about the lack of information about it. Indeed, the 1560s were tumultuous times for Scotland and for the University, which was ruinous and in decline. For years the University authorities themselves do not seem to have known where the Mace was; the only thing they knew, as we can read in the aforesaid inventory, is that it was last seen in the quarters of James Balfour, who was Rector in 1558. It’s only in another inventory dated 1614 (GUA 26619) that its fate becomes clear: it is explained that in 1560, James Balfour gave the archives and the silver of the University, including the Mace, to the Archbishop of Glasgow James Beaton, who fled to France with them. The ceremonial rod was back in Scotland in 1590, when it was fixed and improved under the orders of Principal Patrick Sharp. The loss and then recovery of the Mace in the late 16th century are symbolic, and reminiscent of the fate of the University itself, which nearly disappeared during the Reformation only to come out of it stronger.

Nowadays the Mace is still used during ceremonies. The function of “Bedellus”, or Beadle, is tied to it. The Bedellus, whose daily duty is to supervise janitors and administer the examination venues, leads the academic procession, carrying the University mace, during important events.

One of the earliest photographs depicting the Mace, late 19th century. Photograph from The University of Glasgow – Old and New, 1450 – 1891, ed. by William Stewart (Glasgow: T. & R. Annan & Sons and James Maclehose & Sons, 1891)

One of the earliest photographs depicting the Mace, late 19th century. Photograph from The University of Glasgow – Old and New, 1450 – 1891, ed. by William Stewart (Glasgow: T. & R. Annan & Sons and James Maclehose & Sons, 1891)

Lauchlan Macpherson, Bedellus from 1862 to 1899, carrying the Mace. Photograph from The University of Glasgow – Old and New, 1450 – 1891, ed. by William Stewart (Glasgow: T. & R. Annan & Sons and James Maclehose & Sons, 1891)

Lauchlan Macpherson, Bedellus from 1862 to 1899, carrying the Mace. Photograph from The University of Glasgow – Old and New, 1450 – 1891, ed. by William Stewart (Glasgow: T. & R. Annan & Sons and James Maclehose & Sons, 1891)

To find out more:

Mackie, J. D., The University of Glasgow 1451-1951, (Glasgow: Jackson,son & Co, 1954)p. 48-49 and 55-56.

Williams, J., The Silver of the University of Glasgow, (Glasgow: Glasguw University printing Department, 1990).



Categories: Archive Services (GUAS)

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