Reformation-era travels of early university records – by Meghan Rathbun

This is the first of three blog posts by Meghan Rathbun, who did a placement with Archive Services working with the early records of the University of Glasgow while an MSc Museum Studies student in 2014/15. (She previously completed an MLitt and an MA Hons from the University of St Andrews, both in medieval history).

Despite its long history, no original written records survive from the University of Glasgow’s first century. However records from the sixteenth century containing copies of older University records endure, providing us with valuable insight into the early years of the University. One of the records, Annales Universitatis Glasguensis, also known as the Rector’s Book (ref. GUA 26613), is one that I found particularly intriguing. On the final page of the book, written in faded seventeenth century handwriting, are the words:
‘this buik is delyverit be me James Balfour of Tarrie in anno 1625’.

Final page of GUA26613

Final page of GUA 26613

This is certainly a curious entry, one which begs the question of how and when the Rector’s book was taken from the University, as well as where it went during the intervening years. Further study reveals that this mysterious but simple message can provide a gateway to a complex time of turmoil and unrest, allowing us a glimpse of the movements of this book during the Scottish Reformation.

The University of Glasgow, as a body that was created by, and largely for, the medieval Catholic Church, was directly affected by the shift from Catholicism to the new religion of Protestantism. Quite early on, the Principal of the University, John Davidson, converted to Protestantism, and it is safe to assume that several members of staff and the student body did as well. However not all members of the University were impressed with the new religion, perhaps none less so than the Chancellor of the University, James Beaton, the Archbishop of Glasgow. A close associate of the Archbishop, the Dean and Vicar-General of the Cathedral, James Balfour, had at one point been one of the Regents (i.e. Professors) at the University. It was Balfour who removed the book from the University in order to give it to the Archbishop for safekeeping away from the Protestant faction of the University.

The story becomes even more interesting when, in 1560, Beaton, still Archbishop and Chancellor of the University, was expelled from the town of Glasgow. Beaton fled Scotland for the safety of France, a staunchly Catholic country, taking with him the University’s mace, silverware, jewels, and number of records, including the Rector’s book. A large portion of the records were never returned, although the mace did find its way back, and as we have seen, so too did the Rector’s Book.

But what brought about the return of the Rector’s book? The inscription on the last page offers no explanation as to how the book came into the possession of James Balfour of Tarrie or where the book was in the intervening years. No other reference to the book’s disappearance appears in the University records. What we do know is that, at some point during the sixty years the book was absent from Glasgow, it fell into the hands of James Balfour of Tarrie, who is certainly a different man than the James Balfour who first removed the book. His actions saw the book returned to the University and this story may never have been remembered if not for that simple sentence inscribed on the last page.

Categories: Archive Services

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1 reply


  1. Reformation 500 – University of Glasgow Library

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