French Connections in the University of Glasgow

As France celebrates le 14 juillet, the day which symbolically marks the beginning of the 1789 French Revolution, we turn to our International story to draw out French Connections in the University of Glasgow.

French flag

Since its foundation in 1451 members of the University have lived, died, worked, or travelled to and from France and Scotland.  The renowned philosopher John Mair for example, obtained his degrees in France and lectured at the Sorbonne in Paris before becoming Principal of Glasgow University in 1518 until 1526.

Fast-forward a few hundred years to 1895 and the University appointed Frenchman Alfred Mercier, as its first Lecturer of French Language and Literature. Mercier’s forward-thinking ideas made his lectureship controversial and he resigned twice. He finally left the University permanently after it rejected his proposal to arrange classes by ability rather than gender.

Meanwhile, during the First World War, French president Raymond Poincaré became the first University Rector to be elected from overseas. He was popular and on his visit to the University in 1919 he was greeted with a spirited rendition of la Marseillaise. In his address he spoke warmly of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland and in his closing remarks he expressed his hope that a Franco-Scottish relationship would continue to flourish:

Let us meet one another more often and know one another better . . . Let us exchange our ideas as well as our products. Let us see that our Universities become the source of a wide and fertilising intellectual current between our two nations . . .”

[DC33/6/6, Address delivered by Mr Raymond Poincaré, 13 Nov 1919]


Raymond Poincaré, President of France 1913-1920 and Rector of the University of Glasgow 1914-1919

In more recent times, France has also bestowed honours on certain members of the University. Sir Derek Harold Richard Barton – Regius Professor of Chemistry 1955-1957, was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1972 whilst Charles Aristide Martin – appointed in 1919 as the first Marshall Professor of French -was also awarded the Legion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre for services during the First World War.


Sir Derek H R Barton (left) and Charles Aristide Martin (right) both awarded the French Legion of Honour


Finally but not least, rumour has it that the University’s missing Papal Bull is in France. The Bull, the founding document of the University, was issued by Pope Nicholas V on 7 January 1451. In 1560 Archbishop James Beaton took it to France during the Scottish Reformation for safe-keeping. It never returned to Scotland and was lost in the fires of the French Revolution. Le 14 juillet, Bastille Day, is thus an important day in the University’s history too.

papal bull

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