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St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen
St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen

William Elphinstone lived from 1431 to 25 October 1514. He was a bishop, the founder of the University of Aberdeen, and a leading statesman in the courts of James III and James IV. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Bishop William Elphinstone
Bishop William Elphinstone
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William Elphinstone was born in Glasgow and educated at the University of Glasgow, graduating with an MA in 1452. He became a lawyer, and was later ordained as a priest, in 1465 becoming rector of St Michael's Church, in Glasgow's Trongate. In 1469 he went to France, first as a student at the University of Paris and then as a lecturer at the University of Orleans. He returned to Scotland in 1473 and was made Rector of the University of Glasgow the following year. He was also given an ecclesiastical appointment at Glasgow Cathedral.

In 1481 Elphinstone was made Bishop of Ross and a member of the Parliament of Scotland. In 1483 he was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen, though not formally consecrated in that role until 1487. Throughout this period he seems to have served as a roving ambassador for James III travelling to Paris and London on a number of occasions to undertake negotiations with Louis XI, Edward IV and Richard III. Early in 1488 he was made Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, but relinquished the post on the death of James III later the same year. The advent of James IV did little to ease Elphinstone's workload, and he quickly embarked on another round of visits to the English and French Kings, to the Low Countries and to the Court of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Elphinstone was appointed Keeper of the Privy Seal of Scotland in 1492. Thereafter, and by now aged 61, Elphinstone seems to have turned his attention much more to the affairs of Aberdeen. In 1495 he arranged for Old Aberdeen, in which St Machar's Cathedral stood, to be made a burgh in its own right. In the same year he wrote to Pope Alexander VI on behalf of King James IV asking for a university to be founded. It seems that James was keen to ensure that Scotland had as many universities as England at the time. The university grew up on a site close to St Machar's Cathedral, and at first was known as St Mary's College. The name rapidly changed to King's College, Aberdeen and its aim became to train doctors, teachers and clergy who would be able to serve the communities of northern Scotland, as well as lawyers and administrators for the Scottish Crown. It is now better known as the University of Aberdeen.

At about the same time Bishop Elphinstone added a spire to the top of the central tower (now long gone) at St Machar's Cathedral and had a bridge built over the River Dee. He was also partly responsible for the introduction of printing into Scotland. In September 1507, James IV granted a licence to Chepman and Myllar to print books. The first important book to be published by them was Breviarium Aberdonense, (the Aberdeen Breviary) coordinated and probably partly written by Elphinstone at the request of James IV. This contained set prayers for use by the clergy of Scotland and an account of the lives of the saints, written from a deliberately Scottish perspective.

Elphinstone strongly opposed going to war with England in support of the French in 1513, but was overruled by James IV. The result was the catastrophe of the Battle of Flodden, on 9 September 1513, at which the Scots lost up to 10,000 dead out of an army of some 25,000. The Scottish dead included King James IV himself, plus an archbishop, two bishops, 11 earls, 15 lords and 300 knights: in effect a whole generation of the Scottish nobility was swept away. In the aftermath Bishop Elphinstone, now 82 years old, was appointed guardian of the infant James V. He died a year later in October 1514.

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