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When St Andrews was the heart of medieval Scotland

By Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson

St Andrews is a place best-known for its association with the game of golf but, standing on a rocky outcrop jutting out into the grey North Sea, the town’s skyline is dominated by its medieval buildings. The towers of the churches of St Salvator, Holy Trinity and St Regulus, the gables of the cathedral and the remains of the castle retain a visual prominence. These buildings are reminders of the status and wealth of St Andrews between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. In this era St Andrews was a centre of unique significance in Scotland.

The ruins of St Andrews Cathedral – photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr

As the seat of the leading bishop (and from 1472 archbishop) of Scotland whose diocese was both the richest in the Scottish church and included the core regions of the kingdom, St Andrews could claim to be the ecclesiastical capital of the land. Its cathedral was by far the largest church, and by extension the largest building, in Medieval Scotland and housed relics of Andrew, increasingly adopted as the nation’s patron saint. The long history of scholarship at this site was reflected by the foundation of the first Scottish university in 1413. Though removed from the natural routes between the kings’ residences and the largest burghs, St Andrews possessed a rich, but relatively small, hinterland. Its claims to be a city rested less on size than on the status provided to an urban community growing under the wing of powerful clerical patrons which benefited from the flow of clergy, pilgrims and students through its streets and dwellings.

At the heart of this history of power and spirituality were the relics of Christ’s disciple, Andrew, who, by 1100, had given his name to the place. Just after this date, an account was composed to provide St Andrews with an ancient foundation myth. Its tale told of a Greek monk, Regulus, who, inspired by a dream, carried the saint’s bones to the end of the world to ensure their safety. Though this was a fabrication, by the twelfth century these relics were housed in an established and prestigious centre. The origins of this centre went back beyond the arrival of the bones. In 1833, close to the cathedral, a carved stone sarcophagus was unearthed which demonstrated St Andrews’s early links to the Pictish kings. The relics of the saint gave his new home the prestige to lift above other religious centres in eastern Scotland.

By 1100 St Andrews was the home of the bishop of the Scots whose city, though still a cluster of buildings on a coastal promontory, included a great church and a hostel for the pilgrims already coming to visit the shrine of the apostle. The next century would witness the transformation of St Andrews into a place of church government and pilgrimage on the models provided by the Roman Church. The great cathedral and its associated priory, the castle of the bishop along the cliffs to the north and the new town or burgh laid out to the west of the church precincts remodelled St Andrews as a European urban and religious centre.

16th century map of St Andrews. Click here to see a larger version of the map from the National Library of Scotland

Bishop, cathedral priory and burgh defined later medieval St Andrews. From its origins in the shadow of the church, urban St Andrews developed as a unique service town for its masters. The study of its inhabitants, through the written records of their businesses and piety and the remains of their buildings and streets, shows a population who were both enmeshed with the calendar and needs of their ecclesiastical lords and neighbours, and keen to develop their own independence.

From the priory’s school and library developed St Andrews’s continuing role as a centre of learning and teaching. The foundation of Scotland’s oldest university in 1413 grew out of the priory and crystallised this educational importance. It also gave St Andrews a reputation for intellectual controversy and, from the early fifteenth century, fuelled fears about the existence of heretical beliefs amongst students and foreign visitors. Though the reality of such threats to the established order was limited for many decades, it would be the coming of the Reformation to St Andrews in 1559 which brought an end to this period of prominence. The destruction of the relics, uprooting of the priory and eviction of the archbishop would leave the university as St Andrews’s sole medieval institution and condemn the city to centuries of ruined magnificence.

Medieval St Andrews provides a pathway to an increased understanding of the medieval world. The evidence of its built remains, ruined or still in use, of surviving material objects, of the records of the university, the burgh and priory, and of the narratives of writers who lived in St Andrews allow broad European themes to be understood in relation to one physical space. As a centre of pilgrimage, a place of learning, ecclesiastical power and urban life, St Andrews was both unique and part of a much larger world.

Michael Brown and Katie Stevenson are the editors of Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City, the first full study of this special and multi-faceted centre throughout its golden age. Fourteen articles van be found in this volume, which is published by Boydell and Brewer

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