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William Elphinstone
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William Elphinstone

William Elphinstone (1431 - October 25, 1514), Scottish statesman, Bishop of Aberdeen and founder of the University of Aberdeen.

He was born in Glasgow, and educated at the University of Glasgow, taking the degree of MA. in 1452. After practising for a short time as a lawyer in the church courts, he was ordained a priest, becoming rector of St Michael's church, Trongate, Glasgow, in 1465. Four years later he went to continue his studies at the University of Paris, where he became reader in canon law, and then, proceeding to Orléans, became lecturer in the university there.

Before 1474 he had returned to Scotland, and was made rector of the university, and official of the see of Glasgow. Further promotion followed, but soon more important duties were entrusted to Elphinstone, who was made Bishop of Ross in 1481. He was a member of the Scots parliament, and was sent by King James III on diplomatic errands to King Louis XI of France and King Edward IV of England. In 1483 he was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen, although his consecration was delayed for four years; and he was sent on missions to England, both before and after the death of King Richard III in 1485.

Although he attended the meetings of parliament with great regularity he did not neglect his episcopal duties, and maintained the fabric of the cathedral. Early in 1488 he was made lord high chancellor, but on the king's death in the following June he vacated this office, and retired to Aberdeen. As a diplomat, his services were quickly required by the new king, James IV, in whose interests be visited the kings of England and France, and the German king, Maximilian I.

Having been made keeper of the privy seal in 1492, and having arranged a dispute between the Scotch and the Dutch, the bishop's concluding years were mainly spent in the foundation of the university of Aberdeen. The papal bull was obtained in 1494, and the royal charter which made Aberdeen the seat of a university is dated 1498. A small endowment was provided by the king, and the university, modelled on that of Paris and intended principally as a school of law, soon became the most famous and popular of the Scots seats of learning, a result which was largely due to the wide experience and ripe wisdom of Elphinstone and of his friend, Hector Boece, the first rector. The building of the college of the Holy Virgin in Nativity, now King's College, was completed in 1506, and the bishop also rebuilt the choir of his cathedral, and built a bridge over the River Dee. Continuing to participate in public affairs he opposed the policy of hostility towards England which led to the Battle of Flodden in September 1513. He died in Edinburgh.

Elphinstone was partly responsible for the introduction of printing into Scotland, and for the production of the Breviarium Aberdonense. He may have written some of the lives in this collection, and gathered together materials concerning the history of Scotland; but he did not, as some have thought, continue the Scotichronicon, nor did he write the Lives of Scottish Saints.

See Hector Boece, Murthiacensium et Aberdonensium episcoporum vitae, edited and translated by J Moir (Aberdeen, 1894); Fasli Aberdonenses, edited by C Innes (Aberdeen, 1854); and A Gardyne, Theatre of Scottish Worthies and Lyf of W. Elphinston, edited by David Laing (Aberdeen, 2878).