AT the start of the 15th century, Glasgow was well placed to take advantage of the changes in Scottish society that were taking place across the country.

In the 1300s, while the Highlands and Islands were still very much domains of their own, lowland Scotland was flourishing economically after the Wars of Independence and the accession to the throne of the House of Stewart who, as we have seen, were mostly well-disposed to the growing town on the Clyde.

There had been one massive problem that was faced by Glasgow and Scotland from 1350 onwards – the plague, or the Black Death as it is known to history.

We do not have many records of the effect of the Black Death on Scotland, but John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon written a century later tells us: “In 1350, there was a great pestilence and mortality of men in the kingdom of Scotland, and this pestilence also raged for many years before and after in various parts of the world.

“So great a plague has never been heard of from the beginning of the world to the present day, or been recorded in books.

“For this plague vented its spite so thoroughly that fully a third of the human race was killed. At God’s command, moreover, the damage was done by an extraordinary and novel form of death.

“Those who fell sick of a kind of gross swelling of the flesh lasted for barely two days. This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.”

The onset of bubonic plague or the other plagues lumped together under the generalised name the Black Death came in cycles or waves. Glasgow was almost certainly affected by the outbreaks in 1349-51, 1361, 1380 and 1401.

Glasgow Times:

We have no idea how many died, because precious few records were made or have survived. It could be that Scotland got off lightly compared to England – the Scots at the time called it the English Death – but more probably there just were not many contemporary accounts of what happened.

As Professor Richard Oram of Stirling University has noted: “The main report of the Great Mortality, given in the chronicle attributed to John of Fordun, comments simply that ‘fully a third of the human race was killed’ and offers an unembellished narrative. Subsequent Scottish outbreaks attracted even less attention from contemporaries, a sharp contrast to the extended continental and English accounts.”

So no written history, but what we do know is that Glasgow, in common with most urban settlements in Scotland, survived the first plague outbreaks and entered into a new century in which the much reduced population of Scots struggled at first.

Some historians have estimated that Glasgow’s population in the early 1400s was no more than 2000, and its growing mercantile class were hampered by the fact that most Scottish trade took place through ports on the east side of the country. It was only really after 1400 that Glasgow began trading abroad, mostly to France and mainly through the port of Irvine. The River Clyde, it should be noted, was only navigable up river for large vessels as far as Dumbarton from where imports were taken to Glasgow by horse and cart.

Glasgow at that time must have been a smelly place – two of the main industries were fish curing and tanning of hides, neither of them noted for their bouquets.

In the early 1400s Scotland’s royal family was hit by two disasters. First the heir to the throne, later James I, was captured at the age of 11 by English pirates in 1406 and taken before the court of Henry IV where he remained captive for the next 18 years. Upon hearing the news of his son’s capture, King Robert III took to his bed and died just weeks later.

The Duke of Albany governed Scotland in James’s place, and Glasgow came under the rule of Bishop William Lauder who is chiefly remembered for restoring one of the Cathedral’s towers after it was struck by lightning.

Again it was the Diocese of Glasgow rather than the town itself which was to the fore – Lauder was part of the Regency Council and was one of the negotiators for the return of King James in 1423, being made Chancellor of the Kingdom as a reward. His successor, Bishop John Cameron, was also close to the king until James’s assassination at Perth in 1437.

In Glasgow and elsewhere in the first half of the 15th century, society was changing and the demand for education, especially of the landed gentry, was growing by the year.

We know that the High School of Glasgow had been founded as far back as 1124, but anyone wishing to attend university had to go to the Continent or latterly England.

In 1410 a group of clerics at St Andrews got together and founded the institution which became the University of St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge.

There had long been rivalry between the Bishops of Glasgow and St Andrews, the latter being the prime see of the country, and it was surely a sore sight for Glasgow’s clerics to see the Fifers get their university first.

On Bishop Cameron’s death in 1446, Glasgow got lucky with the appointment of the Bishop of Dunkeld, William Turnbull as the diocese’s new bishop.

He was a personal friend of King James II, who encouraged him to press Pope Nicholas V for the right to found a university in Glasgow.

The University website states: “The University of Glasgow was founded by Pope Nicholas V in a letter dated 7 January 1451 and authenticated with a lead seal or ‘bull’. It erected a ‘studium generale’ or university for all future time in Glasgow – in theology, canon and civil law, in arts and in all lawful faculties with all the privileges, liberties, honours, exemptions and immunities enjoyed by the studium at Bologna, Italy, and it is still the authority by which the University awards degrees.

“Although the letter states that it was issued at the request of King James II, the real founder of the University was William Turnbull, Bishop of Glasgow from 1447 to 1454. With experience of St Andrews and several continental universities, he no doubt expected that a university would enhance the reputation of his diocese and provide much needed education for his clergy.”

As we shall see next week, Bishop Turnbull’s wish came true.