On Feb. 10, 2023, William & Mary will celebrate the 330th anniversary of the royal charter granted by King William III and Queen Mary II of England.

While the charter has been around for more than three centuries, research by William & Mary Professor of Law Thomas McSweeney and his research assistants Katherine Ello J.D. ’21 and Elsbeth O’Brien J.D. ’21 into the Latin version of the document may offer new insight on the founders’ intentions for the institution.

Their article, “A University in 1693: New Light on William & Mary’s Claim to the Title ‘Oldest University in the United States,’” explores the historical context of one significant phrase that appears in the Latin charter, “studium generale,” and argues that William & Mary’s founders envisioned the school as a university from the outset.

While there’s no debate that W&M has been a university since the founding of the nation’s first law school, these findings may mean it was a university even earlier than that — renewing the debate over which university was the first in the United States.

A lesson in historical nomenclature

Why is the phrase “studium generale” (translated as “place of universal study” in the English version of the charter) so important in making the distinction between a college and a university? There are several reasons in the case of William & Mary’s royal charter.

“My research is on English law in the 13th century, and I sometimes work with medieval English charters, but I was not as familiar with the practices of the 17th century,” McSweeney said. “When I saw the words “studium generale,” I almost jumped out of my chair in excitement. To a medievalist, particularly one who works on legal education in the Middle Ages, the term is significant because it was the Latin term used for ‘university’ during that period. I was elated that my training as a medievalist helped to uncover something about my alma mater.”

Professor of Law Thomas McSweeney
Professor of Law Thomas McSweeney

McSweeney graduated from William & Mary in 2002 and is a proud alumnus in addition to an academic scholar, researcher and educator. After discovering the phrase “studium generale” in the royal charter a few years ago, he quickly pulled together a team of law students to review and compare other university charters from the 17th century.

It was common practice for new universities to use other universities’ charters as templates when developing their own. But McSweeney and his team’s research revealed that British university charters from the 17th century didn’t contain the phrase “studium generale,” so the placement of “studium generale” and the omission from charters from the same time period means that whoever drafted William & Mary’s charter had to reach back into the middle ages and deliberately add it in.

“We spent a lot of time reading through the statutes and charters of English, Scottish and Irish colleges and universities. In Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, the word universitas was the preferred term for a university. Though “studium generale” had been used to refer to universities before, it was old fashioned by the time it was placed in the William & Mary charter,” McSweeney explained.

A rivalry for the ages

Some would say that there’s a longstanding (playful) rivalry between William & Mary and Harvard – the two oldest continuously operating institutions of higher education in the country. But back in the 17th century, there was a very real and very intense rivalry as both schools jousted for recognition, and therefore legitimacy, by the crowned leader of Britain.

The Rev. Increase Mather traveled to London in 1688, and remained in Britain until 1692. One of his purposes was to secure a royal charter for Harvard University, which had been operating without a charter since 1684 after the Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter was revoked. A charter was important in the 17th century because it gave an institution of higher learning the power to confer degrees; without it, the validity of the degrees it awarded graduates could be called into question.

In 1691, while Mather was still in London, the Rev. James Blair arrived from Virginia with the same goal of acquiring a royal charter – but for another institution, William & Mary. Both Mather and Blair appealed to the newly crowned King William and Queen Mary for royal charters for their academic institutions, but in the end, only Blair was awarded a royal charter on Feb 8, 1693. It was a tough process to navigate, as Oxford and Cambridge could be jealous of their exclusive status and had undermined attempts to create a third university in England as recently as the 1650s.

Katherine Ello J.D. ’21
Katherine Ello J.D. ’21

McSweeney, Ello and O’Brien suggest that Blair’s deep ties with the Anglican Church and his proposal to establish an academic institution in the New World with equally deep Anglican roots tipped the scales in his favor as King William was a defender of Anglicism, whereas Harvard maintained strong Puritan ties.

Although William & Mary was awarded its royal charter in 1693, legitimizing it in the eye of the crown, Harvard College (est. 1636) continued operating and conferring degrees despite its lack of a royal charter, and Mather was still expressing concern about this in 1700. In 1707, the legislature of Massachusetts declared that Harvard’s prior charter had not actually been revoked. As to which university is technically the oldest depends on whether it is necessary to be officially chartered.

“It doesn’t settle the debate over who can claim to be the oldest university in the United States, a title Penn also claims, but it does show that Harvard had doubts about its status at a time when William & Mary had a charter clearly saying it was a university,” McSweeney says.

Both a college and a university

While the term “studium generale” may define William & Mary as a university, it does not reconcile the fact that the royal charter officially names the school as “The College of William & Mary in Virginia.”

This is where McSweeney’s research gets interesting. Though it was in name “The College,” William & Mary was established with many of the criteria that define a university – not a college. For example, William & Mary was headed by a chancellor in the 17th century, a position that is not found at a traditional college. William & Mary was granted a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, also not a right bestowed upon schools typically defined as colleges.

So, why call William & Mary “The College”?

Part of the answer probably lies in the fact that Blair envisioned himself as founding an institution that was both a college and a university, said McSweeney. Blair’s own alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, was usually referred to at the time as “King James’ College,” but its diplomas called it “The University of King James in Edinburgh.”

McSweeney, Ello and O’Brien also propose that including “The College” in the name on the royal charter might have been intended to call attention away from the fact that Blair intended his new institution to be a university.

“It is also possible that the phrase’s relative obscurity was actually its virtue in Blair’s eyes. Perhaps Blair did not want it to be too obvious that he was requesting university status for his new institution,” the article suggests, because such an overt request might have met with opposition, particularly from Oxford and Cambridge.

A (somewhat) definitive discovery

McSweeney’s research found that even if William & Mary was intended to be a college, it was a college with many powers and privileges of a university. The use of “studium generale” in the charter strongly suggests that Blair and the unidentified drafters intended it to be a university, perhaps a single-college university modeled after the school Blair himself attended.

Ironically, this finding would not have been possible without a universal place of study where scholars from radically different disciplines can come together and make discoveries collaboratively and outside siloed areas of study.

“It shows how important it is to have a diverse community of scholars who work on different subjects,” said McSweeney. “You never know when an area of study will become relevant to answering a particular question.”

McSweeney’s background in 13th-century law was the key to unlocking insight into the intent of William & Mary’s founders. However, he says from his perspective that this discovery in the translated text doesn’t change too much about how William & Mary operates in the 21st century.

“I still view William & Mary in pretty much the same way that I did prior to making this discovery,” he said. “I think it’s a fun piece of William & Mary trivia that the charter actually says we’re a university, particularly given that we’ve had debates back and forth on what we should call ourselves. The fact that we have a 17th-century charter that says we ‘shall be called and denominated, forever, the College of William & Mary, in Virginia’ is something that makes us unique as an institution.” “But I also think it’s an important part of our history and legacy that William & Mary was envisioned as a university from the very beginning.”