'A Universal Place of Study'

Three hundred years ago the seal was set for an educational establishment in Virginia that has since exercised a powerful cultural and social influence in North America. J.E. Morpurgo looks at the life and times of the College of William and Mary.

Three hundred years ago, on February 8th, 1693, William III and Queen Mary set their names to a document which signalled royal approval for the plan to establish 'a place of universal study' in the colony of Virginia.

The College of William and Mary has every right to honour its royal charter but there is reason to insist that the ceremony at Hampton Court was but the culmination of a long sequence of seminal episodes and that by celebrating 1993 as its tercentenary the college not only surrenders to Harvard its proper place as first in the order of precedence of American universities but also – and to far greater consequence – excises from its record eight decades of brave endeavour and frustrated achievement which continued to have resonance in the mores and development of William and Mary through all the years of the eighteenth century and on into the first quarter of the nineteenth.

The pioneers of English colonisation in America recognised that their settlements could not achieve permanence unless they provided the means for educating succeeding generations. The Jamestown Plantation was not yet two years old when its inhabitants began to plan a school, and by 1616 – less than a decade after the Sarah Constant dropped anchor at the mouth of the James and still three years before, far to the north, the Pilgrim Fathers disembarked from the Mayflower – the little colony was brisk with talk of a far more grandiose project: Virginia was to have its own university.

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