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Which were the first professorships in the UK?

Lady Margaret Beaufort

Lady Margaret Beaufort

The first professorships (or chairs) in England were founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. Around the turn of the fifteenth century she endowed two chairs in divinity – one at the University of Oxford and one at the University of Cambridge - each known as the Lady Margaret professorship. They seem to have started off being called lectureships, or readerships, but they persist to this day at England’s two ancient universities.

In 1497 - at about the same time that Lady Margaret Beaufort was establishing her two professorships of divinity - north of the English border, King James IV of Scotland (which was then a separate country from England) was founding a professorship in medicine at Aberdeen University. This is recognised as the first regius professorship in what is now the United Kingdom.

It was not until 1540 that regius professorships were created in England, by Henry VIII. They started off as readerships – known as ‘the King’s readers’, and, according to Collinson and co-authors (2003), were active in Oxford and Cambridge from 1535.