The University of St Andrews was established between 1410 and 1413. St Salvator's College is the oldest of the three endowed collegiate societies of the university. It was founded in 1450 and is known as the 'Old College'. It was founded as 'the College of the Holy Saviour' by James Kennedy, Bishop of St Andrews and second Chancellor of the university, on 27 August 1450 in particular to sustain and develop the study of Theology within the University. He seems to have been inspired by the English foundations of New College, Oxford and King's College, Cambridge (1441). The collegiate church was integral to the community of Kennedy's college which aimed at the union of religion and learning, the ecclesiastical and the academic. The establishment of the college also represented Kennedy's considered attempts at reform of the University. This was to be achieved through the creation of a properly organised and adequately endowed college whose constitution would infuse regularity into the near-anarchy of the Faculty of Arts (based on the Pedagogy) and whose revenues would support a sufficient number of masters in dignity and security.
The original foundation provided for thirteen founded persons in honour of Christ and the Twelve Apostles. The members of the college of theologians and artists were arranged in a hierarchy that was to symbolise the perfect relationship between the two faculties of Arts and Theology. Six poor clerks or scholars, students of Arts who might also act as choristers of the collegiate church, were joined by four priests, Masters of Arts and students of Theology. Above these, in ascending dignity, were three graduates in Theology: a Bachelor, a Licentiate and a Doctor, the latter to act as Provost and head of the entire foundation. The Masters of Arts were bound, by a revised charter of foundation of 1458, to act as lecturers or regents for two years and would probably have given private tuition in Arts subjects to their own students. Each of the three theologians enjoyed a prebend to be exercised in the collegiate church as rector of a local parish annexed to the college: Cults for the Provost, Kemback for the Licentiate and Dunino for the Bachelor. They were to appoint vicars to discharge the parochial work of their cures. These three 'principal persons' were both principal and professors of the university college and provost and canons of a collegiate church. The charter made detailed arrangements for the administration of the college and the preservation of good order and discipline through a Visitor and university assessors. A number of chaplainries were added to the college by Kennedy, and more by private benefactors, but by the Reformation in 1560 there was some confusion over patronage. The foundation documents of the chaplainries are unclear as to whether they were all intended to provide for additional teachers or students. The chaplains were to play an integral part in the worship of the collegiate church.
The foundation charters of the college show the founder's desire to preserve its jurisdictional independence. There were continuing difficulties in the relationship with the wider University. In 1468/9 the College obtained a papal bull which gave it authority to teach and examine its members for all customary degrees in both Theology and Arts, 'the customs of the Faculty of Arts of the same university notwithstanding' . Thus was assigned to the college the supreme academic privilege of examining and promoting for degrees on it own authority. The resulting schism with the University was only resolved with the authority of the Chancellor and Provincial Council of the Scottish Church and the influence of King James III. The bull was renounced in 1470 and the authority of the university and the Faculty of Arts was recognised over members of the college. In addition, the exemption from the jurisdiction of the See of St Andrews (which had been a privilege secured by the Founder) was revoked by Papal Bull of 1472-3 after the elevation of the See into an Archbishopric. The rivalry between the college and the Faculty of Arts was resolved by the concentration of teaching in the Pedagogy on South Street and, on its decline, by the foundation in 1512 of the College of St Leonard. By the time of the Reformation, St Salvator's College had become but one of three colleges within the University of St Andrews, yet it held the pre-eminent position in age, character and buildings.
St Salvator's College remains on the site in North Street, St Andrews where its foundation stones were laid in 1450 by Bishop Kennedy. The collegiate church is 'the great glory of the college and the most splendid embodiment in stone of its Founder's ideals' (RG Cant, The College of St Salvator, (1950). The tower and church are part of Kennedy's original design, although the tower did not have a spire until about 1530. This was destroyed by fire, along with other parts of the college, during the great siege of St Andrews Castle in 1547 when the tower housed guns used to reduce the fortress. A stone tower was added to the College Tower at the same time as repairs were made to the re-captured castle. After 1560 the college chapel fell into disuse by the community and became the meeting place of the Commissary Court of St Andrews from 1563. It came back into use for worship in 1761. Behind the church was a cloister court within other courts. Many of the medieval college buildings were rebuilt over the years, for example under Provost Skene, between 1683 and 1690. He seems to have been his own architect and built new as well as repairing existing buildings such as the Common School and Great Hall of the college on Butts Wynd which were demolished in 1846. (Details of college buildings, with plans and elevations, can be found in RG Cant, pp. 81-106 and 201-22).
After the Reformation of 1560 the highly organised structure of the college underwent a change. Although those holding office as prebendaries, chaplains and choir continued to hold their positions and draw their emoluments in the short term until 1569, they seemed to retain a footing in the academic corporation for longer, sometimes as regents, sometimes nominally. Each of the post-Reformation proposals for university reform proceeded on the assumption that the three existing colleges would remain in being. George Buchanan (1506-82) was one of a committee to visit the University in 1563, as was the Regent Morton who visited the university with commissioners appointed by Parliament in 1574. The 'New Foundation and Erection of the three Colleges in the University of St Andrews' was ratified by King and Parliament in November 1579. The reorganisation this embodied was much needed after the confusion prevailing since the Reformation. The New College became a seminary of Protestant theology and St Salvator's and St Leonard's Colleges became 'philosophy colleges', offering parallel courses in Arts. Since St Salvator's College was the better endowed, it had additional tasks such as the Provost being 'professor in medicine'. The professorships of Greek and Rhetoric at St Salvator's were replaced by the professorships of Laws and Mathematics, transferred from St Mary's College where they had been instituted in 1574. These two were to be maintained, like the regents, from the common revenues of the college. However, within a few years, the posts lapsed. In common with the other Scottish colleges, the College of St Salvator came to consist of two clearly separated groups: the Provost and masters on the one hand and the bursars and ordinary students on the other. The rights of patronage in the gift of the crown and the Kennedy family seem to have been used to maintain bursars and to supplement the stipends of the regents.
Over the next 40 years the Provost and masters gradually modified the scheme of the New Foundation to suit their less enlightened desires. Despite the arrangements set out for the four regents each to confine themselves to one section of the Arts curriculum, they stuck to their practice of 'regenting', teaching one set of students throughout the four years across all subjects. In 1621 the new Foundation was repealed and the old foundations of the colleges were re-established.
The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland of 1641 appointed a Commission to visit and reform the University. Between 1642-49 it attempted to return the college to the dual ideal of religion and learning for which it had been founded. It required parishes linked with the colleges to have their own ministers and the masters to be occupied in the work of the college. This was made possible from 1649 with the diverting to the college of a share of the revenues of the Archbishopric and Priory of St Andrews. The Provost was to teach metaphysics, the second master medicine and the third master mathematics. When the Archbishopric was revived at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, however, the masterships were left without financial support and disappeared. The system of regenting remained, however, but the Covenanting Commissioners laid down strict regulations concerning the Arts course. They also drove the master of St Salvator's College to appoint a regent of Humanity to teach Latin to the students to prepare them for their studies in philosophy and for the Arts course.
The political upheavals leading to the Restoration meant that much of the detail of the recommendations of the Commission were not implemented. The staff of the college had stabilised at four regents or professors of philosophy and the new professor of Humanity. In 1668 a chair of Mathematics was founded by King Charles II. It was a university chair, not officially linked with any of the colleges but the first professor was James Gregory (1638-75), inventor of the reflecting telescope, and he attached himself to St Salvator's College. Between 1660 and 1690 the masters of St Salvator's College were prominent in the newly Royalist and Episcopalian university and thus, upon the abolition of episcopacy, the actions of the Commissioners of 1690 had a dramatic effect. On 24 September 1690 the corporation of St Salvator's ceased to exist by the disqualification of every one of its senior founded members. The abolition of the episcopacy also deprived St Andrews of its status as ecclesiastical capital of Scotland and the university of the influential patronage of the Archbishops. The whole trend of Scottish economic and social developments in the early 18th century was unfavourable to a residential university in a small town remote from the new centres of trade and industry.
In 1695 the Commissioners invited the opinion of the newly loyal colleges on more reform. Proposals included the fixed appointment of a professor of Greek to teach first year students (implemented from 1705, the first break with the regenting system), a fixed curriculum and printed course material. Efforts were made by the regents to oversee student discipline through their acting as hebdomadar. Student numbers declined from about 150 during the 17th century to about 80 in 1725 and about 20 in 1735. Revenues were increasingly unable to sustain the founded members and keep the buildings habitable. Ultimately, since the Colleges of St Salvator and St Leonard performed identical work, they were merged by Act of 1747 in the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard in the University of St Andrews. (For text of Act, see Evidence, oral and documentary, taken and received by the Commissioners for visiting the Universities of Scotland, vol. III: St Andrews, (London, 1837), pp 278-81). The masters of 1747 seem to have intended the traditions of their Colleges to be sustained and strengthened by their union. The buildings of St Salvator's were chosen as the permanent home of the United College and it was to remain a residential community until the last common tables in 1820.