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Duties and History

XI. And further, we will, and by these presents, for us, our heirs and successors, do grant and confirm, to the said President, and Masters, or Professors of the said college, and their successors, that they and their successors shall have one eminent and discreet person, to be elected and nominated, in the manner hereafter expressed, who shall be, and shall be called chancellor of the said college.

-From the Royal Charter of February 8, 1693

In granting the Royal Charter, "William III and Mary II of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King and Queen, defenders of the faith, &c." determined that the first chancellor of the College of William & Mary should be "our well-beloved and right trusty the reverend father in God, Henry, by divine permission, bishop of London." The Royal Charter also specified that the term of the chancellor should be "for seven years."

From 1693 until the Virginia Resolution for Independence in 1776 and later the Declaration of Independence in 1776, 13 Englishmen served in the post of chancellor. Most of the chancellors were either the Bishop of London or the Archbishop of Canterbury, except two earls who served between 1762 and 1764.

In 1729 the Statutes of the College transferred the governance of the institution in Virginia and similar provisions, as in the charter, defined the chancellor, nominally the temporal and spiritual head of the College, whose advice must be sought on all major issues of policy. The chancellor was above the College president in rank. However, the distance between Virginia and London precluded seeking advice on routine matters.

Actually, the most useful role of the chancellor to the small college in the Colony of Virginia was serving as a link with the Crown, with the British government and with the Church of England. There are several known instances where the chancellor did serve as intercessor for the College in London, working on behalf of the institution.

The Rt. Rev. Henry Compton, Bishop of London and the first chancellor, served two terms in the post, 1693-1700 and 1707-1713. Another bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Edmund Gibson, also served two terms, 1729-1736 and 1737-1748. Bishop Gibson was the first person to serve a term of chancellor longer than the prescribed seven years, but records fail to give any clue to why his term was 11 years.

In 1762, the newly-elected chancellor, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Hayter, Bishop of London, died after serving just a few months. The Board of Visitors determined the time had come to lessen the ties between the College and the Church of England, and the first layman was chosen as chancellor. Charles Wyndham, Earl of Egremont and a privy councillor, was the selection. Unfortunately, he, too, died after serving less than one year and the visitors turned to Philip Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, and from 1736 to 1757 Lord Chancellor of England. Unfortunately for William & Mary, Yorke also died without serving a year. In less than three years, the College had lost four chancellors; in the previous 68 years only six men had served in the post.

After failing to find a suitable lay candidate, the visitors returned to the church and named the Rt. Rev. Richard Terrick, Bishop of London, to be the next chancellor in 1764. He served until the ties with the church and the crown were severed in 1776.

Following the Revolutionary War, the Board of Visitors wished to return the College governance as closely to its previous pattern as possible, but, of course, without any involvement with Great Britain, its monarchy or its government.

The Board of Visitors in 1788 decided to re-establish the post of chancellor. In naming a new chancellor, the visitors emphasized that the College's Royal Charter of 1693 had not been repudiated and was still operative as part of William & Mary's governance.

The visitors turned to the distinguished Virginian George Washington, who had served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the war, and in 1787 had served as president of the convention which drafted the United States Constitution.

Washington was no stranger to the campus. At 17 he was examined for the qualifications of land surveyor by the College and was subsequently commissioned surveyor of Culpeper County. Years later, the general wrote to "The President and Professors of the University of William & Mary," assuring them that "The reduction of the British in this state" would bring peace and security to all citizens.

In light of the damages suffered by the College during the war, he also noted: "The seat of literature at Williamsburg has, even in my view, been an object of veneration. As an institution, important of its communication of useful learning and conducive to the diffusion of the true principles of rational liberty, you may be assured, that it shall receive every encouragement and benefaction in my power towards its re-establishment."

On January 18, 1788, the visitors elected Washington as chancellor, and College Rector Samuel Griffin of Williamsburg wrote the general extending the invitation.

Washington's response, written at Mount Vernon on February 20, asked the Board of Visitors to be more specific regarding his duties as chancellor. "Although...I know not specifically what these functions are, yet, sir, I have conceived that a principal duty required of the chancellor might be a regular and indispensable visitation once or perhaps twice a year. Should this be expected, I must decline accepting the office. For, notwithstanding, I most sincerely and ardently wish to afford whatever little influence I may possess, in patronizing the cause of science, I cannot, at my time of life and in my actual state of retirement, persuade myself to engage in new and extensive avocations."

Although the board's reply to Washington has not survived, apparently the word was sufficiently reassuring. In a later letter to Rector Griffin, dated April 30, 1788, also from Mount Vernon, Washington wrote, in part:

"Influenced by a heartfelt desire to promote the cause of science in general and the prosperity of the College of William & Mary in particular, I accept the office of chancellor in the same."

The next year, Washington was elected President of the United States, but he continued to serve in the post of Chancellor of the College of William & Mary throughout his presidency. In fact, he continued to serve until his death on December 14, 1799.

It is significant that strong mutual ties of affection bound Washington and the College, for both Washington's first and last public offices were held under College auspices, as county surveyor at age 17 and as chancellor when he died at age 67.

William & Mary, however, did not continue the post of chancellor after Washington's death. Records are very sketchy for much of the College's early 19th-century history and there is no mention of a chancellor until the 1850s.

In 1859, the College turned to its "well-beloved and trusty" alumnus, John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States (1840-1844), to be the second American chancellor. Tyler, from nearby Charles City County, had been a strong and faithful patron of the College through the years and at the time of his selection was a member of the Board of Visitors and was also serving as College rector.

In a letter dated October 22, 1860, believed to have been written to a friend, a Rev. Dr. Sprague, Tyler wrote:

"I am happy to say to you that William & Mary is again in successful operation under full promise of usefulness in the future, and shall I not be pardoned for an act of egotism in making known to you that at the last meeting of her Board of Visitors and Governors the high honor of her chancellorship, last filled by General Washington, was conferred on myself. An honor of which I am quite as proud as any other ever conferred upon me by my fellow-men."

Thus William & Mary added one last accolade to the legacy of John Tyler. He served as chancellor from 1859 until his death in 1862.

The next chancellor was another Virginian, Hugh Blair Grigsby of Norfolk, a historian, member of the Board of Visitors and president of the Virginia Historical Society. Two former William & Mary presidents, John Stewart Bryan and Alvin Duke Chandler, also served as chancellor, as did former Governor Colgate W. Darden.

Newspaper publisher Bryan, who became chancellor in 1942, provided money for the creation of a Chancellor's Fund for use at the discretion of the person holding the post. No specific use of the funds was determined until Chandler succeeded to the post in the 1960s. Through his efforts, the Board of Visitors authorized the creation of Chancellor Professors, whose honoraria would be paid from the Chancellor's Fund. Chandler had the sole authority to determine who would be named Chancellor Professors.

From 1974 until 1986, William & Mary again had no chancellor. The Board of Visitors elected Warren Earl Burger, 15th Chief Justice of the United States, to the post on June 27, 1986. At his investiture at Charter Day on February 7, 1987, Chancellor Burger said: "It is an understatement, I assure you, to say that few things over the years have been as pleasant as this occasion, nor have I ever received any honor which I cherish more." His seven-year term concluded on June 30, 1993, at which time he was succeeded by Margaret, The Lady Thatcher, former prime minister of Great Britain, who became the 21st--and first woman--chancellor of William & Mary on July 1, 1993.

Upon the conclusion of Lady Thatcher's seven-year term, College President Timothy J. Sullivan said: "Lady Thatcher, we will never forget the vital lessons that you have taught, or cease to feel the powerful inspiration that you have given in the cause of liberal learning, in the service of freedom and in the rich and noble history of English-speaking peoples. You have captured our hearts, strengthened our resolve and changed our lives--and as a consequence we will never be the same."

Former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Henry A. Kissinger succeeded Lady Thatcher on July 1, 2000.
-By Wilford Kale '66

Henry A. Kissinger was succeeded by former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor in 2005.