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Pre-Revolutionary War

  • The Royal Charter of William & Mary established the office of the chancellor and set the term at seven years. The chancellor was to be an "eminent and discreet person" upon whom the College could rely. The Charter also named the first chancellor, Henry Compton, who was the Bishop of London at the time. He was chosen to be the first chancellor because the Bishop of London was the head of the Anglican Church in the American colonies and W&M's first president James Blair was Compton's commissary for Virginia.
  • Many of the pre-Revolutionary War chancellors were either Bishops of London or Archbishops of Canterbury and served as a link between the College and the government in London. They would also help recruit faculty to come to Virginia and teach at the College. However, none of these chancellors ever set foot in Williamsburg.
  • With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, the ties between William & Mary and England were severed, leaving the position of chancellor vacant until 1788. (Other ties with England, such as the money from the Brafferton Estate which funded the Indian School, were also severed.)

Post-Revolutionary War

  • Thomas Jefferson wished to alter the office of the Chancellor after the American Revolution. In the place of a single chancellor, he proposed a system that included three chancellors, elected from the leading men of Virginia, who would have the power to remove faculty.
  • The first American chancellor was George Washington, who accepted the position only months before he was elected President of the United States. Washington was asked because the president of the College, Bishop James Madison (cousin of U.S. President James Madison), believed that the heritage of the position required a national figure to occupy it. Washington served until his death in 1799, having been appointed in 1788.
  • After the death of Washington, the office of chancellor remained vacant until it was occupied by another U.S. President, John Tyler. Tyler served as chancellor from 1859 until his death in 1862.
  • Hugh Blair Grigsby, noted historian and author, served as chancellor from 1871 to 1881, when the College closed due to lack of funds. Grigsby established the Chancellor's Fund, which was the fund for the Chancellor Professors in academic departments.

Modern Era

  • For two years, former W&M President Alvin Duke Chandler was a very different kind of chancellor. From 1960 to 1962, Chandler presided over the Colleges of William & Mary, a five campus system that included William & Mary, the Richmond Professional Institute, the Norfolk Division of William & Mary, Christopher Newport College, and Richard Bland College. When the system was disbanded in 1962, Chandler occupied the role of an honorary chancellor until 1974.
  • After a 12 year vacancy, Warren Burger was chosen to be the twentieth chancellor of William & Mary in 1986. Burger had numerous associations with Williamsburg and William & Mary, receiving an honorary degree and delivering the commencement address in 1973, speaking at Law Day in 1979, and helping to found the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg in 1976. The personal and professional papers of Chief Justice Burger are held by Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center. (In accordance with the donor agreement, the Warren E. Burger Papers are closed to researchers until 2026.)
  • After the retirement of Warren Burger from the position, Margaret Thatcher was chosen to be the first woman chancellor and the first post-independence chancellor from the United Kingdom. She served from 1993 until 2000.
  • Henry Kissinger was the first chancellor who was not a natural-born citizen either of the United States or the United Kingdom. He served from 2000 until 2005.

Badge and Chain of Office

  • The chancellor's badge and chain of office is silver and bears the university's coat of arms. There are also elements of various other coats of arms, including those of the Bishop of London, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Washington, John Tyler, the London Company, and the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It was given as a gift of the Society of the Alumni in 1987 and has been worn by W&M Chancellors since.


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A note about the contents of this site

This website contains the best available information from known sources at the time it was written. Unfortunately, many of the early original records of William & Mary were destroyed by fires, military occupation, and the normal effects of time. The information in this website is not complete, and it changes as we continue to research and uncover new sources.