Vilnius University was founded in 1579. Functioning for a long time as the only school of higher education in Lithuania, it has been a maintainer of cultural and scientific traditions and has played a significant role in the cultural life of the neighbouring countries. During more than four centuries of its existence, Vilnius University has seen periods of growth and decline, revival and closure. The University is a unique witness to the history of the state of Lithuania.
In 1579, the charter by King Stephan Bathory transformed the Jesuit College, founded in 1570, into an establishment of higher education, the transformation being confirmed by Pope Gregory XIII. Although not amongst European cultural centres, the University equalled other famous European universities and had a number of outstanding professors and students: the poet Mathias Casimir Sarbievius, the famous professor of rhetoric and philosophy Žygimantas Liauksminas, and the author of the first history of Lithuania Albertas Vijūkas-Kojelavičius, to name but a few. In 1773, the Jesuit Order was dissolved in Europe, and the University was taken over by secular authority. It was renamed Vilnius Principal School after Lithuania was annexed by Russia. In 1803, the University received a new set of statutes and the title of the Imperial University of Vilnius. Many famous names were associated with the University during that period: the famous medical men from Vienna Johann Peter Frank and his son Josef Frank, the historian and public figure Joachim Lelewel, the poets Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, the historian Simonas Daukantas and others.
As a number of professors and students became engaged in the anti-tsarist movement, the University was closed down by the order of Tsar Nicholas I in 1832; the Medical-Surgery Faculty was transformed into Medical-Surgery Academy and closed in 1842 (moved to Kiev University). The University property was partly distributed to other universities in the Russian Empire (some collections were returned during the Soviet period). Theology was associated to St Petersburg College of Theology and closed in 1844 (moved to St Petersburg), the Astronomical Observatory became a part of Pulkovo Observatory and closed in 1881 (the most valuable instruments and books moved to Pulkovo Observatory).
When Lithuania declared independence in 1918, the reopening of the University started, and the University Statute was confirmed. However, in 1919, Vilnius and its region were annexed by Poland. Thus, in 1922, Vytautas Magnus University of Lithuania was founded in Kaunas according to this Statute. In 1919, Vilnius University was opened named after Stephan Bathory and functioned under the Polish auspices until 1939. In 1939, when Vilnius region was brought back under the control of Lithuania, a part of Vytautas Magnus University was moved to Vilnius and strengthened some faculties of Vilnius University. Later, in 1940, the University was reorganized according to the Soviet model. In 1943, the University was closed down by the Nazis and resumed its activities in the autumn of 1944. Though restrained by the Soviet system, Vilnius University grew and gained force.
Vilnius University started to free itself from the Soviet ideology even before Lithuania regained independence in 1990. When independent, it adopted its own Statute. Currently, Vilnius University is seeking to regain its place among European universities as well as those of the world.