Medieval buildings

Guest post: Medieval Colleges of the University of Cambridge

Today I have the pleasure to present a guest post on six of Cambridge’s medieval colleges, written especially for this blog by my very good friend Jonathan Goddard. Jonathan is a fellow Bangor alumnus, an almost Cambridge native (he moved there from Cornwall aged 3 and a half!), and travel writer – you can find him at https://darkhartetravel.wordpress.com/ and @DarkHarteTravel. Jonathan and I often spend time together in Cambridge, and there’s nothing we like more than exploring its colleges, libraries, and churches (and gorging ourselves on sushi!). This post was born of those explorations – I asked Jonathan if he’d share some of his knowledge and thoughts (not to mention his gorgeous photos!) on the medieval colleges – and he agreed! Enjoy!

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 by academics and scholars fleeing Oxford in the wake of trouble there between the rival factions of ‘town and gown’. Violent riots in Oxford had led to the deaths of scholars in the city. A group of Oxford academics established a university at Cambridge on the banks of the river. In the early thirteenth century Cambridge was already a market town with a castle, two hospitals (one for lepers and one for paupers), and several religious houses including a priory (which later became Jesus College).

The medieval colleges were predominantly situated along the old high street, which ran from the castle along Bridge Street and Trinity Street into modern day Trumpington Street. The bridge at Bridge Street was the original river crossing in the town, giving Cambridge its name. This post very briefly explores six colleges of the earliest colleges established in Cambridge in the Middle Ages.

Peterhouse, 1284

We begin with Peterhouse, established in 1284. With an unassuming entrance off Trumpington Street, Cambridge’s oldest surviving college appears a modest establishment and has the smallest intake of any of its colleges at 75 students per year. For a long time I wandered past it, wondering where Peterhouse actually was, because it is less noticeable than the surrounding Fitzwilliam Museum and Fitzbillies Cafe. It wasn’t until I was on a university bus that stopped directly outside it that I finally located this rather elusive college. In medieval times though, Peterhouse would have been on the main road through Cambridge

Peterhouse

Including the very worn stone step under the entrance gateway, this college has many signs indicating long centuries of use, even if the architecture itself has been updated and re-fronted.

Peterhouse
A staircase, Peterhouse, Cambridge.
Peterhouse
High Table in the Hall, at Peterhouse.
Peterhouse
This bricked up doorway in the college’s back wall shows where an old entrance used to be. The ground leading away from the old door is worn into a noticeable rut.

Peterhouse

Peterhouse

Peterhouse
A view of Peterhouse from the river meadow behind. The long old wall shows the boundary of the college, with its main buildings behind.

Clare College, 1326

The second oldest college in Cambridge, Clare has perhaps the best location of all: a site that spans both sides of the river, and is right in the city centre off the pedestrianised and picturesque Trinity Lane. Set in the heart of the old University quarter and on the Backs (the beautiful riverside sites), Clare’s neighbours include King’s College, Trinity College and Trinity Hall.

Clare

Clare
Clare College Chapel

Endowed by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I, the college was known as Clare Hall throughout its history until 1966. In 1966 Clare founded a second college, which was then called Clare Hall, and the original community took the name Clare College.

Clare
The Scholar’s Garden at Clare, with King’s Chapel in the background.

The College’s founding statutes provided for a community of fifteen scholars, of whom no more than six were to be bound by ties to the priesthood, and ten ‘paupers’ – poor students who were maintained by the College until they reached the age of twenty. Today Clare College has a large community of nearly 800 students in many subjects, and the college is particularly known for excelling in Music.

Clare
View from the Fellows’ Garden, looking across the river towards Trinity Hall.

Clare College has lovely riverside gardens, which are the perfect place to wander around on a summer day.

Clare

Pembroke College, 1347

A remarkably friendly and open college, Pembroke is also beautiful, and very old. The delights of wandering its grounds – noticing another Gothic archway, a cat-flap cut into a modern door in a medieval building, or simply enjoying the gardens – do not diminish, however frequently you visit. This college lies directly on my route into town, and like Corpus Christi, is reliably open, free and welcoming – so I often bring visitors here, and I love it every time.

Pembroke

Pembroke

The grounds surrounding the college buildings are full of tempting archways and little alleyways leading off into new courtyards and secret gardens, often hung with old-fashioned lanterns and covered with creepers.

Pembroke

Pembroke College was founded by Mary de St Pol, widow of the Earl of Pembroke, in 1347. The constituent parts of the original 14th-century college lay in today’s Old Court: dining hall, chapel, kitchen, Master’s lodging and student rooms. The college’s chapel was the first chapel to be built in Cambridge, and required the permission of the Pope. The original chapel still exists, having been converted to a library, and is now known as the Old Library. A new chapel was built for the college and consecrated in 1665. It was the first completed work of architect Sir Christopher Wren.

Pembroke
Inside the chapel built by Sir Christopher Wren, one of only two Wren Chapels in Cambridge.

A cloister built adjacent to the Chapel contains a war memorial to the many members of Pembroke who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars.

Pembroke

Gonville and Caius College, 1348

One of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge, Gonville and Caius is today a community of 1000 scholars, including Professor Stephen Hawking. Its main site is a small island of sorts in the heart of the city’s old streets, surrounded on all four sides by Trinity Street, Trinity Lane and Senate House Passage. The location of Gonville and Caius at the heart of the city is confirmed by its neighbouring sites, including Senate House, where student graduations take place, the market, and Great St Mary’s Church.

Caius

Great St Mary’s was historically the centre point of the city, and University charters dictate that students must live within 10 miles of this church – a tradition that is still applied to this day. Gonville and Caius (pronounced Gonville and ‘keys’) is also adjacent to the old church of Michaelhouse, a remnant of the lost medieval college of the same name, made famous by Susanna Gregory’s books.

Caius
An impressive old vine shelters this turret doorway in Tree Court.

The college excels at rowing, and although Caius does not lie on the river, the Cam is only a stone’s throw away and can be reached by a short walk from its central site along Garrett Hostel Lane.

Caius
Gonville and Caius has some of the most picturesque buildings, like this sundial with an old door to the street.
Caius
The college wall, with the sundial, juxtaposed with the Georgian buildings of Senate House behind demonstrate the range of architecture in this part of Cambridge.

The college was founded as Gonville Hall in 1348 by Edmund Gonville, a Rector based in Norfolk. His dream of providing for twenty scholars to study arts and theology floundered due to financial problems soon after the rector’s death. Management of the college was then taken over by William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, who founded neighbouring Trinity Hall in 1350. In 1557 the college was refounded and extended by John Keys, a former student and Fellow of Gonville Hall. He used multiple different spellings for his name, as was Elizabethan custom, and the Latin version ‘Caius’ was adopted to fit in with the college’s existing statutes, which were all in Latin.

Gonville and Caius has produced twelve Nobel Prize winners, more than any other Oxbridge college except Trinity College Cambridge. These include Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, Sir Howard Florey, co-discoverer of penicillin, and Sir James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron.

Caius

Trinity Hall, 1350

Trinity Hall is often confused with its grander neighbour, Trinity College, but Trinity Hall is much older and (in my opinion!) prettier. Its late medieval chained library is a gem even in a city of beautiful medieval architecture. A compact site that uses its space well, Trinity Hall is a college of wonderful, immaculately-kept old buildings and pretty gardens, sitting on the banks of the River Cam.

Founded in 1350 by the Bishop of Norwich to teach canon law, Trinity Hall was one of the ‘plague’ colleges established to deal with the dearth of learned men in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348. Unusually for this time it was not a theology college but a school for lawyers. A college with an inclusive, egalitarian ethos, provision was deliberately made for poor men to be able to train as scholars.

Trinity Hall

Trinity Hall

The Old Library at Trinity Hall is a very rare surviving late medieval chained library. The books were fastened with iron chains so that they could be kept in place and available to all students and fellows wishing to use them. The library still contains its chained books, and is the oldest library in Cambridge still in its original setting.

This floating door used to connect up to the Master’s Lodge opposite via a wooden walkway, so that the Master of the college could walk directly from his house to the library. The books were kept on the top floor of the building so that if the river flooded the valuable books would not be damaged.

Trinity Hall

Inside, the Old Library has a rarefied, musty atmosphere and a dark wooden floor warped with bumps and dips. It is all excellently preserved and it is hard to believe the surroundings are so old. The oldest book in the library dates from around 1066.

Trinity Hall
The waterfront at Trinity Hall, neighbouring Clare and King’s Colleges.

These oldest colleges (Peterhouse, Clare, Pembroke, Caius and Trinity Hall) are open to visitors most days and none of them charge for admission. Worth a visit!

Corpus Christi College, 1352

Unusually, Corpus Christi was founded by townspeople, the members of two Guilds, and it is the only college in Cambridge with this background. Corpus is another ‘plague’ college, intended primarily to train priests in the aftermath of the Black Death, which had killed many members of the clergy across Europe.

Corpus

In 1381 Corpus Christi was stormed by a crowd of angry townspeople, led by the Mayor of Cambridge, in protest against high rents extracted on houses owned by the college. Many books and college documents were burned.

Thanks to a donation of manuscripts by Matthew Parker in 1553, Corpus’s library has one of the world’s greatest collections of Anglo-Saxon and early English books. Parker was an undergraduate at Corpus who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and then Master of his old college. He acquired many books from monasteries that were cleared out during the Reformation, and donated them all to Corpus.

In 1573 the college passed new rules that required Latin to be spoken at all times during term. Students were punished for speaking English, including by being beaten.

Corpus
Corpus Christi possesses one of the oldest sights in Cambridge in its Old Court, constructed at the college’s foundation in 1352.

Old Court bears a memorial plaque to the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a Corpus alumnus. Today the college is the smallest of the traditional colleges after Peterhouse, and has a community of around 500 students and Fellows.

Corpus

Behind the college lies Free School Lane, the site of the famous Cavendish Laboratory for many years. The college sits squeezed between two churches, St Botolph’s to the south and St Bene’t’s on the north side. St Bene’t’s (short for Benedict’s) Church is the oldest standing building in Cambridge, and has a rare Saxon tower. St Bene’t’s churchyard joins on to the college and lies partly in the college grounds.

Corpus
The old graveyard of St Benedict’s Church, part of Corpus Christi College.

Do you know any other interesting facts about any of these colleges? Please tell us in the comments below!

All photos are by Jonathan Goddard and should be credited DarkHarte Travel.

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3 thoughts on “Guest post: Medieval Colleges of the University of Cambridge

  1. Fantastic post. Very informative and such lovely photos. I wish I would’ve known some of this information when I lived in Suffolk. I missed out on visiting much of what you mentioned. Cambridge is a fabulous city.

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