My last post got me thinking about my college, and how shamefully little I know about its history. It’s one of the oldest colleges in Cambridge and was founded in a rush of expansion at the beginning of the sixteenth century. At this point in time, Cambridge was emerging as a powerful place of learning with important royal links, even if it was still a somewhat disorganized collection of scholars who were only just beginning to occupy their own buildings in a small town surrounded by an unhygienic swamp that would only later be drained and cultivated as the Fens. From the Medieval period onwards, it had been a place of study for those entering the national church or the civil service, but times were changing, and the syllabus was soon to alter and expand, concentrating on Greek, Latin, divinity and mathematics, mostly thanks to Henry VIII who endowed chairs in these subjects.
The rapid growth of the university population was a source of tremendous friction with the people of the town. I’m not sure that I have much sympathy, as the market profiteers seem to have brought it upon themselves by attempting any number of ways to diddle the university folk, by altering the weights and measures to shortchange supplies, interrupting the supply of water and even, in one astonishing ruling that survives, by purposefully encouraging the spread of infection during one of the periodic bouts of plague. After enduring such difficulties, the university unsurprisingly sought some civil protection and was granted the right to hold its own secular court, where such cases could be tried. They also gained some measure of control over the traders themselves. As the student and teaching population grew, so they brought with them an influx of servants, tailors, fencing masters, riding masters and even tennis-court keepers, all of whom strained the town’s resources to bursting point, and caused their fair share of disorderly conduct. It wasn’t exactly Sodom and Gomorrah out there, but it was a minor civil war between town and gown, with angry clashes and ugly behaviour on both sides.
My college was founded in 1511, on the site of the old St John’s hospital, thanks to the wheeling and dealing of John Fisher. Saint John Fisher, to give him his full title, was a former student of the university who returned in later life to become one of the earliest Proctors, one of the people responsible for negotiating with the outside world on behalf of the university, and was then elected to the glorious post of Vice-Chancellor. He became the confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby and mother of Henry VII, and clearly he put the idea of a little epoch-making patronage in her mind. To be fair, Margaret was a keen benefactress in any case, a supporter of William Caxton and the printing press, a highly devout Catholic, a woman on a mission to promote learning, piety and worthy endeavour. She was also extremely wealthy and extremely powerful.
Margaret was always destined to greatness, having been born an heiress, and coming into her fortune at the age of four. She was first married to the son of her ward, but she never recognized this marriage and was permitted to wipe the slate clean, given that it took place before she was twelve. She was instantly married again, to Edmund Tudor, with whom she had her son, Henry. Edmund fought in the War of the Roses, was imprisoned and died of the plague without seeing his son, and Margaret, now a 13-year-old single mother, was forced to retire to the country and lie low. Margaret was to marry twice more, and to remain deeply embroiled in the complicated politics that struggled to determine who should rule the country. The causes of religion and the arts were gaining precedence in her life, however, and during the fourth marriage she took a vow of chastity. In 1485, when Margaret was 42, her son triumphed in a climactic battle, and was crowned King. Margaret had some right to the throne, but contented herself with being a nightmareish mother-in-law, insisting on robes of the same quality as the queen consort, and walking only half a pace behind her. For a brief while she did reign, after her son’s death and while her grandson, Henry VIII was too young to rule. But her own death in 1509 saw the end of an extraordinary run of power.
In her 60s she began to flex her endowment muscle and, with John Fisher’s guidance, founded Christ’s College in Cambridge, professorships in divinity in both Oxford and Cambridge (with good old John Fisher slipping neatly into the role in Cambridge), and, through the conditions of her will, her estate founded St John’s. Her portrait hangs in the Great Hall there, one of the college’s prize possessions. It shows an androgynous figure at prayer, with a bony white face framed by the severe lines of a wimple. With her cavernous eyes and sunken cheeks, Margaret has a passing resemblance to Edvard Munch’s The Scream, only piety and protocol ensure that her mouth is firmly closed. In contrast to the sobriety of the figure, the setting is wonderfully sumptuous, as if the artist was relieved that he could finally let rip on the soft furnishings. Thick tapestry wall hangings vie in splendour with the rich cloth covering her prayer table, on which an exquisitely illuminated Book of Hours lies open. The portrait speaks to both sides of Margaret’s character; her keen awareness of the wealth and power she commanded and the ascetic discipline of her religious convictions. I like to see her beady eyes peering over the shoulder of the Master, as he heads up the High Table at formal occasions. There she is still, half a step behind the official figure of power, reminding us all that we wouldn’t be here without her intervention.
Her friend John Fisher had more mixed fortunes, being eventually executed by Margaret’s grandson, Henry VIII. They fell out over his divorce of Catherine of Aragon, and then Fisher refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the church. That’s the classic spirit of Cambridge for you, though, principles before all else. He and Margaret made a good team, a fine combination of courage, determination, patronage and ambition, all distilled into projects destined to safeguard the transmission of knowledge and faith. To me, that’s a foundation every bit as important as the buildings and the land.