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.

12 thoughts on “Foundations

  1. What a fascinating and rich history! The university I work at was only founded in 1885. I’ve not heard any good stories about its founding though I am sure there might be at least some minor politics and sniping there if I dug for it. Thanks for sharing your college’s history. And don’t forget to take photos of your new rooms 🙂

  2. Fascinating – especially the machinations Margaret learnt to set in motion, from that fragile start to her formidable prime. Imagine the tension in her character, between the rigid calmness of faith and the manoeuvring for survival and influence beyond wealth. She must have eventually adopted that withholding androgyny, to assuage her convictions, but also to assimilate her ever-ticking intellect in the minds of the men around her. Her great-grand-daughter Elizabeth did her proud.
    I like the thought of Margaret’s stark figure (like a 16th Century Anna Massey in a wimpole?) against those fabulous soft furnishings. I give a pretty wide latitude to other people’s dress sense, but I do find it hard to trust anyone who wilfully owns an uncomfortable sofa.

  3. That’s quite a colorful and illustrious past. My university only celebrated its 100 last year, so we’re very young in comparison! No royalty (or even presidents) as benefactors for us I’m afraid. I know you don’t lecture now, but when you did did you have to wear robes? Or is that an Oxford thing–or do I just watch too many movies and have no firm grasp on reality?

  4. As if I was not crazy jealous enough that you work at Cambridge, for gosh sakes. I mean CAMBRIDGE! Like…the one in England! The one we’ve all grown up hearing about and wanting to go to (well, a lot of us, anyway. Those of us who adore history especially). And you actually work there (and probably went to school there). I loved my little women’s college in Winona, MN – but Cambridge…you’re killing me, Litlove, you are absolutely killing me. I’d be happy just to SEE Cambridge.

  5. That is fascinating. I didn’t realize Margaret had been so young when she became a mother. No wonder she took a vow of chastity! It probably prolonged her life. Sticking to principles sounds like a good foundation.

  6. What a fascinating woman, passing resemblance to The Scream notwithstanding! She had to have been an incredible force just to have survived as a teenaged single mother during the War of the Roses, never mind the rest of it. Does your college Master feel her eyes upon him at High Table?
    What fun to work in the midst of such history!

  7. I must admit that I expected this college history to be slightly dull but I should have known that litlove’s posts are never dull! My university is only 150 years old so the scale of history behind Cambridge is staggering. Nice touch re The Scream.

  8. It’s rather ironic, given that certain Colleges were founded on the money of women, that the University refused to grant us degrees until 1948, but then, it was ever thus! And nothing changes, does it? I caught the tail end of a news item the other day about a move to limit the number of houses that can have multiple occupation in any one area partly so that the number of students could be controlled. I think this is going to be nation-wide. Town and gown wherever you go.

  9. Stefanie – Thank you! Oh I’ll bet there are stories if you dig around a bit. Colleges are just full of them, and 1885 gives the academics plenty of scope. I love this sort of story, where people decide to start something amazing. And I won’t forget the photos, I promise!

    Fugitive – oh that image of Anna Massey in a wimpole is just hilarious and spot on. And what you say about Margaret’s character is so true. I wonder, though, whether a Renaissance woman, once she had passed beyond the ‘normal’ role had no restrictions because there were no precedents? I know so little about this period in history, but it does seem that the accidents of birth brought a number of women into roles of surprising power. And you would have liked her prayer chamber – definitely furnished by the sixteenth century version of Harrods!

    Danielle – lol!! We don’t wear robes that often nowadays – formal dinners, invigilating at examinations and graduation ceremonies are about it. Just as well – they are SO uncomfortable. If you don’t have a shirt and tie, then whatever top you are wearing gets dragged down at the back of your neck. But the sleeves have a long triangular pocket that is just great for holding keys. Oxford students wear their robes more because they have to wear them while writing their exam papers – which can’t be fun.

    Grad – oh my friend! You need to use the same teleporter I want to be developed to get me over to the States. I can assure you that I would love to be able to see the deep South – names like Louisiana, Jacksonville, Georgia – they are so redolent of history and romance and beautiful landscapes to me, too. I did go to school in Cambridge and then (after a couple of years out), returned to do graduate studies, and then I was lucky and a job came up. I do feel very lucky to be here, and never tire of the city’s beauty.

    Eoin – how nice to have you visit! I had almost forgotten you were a keen historian. I’ve become quite intrigued now and hope to find out more about the magnificent Chapel, and the highly decorated, but scarily saggy ceiling in the Long Combination Room. Cambridge is good like that – anywhere you look, a story is lurking! 🙂

    Lilian – she almost died in childbirth and was, I think, unable to have more children. But you are right that vows of chastity were a form of health insurance for women. And Margaret knew exactly how difficult childbirth could be!

    ds – she really was something. I’ve never asked the Master if he’s aware of Margaret’s presence, but I promise to do so the next time I see him! I’m very lucky to have so much history around me, and want to find out more about it now.

    Pete – thank you, that’s such a nice thing to say. I normally try to sucker people in with an anecdote at the start of the worthier posts, but I didn’t have one this time. But Margaret has the kind of story that makes historians salivate, and I ended up rather enjoying her friendship with Fisher. I’ll bet your college has racked up some tales in 150 years, though!

    Ann – you are so right! I very nearly spoke about that. Do you know, when I arrived at my college in 1999, I was about the sixth woman fellow out of a fellowship of over 120? It is takig a very, very long time for things to change. I hadn’t heard the news about the accomodation quota but you don’t surprise me. That old battle will rage on an on….

  10. Absolutely – what a fine legacy. And 1511?! Good grief! I think my department at UNSW was built in the 1970s (sniff!). I remember visiting a pub in Cambridge that was even older than your college… it was absolutely marvellous, heaving with history. And I love the idea of fencing masters descending on Cambridge, not to mention the odd stoush between ‘town and gown’ – brilliant!

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