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St John's College


About the year 1135 a hospital was founded by Henry Frost, a burgess of Cambridge, on a poor and waste place granted him by the commonalty of the town.

The hospital was dedicated to St John the Evangelist for a master and poor brethren of the rule of St Austin, a bull for the purpose having been obtained from Pope Julius II.

The brethren, after their removal to two houses near St Peter's Church, enjoyed their hospital in peace, till it was dissolved on account of their ill-conduct and prodigality; and the present college was founded in compliance with the intention and bequest of the Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, who had already founded and endowed Christ's College.

The college was commenced soon after her death, and dedicated to St John the Evangelist; but, in spite of the efforts of Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, her confessor and the executor of her good intentions, a considerable part of the bequest of the foundress was appropriated by the king.

At the solicitation of the Bishop, Henry VIII. gave to the College the possessions of three Religious Houses which he suppressed, Fisher himself added thereto, and ultimately, in 1516, succeeded in founding a college for a master and thirty-one fellows, instead of for the fifty provided in the will.

Subsequent endowments have considerably augmented the wealth of the college, and enabled it to become one of the most efficient institutions in the country, in promoting high education among large classes of the community.

The College consists of four courts, which with the exception of that furthest from the street-on the west side of the river - called the "New Court" - are chiefly of brick.

The First Court was begun in 1510 and completed in 1516. This was the part of the College first built; and it contained, like the primitive quadrangles of Corpus, Queens' and other Colleges, all the parts that were regarded as the essentials of a College, and arranged in the same manner. The library was on the left of the gateway.

The Court is much after the pattern of its predecessor at Christ's, but, being of more enduring material, it has been less altered. The front, which resembles that of Queens' College, retains its original features. The entrance gateway, very similar to that of Christ's, is a fine massive structure, in late Perpendicular style, with corner-towers and battlements.

Over the archway are the arms and supporters of the foundress and her badges-together with the daisy, or "Marguerite" which was her rebus or name device, are frequently repeated. These are surmounted by a statue of St John under a canopy.

The upper chamber in the tower has been used, as at Queens', as the muniment room from the earliest time. It is approached by the staircase in the north-west turret. The set of rooms immediately over the gate were occupied, during his college career, by Lord Thomas Howard, afterwards first Earl of Suffolk and Lord Howard de Walden.

He fought against the Armada in 1588 and commanded the expedition to the Azores in 1591. The staircase in the south-western turret led to the library, and is accordingly larger than the opposite turret; and both these inner turrets are larger than the two on the exterior.

The arched windows at the south of the gateway indicate the position of the old library. It was converted into rooms in 1616, when the books were moved into the present library.

The only part of the original "hospital" which was retained was the infirmary on the north of the court. It, and the rooms built in connection with it in 1584 forming the "Labyrinth," were pulled down in 1863 to make room for the new chapel.

The Hall in 1864 was lengthened at the expense of the Combination Room which was at its north end. It is a spacious room, 108 feet long, with good panel-lining and decorated in good taste.

There is an open timber roof with a lantern-turret, beneath which, before the hall was enlarged, stood the charcoal-brazier to heat the room. Over the dais hangs one of the familiar portraits of the Lady Margaret, below which is a badly painted portrait, said to be of Fisher, but unlike the other portraits of him.

On the left is John Williams, Archbishop of York, to whom the college is partly indebted for the library, and who was the last prelate who held the great seal of England.

Other portraits are those of Wordsworth, Professor E. H. Palmer in his Arabian costume, commemorative of the manner in which he lost his life, the late Professor Kennedy, by Ouless, Professor John E. B. Mayor, by Herkomer; Professor G. D. Livcing, by Sir George Reid; Sir Noah Thomas, physician to King George III., by Romney; and Henry Martyn.

On the western side is Bentley, who, according to tradition, found his way over the College wall to the Mastership of Trinity; and near the entrance is a portrait of Lord Palmerston, taken in 1864.

Wordsworth had in this court his "abiding place or nook secure." The room is now incorporated in the kitchen.

The Chapel, in the Early Decorated style, by Sir G. Gilbert Scott, built of Ancaster stone, was commenced in 1863 and completed in 1869, at a cost of £60,000.

It consists of a transeptal ante-Chapel, with a tower, and a choir separated by a screen of oak, after the fashion of Merton College, Oxford. It is the only example in Cambridge of an ante-Chapel with transepts.

The statues of the Lady Margaret and Bishop Fisher are in niches at the entrance; and the buttresses around bear the statues of eminent members of this and other Colleges.

In the choir, which consists of seven bays and a full-sized apse, are ornamental niches supported by marble shafts, with abaci of red marble presented by the late Duke of Devonshire, and containing statues of apostles and evangelists.

The altar is of carved oak, bearing a beautiful slab of Belgian marble weighing a ton and a half. The roof is of high pitch, ornamented with figures -our Lord in majesty at the east end, and on each side a series of prelates and others, as representatives of the eighteen Christian centuries after the first.

A seated statue, by Baily, of Dr. Wood, Master of the College 1815.1839, and Dean of Ely 1820-1839, is near the middle of the west wall; and in the eastern-most of the two arches dividing the tower from the north transept is a monument of Dr. Ashton, one of the executors of the foundress, a co-operator with Fisher and a benefactor of the College, and Archdeacon of York, where he was buried. It is a reclining figure dressed in robes and surmounted by a canopy, in the spandrils of which, on each side, is his rebus, an ash leaf projecting out of a ton.

The Second Court was built 1595-1602, chiefly at the cost of Mary, Countess of Shrewsbury; Ralph Symons being the architect, who was also the architect of Sidney and Emmanuel, and of the great court of Trinity. It is a fine and uniform piece of brickwork, somewhat after the style of the first court, but surmounted with gables and it has not been desecrated by restorers, having undergone no alteration.

There is a large western gateway with turret-staircases and a statue of the Countess in a niche over the arch. An oriel window in the middle of the first storey on either side of the court adds to the good architectural effect of this much-admired court.

The first floor on the north side of the Court was occupied originally by a handsome Gallery, with ornamental ceiling in plaster, 148 feet long. At the one end it communicated with the Hall and Master's rooms, and at the other end it extended over the present Library staircase and the ante-room to the Library, quite up to the door of the Library. This gallery was gradually, in great part, absorbed into the Master's Lodge.

One part of the alterations of 1864 consisted in removing the partitions between the rooms used as the lodge; and so a great part of the gallery was opened up again, and a Combination Room, 93 feet long was made. This is approached from the second court by the original entrance to the Master's rooms. Charles II. dined in the gallery in 1681.

A portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria in the oriel window preserves the College tradition that the "marriage articles" between Prince Charles, afterwards King Charles I. and Henrietta Maria were signed in this room. The plaster-work of the ceiling was executed in 1600. The original panel-work for the most part remains. There are portraits of the Lady Margaret, supposed to be an original, of Dr. Parr, Sir John Herschel, Bishops Selwyn and Tyrrell, Professor Adams, Wilberforce, and others.

The north side of the Third Court is occupied by the Library, a handsome building in Jacobean Gothic style, with a large bay projecting towards the river. It was built chiefly by the aid of Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, subsequently Archbishop of York.

The access to it is by a large staircase at the north-west corner of the second court, which was made partly by curtailing the "gallery." Over the door are carved the arms of the Bishop and of the see of Lincoln. The room has a fine dark oak ceiling, with richly-carved bookcases of the same wood, at right angles to the walls, in the spaces between the windows.

In the panels at the ends of the cases are still the lists of the books formerly on the shelves. It is a very handsome room, quite a model college library, and contains various autograph letters together with many valuable books and manuscripts. In 1858 the rooms on the ground-floor were added to the library and connected with it by a spiral staircase. Here is a plaster cast (the sculptor's model) of the celebrated statue of Wilberforce, by Joseph, in Westminster Abbey.

The south and west sides of the third court, built about fifty years after the library, are in quite different style, more classical. The south side presents, however, a fine gabled west front to the river. There is a cloister on the west side; and from it a covered bridge, known as the "Bridge of Sighs," from some resemblance to the bridge of that name at Venice, leads over the river to the Fourth or New Court.

The beautiful Stone Bridge to the south of the Bridge of Sighs was built, in 1696, from designs by Sir Christopher Wren, in the place of a wooden bridge which existed here; and the gateway close to it, with eagles upon its piers, was erected in 1712.

The Master's Lodge, built in 1865, by Sir G. G. Scott, who also lengthened the hall about the same time, stands apart in grounds on the north side of the College, and is best seen from the covered Bridge. It is approached from the north side of the second court, but has its main entrance from Bridge Street.

A prominent feature in its front is the carved oriel window-resembling that over the door of the Lodge at Christ's-which was the oriel of the master's room that, as before mentioned, looked into the first court.

The College Walks appear to have been laid out in 1682. The Wilderness and Bowling Green were enclosed in 1688, many of the trees having been planted fifty years previously. Some of the finest of the trees have died or have been blown down, but enough remain to give great beauty to the scene.

The trees in the Wilderness were so planted as to represent the ground-plan of a church. The College cricket ground is on the opposite side of the road. Dr. William Gilbert, born at Colchester, 1540, the discoverer of Magnetism and Electricity, Physician to Queen Elizabeth, President of the College of Physicians, and member of that Society which developed under Charles II. into the Royal Society, was a Fellow of the College.

Roger Ascham, the great treasurer Cecil, Ben Jonson, Bishop Stillingfleet, Thomas Baker (whose history of the College has been published by Professor Mayor, fellow of the College), Bentley, afterwards Master of Trinity, Dr. Heberden, Rowland Hill, Kirke White, Henry Martyn, Wilberforce, Wordsworth, Lord Palmerston, and the Selwyns were also members of the College.

Website: St John's College



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