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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Christ’s College, Cambridge

What is Christ’s College?

Christ’s College is a quaint university college in Cambridge that was founded by the wealthiest woman in medieval England.

Christ’s College Cambridge Fellow's building

Christ’s College History

As you stand before Christ’s College’s Gate Tower, cast your eyes up. You’ll see a red rose and coronet to the left, and a gold portcullis and crown to the right. Between them is a statue of an old woman holding a Bible and dressed in a long, peaked white headdress. The scene boldly proclaims the college’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort. She was the richest woman in medieval England and the mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Below, her insignia are repeated but reversed. The Beaufort arms take central position, supported by two white yales dotted with gold: the mystical creatures were said to have the body an antelope, the tail of an elephant, the head of a goat, and horns that could swivel at will. Around them in brilliant blue, green, red, and white are daisies and forget-me-nots. This rich and complex display is testament to the power of the woman who shaped the Wars of the Roses and left an extraordinary legacy of scholarly learning.

The bright and varied colours on show also reflect the college’s diverse history. Before Lady Margaret patronised the college in 1505, it was founded in 1437 by William Byngham, a London parish priest, and was called God’s House. Originally established as a training ground for schools teaching a largely secular program, its reputation as a Puritan college flourished under Elizabeth I’s reign in the late 16th century. Just after, the college nurtured one of its most famous students: John Milton, the 17th-century poet who was also a civil servant under Oliver Cromwell. His magnum opus, Paradise Lost, is a Biblical epic, written over thousands of lines of blank verse poetry, and often hailed as one of the greatest works of English literature. Milton’s biographer, John Aubrey, recounted how he ‘was a very hard student’, while also noting how good-looking he was: ‘His harmonicall and Ingeniose Soul did lodge in a beautifull and well-proportioned body’, his complexion was so fair that ‘they called him the lady of Christ’s College’.

Christ's College Cambridge Entrance

The First Court would have looked quite different in Milton’s day. It was largely built in 1505 and, as you walk clockwise around the circular lawn (the only one in any of Cambridge’s colleges) you’ll find the Chapel, Master’s Lodge, Hall, and Library. The original walls and brick skin decayed over time and in the 18th century James Essex gave the court a trim Georgian feel: the walls were refaced with the ashlar you see today; the battlements were removed and sash windows were inserted; and the doorways were given classical pediments.

Through the screens passage, to the right of the Hall, takes you to Second Court and the college’s magnificent gardens. On the left is the closed off Master’s Garden and passing through the Ketton stone Fellows’ Building, previously a wooden structure unlovingly known as Rat’s Hall, is the Fellows’ Garden. A mulberry tree, named after Milton, and grown from the root of an earlier mulberry tree planted in 1609 – the year after his birth – can be found near the bottom of the garden just past the beehives. Mulberry jam and honey are still made by the college. The Malcolm Bowie Bathing Pool is adjacent: a 17th-century swimming pool and summer house lined with busts of the college’s celebrated alumni. The newest garden, created in 2009, commemorates another of the college’s famous graduates: Charles Darwin, whose 19th-century voyages around the world on HMS Beagle helped revolutionise our understanding of the natural sciences.

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