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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Queens’ College, Cambridge

What is Queen’s College?

Queens’ College is one of Cambridge University’s oldest colleges, founded in the 15th century.

Queen's college Cambridge

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Queens’ College History

The placement of the apostrophe in Queens’ College’s name is not to be overlooked. The college was founded in the mid-15th century by Andrew Dokett, the rector of St Botolph’s Church, and was initially called St Bernard’s College. The following year, King Henry VI’s young queen, Margaret of Anjou, patronised the college, and thus it became the Queen’s College (singular). However soon after, in 1461, Henry was deposed, Edward IV ascended to the throne, and Elizabeth Woodville replaced Margaret as queen. She patronised the college in 1465, becoming ‘the true foundress by right of succession’. The apostrophe at the end of Queens’ thus recalls the college’s two founders.

Queens’ is split into two by the River Cam, traversed by the famous Mathematical Bridge. Access to the college is via the Porter’s Lodge on the newer western side, officially called the Island and commonly known as the ‘light side’, where the brick Fisher Building was erected in the 1930s and the brutalist Cripps Court was completed in the 1980s. Central to the story of Queens’ is that it was historically one of the poorer university colleges, and this lack of wealth proved fortunate when they were building on the ‘dark side’ of the college across the river. The Essex Building, along Silver Street and the east bank of the river, was built in the 18th century and was originally intended to continue all the way along the Cam. In doing so, it would have demolished the riverside buildings dating from the 1460s and a substantial portion of the celebrated half-timbered Long Gallery. However, the college ran out of money and so the Essex Building was reduced in size.

Queen's college Cambridge entrance

Once again, it’s because of the college’s lack of funds that the Old Court is so unique. Designed in the mid-15th century by Reginald Ely (who worked on King’s College Chapel), the court was built using cheap clunch, a local soft chalk, that was covered with a skin of hard red brick to protect it from the weather. Stone would have had to be transported from further afield, costing more and taking longer to arrive. The original chapel, which is now the War Memorial Library, is on the north side to the right of the sun and moon dial. The Old Library, Cambridge’s oldest purpose-built library, is to the left, where books in their centuries-old original bindings can be viewed (again, because they had insufficient money to ‘restore’ them in the 18th century). On the west side is the Old Hall with its distinctive oriel window and colourful interior.

The remaining staircases house student residences and studies, and this is where Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus stayed whilst at the college in the early 16th century, though he didn’t seem to enjoy his time here all too much, complaining in writing about the ‘raw, small and windy’ ale they had on offer, as well as the poor English weather. Unlike most colleges, which in the 18th century clad their buildings in classical stone and transformed their Gothic windows into rectangular sash windows, Queens’ could not afford to, therefore leaving the Old Court as one of the best-preserved medieval assemblages in the city.

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