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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of St John’s College, University of Cambridge

What is St John’s College?

St John’s College is an impressive Cambridge University college that was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1511.

St John’s College in Oxford

St John’s College History

The ‘blazer’, that loose jacket favoured by schoolboys, sports teams, and musicians of the ‘60s and ‘70s, began here at St John’s College. Originally a ‘blazer’ referred quite literally to anything that blazed, or shone, brightly. When the college’s rowing club, the Lady Margaret Boat Club – which was founded in 1825 and named after the college’s founder – started wearing bright red jackets, the term ‘blazer’ was attributed to them. Their boat song, drunkenly roared at dinners since 1895, recalls the college’s history whilst praising its rowing victories with the repeated lines: ‘live happily, Margaret, in the isles of the blessed; if we can, we will always have been, head of the river!’ It imagines a conversation between Lady Margaret Beaufort, whose last wish was the college’s founding, and Bishop John Fisher, who encouraged her to do so and secured its foundation with his political influence.

The college replaced the 13th-century Hospital of St John the Evangelist: it was established in 1511, and the college soon prospered. Fisher, however, was executed in 1535 for upholding the supremacy of the Catholic Church by King Henry VIII, founder of St John’s neighbour, Trinity College. This formed the basis of a deep and ongoing rivalry. It’s said the college deliberately sculpted the eagle on St John’s New Court so that its head turned away from Trinity, and that the cannons on Trinity’s bowling green deliberately point directly at St John’s.

The college’s impressive Great (or front) Gate is similar in style to Christ’s College, as both were founded by Lady Margaret, though Christ’s has been more recently restored and its colours shine more brightly. The statue here is not of Lady Margaret, however, but of St John. He stands beside an eagle, his traditional symbol and an emblem of the college. Underneath is a carving of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s coat of arms flanked by two yales, mythical beasts with elephants’ tails, antelopes’ bodies, goats’ heads and horns that swivel in any direction. If you walk through the original heavy linenfold panelled doors, you’ll be in First Court.

St John’s College stone carving

The south side of the court was refaced by James Essex in the 18th century and is where the poet William Wordsworth resided, in ‘a nook obscure! / Right underneath, the College kitchens made / A humming sound, less tuneable than bees, / But hardly less industrious’. A little earlier St John’s was home to the abolitionist campaigners William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Wilberforce was ‘horror-struck’ to meet his peers on arrival and described them as ‘licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives’. The pair would later work together to help bring about the end of the slave trade in the British Empire. On the north side is a vast 19th-century chapel designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The Gothic design, inspired by 13th-century French churches such as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, is built in the shape of a ‘T’.

On the west side of the river, through Second and Third Court, lies New Court, a dramatic 19th-century Gothic Revival construction, designed by Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson. It was the first major building expansion on the west side of the river and it was deemed necessary to accommodate the college’s growing student population. The cloisters and fan vaulted ceilings as well as the battlements, pinnacles, and turrets capture the popular romantic medievalism of the time; most students refer to the flamboyant edifice as the ‘Wedding Cake’. It’s particularly melodramatic when viewed from the River Cam, and is only superseded in interest by the Bridge of Sighs, which was also designed by Hutchinson.

Former students and fellows of St John’s have distinguished themselves in a wide range of fields: the college’s alumni include ten Nobel Prize winners, six prime ministers, and three saints. Indeed, that famous rivalry did not stop Trinity man Ernest Walton working alongside St John’s Sir John Cockcroft to split the atomic nucleus for the first time in 1932.

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