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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Trinity College, Cambridge

What is Trinity College?

Trinity College is a 16th-century university college in Cambridge that was founded by King Henry VIII and whose alumni include Sir Isaac Newton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Sir Francis Bacon.

Trinity College

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Trinity College History

Trinity College, formally known as The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, has many claims to fame. First and foremost, it’s the largest and richest of Cambridge University’s colleges. The legend that you can walk from Cambridge to Oxford solely upon Trinity land is false, though it is true that the college has amassed a vast territory. Founded in 1546, Trinity began to accumulate wealth with the aid of its founder, King Henry VIII. He combined two existing colleges, Michaelhouse and King’s Hall, both founded in the early 14th century, and seven hostels, and monastic lands were given over to support the running of the college.

With this helping hand, Trinity grew in scale and importance over the 16th and 17th centuries, when most of the college’s buildings were constructed. Trinity later began to purchase land outside of Cambridge. In the 1930s, it bought an estate on the Suffolk coast, and in 1967 helped set up Britain’s first container terminal, Felixstowe, which is now the largest container port in the UK and one of the busiest in Europe. Three years later, the Senior Bursar, Sir John Bradfield, helped establish the Cambridge Science Park, the first in Europe and now home, as part of Silicon Fen, to some of the world’s biggest tech giants.

Standing in front of Trinity’s Great Gate, the college’s past comes to life. A keen eye may note a revealing contradiction: a statue of Henry VIII stands above an inscription to Edward III, as the gate was begun in around 1490 to honour the founder of King’s Hall, before it was taken over by Henry. There too, are the coats of arms of Edward III’s sons; you’ll notice that one is left blank for William of Hatfield, who died as an infant, never reaching maturity and the age to be granted arms. The statue of Henry also deserves closer inspection, for in his hands are a golden orb and, rather incongruously, a chair leg (instead of a sword), inserted by a window cleaner some 50 years ago when he realised the statue was missing something in its hand.

Stepping inside, you witness another of Trinity’s claims to fame: the largest court in either Cambridge or Oxford. This is thanks to Thomas Nevile, who built the Great Court as well as Nevile’s Court behind it. It’s a mighty and magnificent space. One of the college’s proud traditions is the Great Court Run, a dash around the court as the clock strikes twelve. The challenge is to complete the sprint before the bells end: approximately 370 metres in 43 to 44 and a half seconds (depending on how recently the clock has been wound). The tradition may have begun with David Cecil, Lord Burghley, who completed the feat at midnight in 1927 and inspired the scene in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Few have beaten the clock, but contentious debate exists around the exact route: whether on the path or on the cobbles; whether ‘rounding off’ corners or not; and whether starting on a corner or halfway along a side.

On the north side of the Great Court is the chapel, built in the mid-16th century. The antechapel is adorned with plaques and statues to the college’s illustrious alumni. The six statues include one of Sir Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism, and one of Lord Macaulay with the inscription stating (in Latin): ‘He was the first to write history in such a way that the true facts might be read with more pleasure than fiction’. Another is of the author of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. You can see, half-hidden behind a leaf, his favourite pipe. And of course, Sir Isaac Newton, the physicist and mathematician considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest scientists. He was integral to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, and the monument, by Louis-François Roubiliac, inspired Wordsworth’s lines: ‘The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone’.

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