St John’s College in Cambridge by Gordon Home

With its three successive courts and their beautiful gateways of mellowed red brick, St John’s College is very reminiscent of Hampton Court.  Both belong to the Tudor period, and both have undergone restorations and have buildings of stone added in a much later and entirely different style. Across the river stands the fourth court linked with the earlier buildings by the exceedingly beautiful *”Bridge of Sighs.”

To learn the story of the building of St. John’s is a simple matter, for the first court we enter is the earliest, and those that succeed stand in chronological order, — eliminating, of course. Sir Gilbert Scott’s chapel and the alterations of an
obviously later period than the courts as a whole.

To Lady Margaret Beaufort, the foundress of St John’s College, or, more accurately, to her executor, adviser and confessor, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who carried out her wishes, we owe the first court, with its stately gateway of red brick and stone. It was built between 1 5 1 1 and 1520 on the site of St. John’s Hospital of Black Canons, suppressed as early as 1509.

The second court, also possessing a beautiful gate tower, was added between 1595 and 1620,the expense being mainly borne by Mary Cavendish, Countess of Shrewsbury, whose statue adorns the gateway. Filling the space between the second court and the river comes the third, begun in 1623, when John Williams, then Lord Keeper and Bishop of Lincoln, and afterwards Archbishop of York, gave money for erecting the library whose bay window, projecting into the silent waters of the Cam, takes a high place
among the architectural treasures of Cambridge.

If anyone carries a solitary date in his head after a visit to the University it is almost sure to be 1624, the year of the building of this library, for the figures stand out boldly above the Gothic window just mentioned. The remaining sides of the third court were built through the generosity of various benefactors, and then came a long pause,for it was not until after the first quarter of the nineteenth century had elapsed that St John’s College was extended to the other side of the river.

This new court came into existence, together with thedelightful ” Bridge of Sighs,” between the years 1826 and 1831, when Thomas Rickman, an architect whose lectures and published treatises had given him a wide reputation, was entrusted
with the work. The new buildings were not an artistic success, in spite of the elaborate Gothic cloister, with its stupendous gateway and the imposing scale of the whole pile.

Their deficiencies might be masked or at least diminished if ivy were allowed to cover the unpleasing wall spaces,and perhaps if these lines are ever read by the proper authority such a simple and inexpensive buthighly desirable improvement will come to pass.

The stranger approaching St John’s College for the first time might be easily pardoned for mistaking the chapel for a parish church, and those familiar with the buildings cannot by any mental process feel that the aggressive bulk of Sir Gilbert Scott’s ill-conceived edifice is anything but a crude invasion. Nearly half a century has passed since this great chapel replaced the Tudor
building which had unluckily come to be regarded as inadequate, but the ponderous Early Decorated tower is scarcely less of an intrusion than when its masonry stood forth in all its garish whiteness against the time-worn brick of Lady MargaretBeaufort’s court.

A Perpendicular tower would have added a culminating and satisfying feature to the whole cluster of courts, and by this time would have been so toned down by the action of weather that it would have fallen into place as naturally as the Tudor Gothic of the Houses of Parliament has done in relation to Westminster Abbey. Like Truro Cathedral, and other modern buildings
imitating the Early English style, the interior is more successful than the exterior ; the light, subdued and enriched by passing through the stained glass of the large west window (by Clayton and Bell) and others of less merit, tones down the appearance of newness and gives to the masonry of 1869 a suggestion of the glamour of the Middle Ages.

Fortunately, some of the stalls with their ‘ miserere ” seats were preserved when the former chapel was taken down, and these, with an Early English piscina, are now in the chancel of the modern building. The Tudor Gothic altar tomb of one of Lady Margaret’s executors —Hugh Ash ton. Archdeacon of York — has also beenpreserved

At the same time as the chapel was rebuilt. Sir Gilbert Scott rebuilt parts of the first and second courts. He demolished the Master’s Lodge, added two bays to the Hall in keeping with the other parts of the structure, and built a new staircase and lobby for the Combination Room, which is considered without a rival in Cambridge or Oxford. It is a long panelled room occupying all the upper floor of the north side of the second, court and with its richly ornamented plaster ceiling, its long row of windows lookinginto the beautiful Elizabethan court, its portraits of certain of the college’s distinguished sons in solemn gold frames, it would be hard to find more pleasing surroundings for the leisured discussion of subjects which the fellows find in keeping with
their after-dinner port.

There is an inner room at one end, and continuing in the same line and opening into it, so that a gallery of great length is
formed, is the splendid library, built nearly three centuries ago and unchanged in the passing of all those years.

The library of St. John’s is rich in examples of early printing by Caxton and others whose books come under the heading of incunabula, but it would have been vastly richer in such early literature had Bishop Fisher’s splendid collection — ” the notablest library of books in all England, two long galleries full ” — been allowed to come where the good prelate had intended.When he was deprived, attainted, and finally beheaded in 1535  refusing to accept Henryas supreme head of the Church, his library wasconfiscated, and what became of it I do not know.

st john's collegeOver the high table in the hall, a long and rather narrow structure with a dim light owing to its dark panelling, hangs a portrait of LadyMargaret Beaufort, the foundress of the college, and  on either side of this pale Tudor lady are paintings of Archbishop Williams, who built the library, and Sir Ralph Hare. The most interesting portraits are, however, in the master’s lodge, rebuilt by Sir Gilbert Scott on a new site north of the library.

Photo: © Copyright Hugh Chevallier and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

It was through no sudden or isolated emotion that Lady Margaret was led to found this college in 1509, the year of her death, for she had four years earlier re-established the languishing grammar college, called God’s House, under the new name of Christ’s College, and had been a benefactress to Oxford as well. On the outer gateways of both her colleges, therefore, we see
the great antelopes of the Beauforts supporting the arms of Lady Margaret, with her emblem, the daisy, forming a background. Sprinkled freely over the buildings, too, are the Tudor rose and the Beaufort portcullis.

St. John’s Hospital, which stood on the site of the  present college, had been founded in 1135,and was suppressed in 1509, when it had shrunk to possessing two brethren only. The interest of this small foundation of Black Canons would have been small had it not been attached to Ely, and through that connection made the basis of Bishop Balsham’s historic experiment already mentioned-

The founding of St. John’s by a lady of even such distinction as the mother of Henry VII. could not alone have placed the college in the position it now occupies : such a consummation could only have been brought about by the capacity and learning of those to whom has successively fallen the task of carrying out her wishes, from Bishop Fisher down to the present time. To
mention all, or even the chief, of these rulers of the college is not possible here, and before saying farewell to the lovely old courts, we have only space to mention that among the famous students were Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, Lord-
Lieutenant of Ireland ; Matthew Prior, the poet- statesman ; William Wilberforce, and William Wordsworth.

 

This text is now in the public domain and was taken by the book “Cambridge” by Gordon Home published in 1911

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