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Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

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Corpus Christi College (full name: "The College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary", often shortened to "Corpus", or previously "The Body") is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge.[1] It is notable as the only college founded by Cambridge townspeople:[2] it was established in 1352 by the Guild of Corpus Christi and the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary,[3] making it the sixth-oldest college in Cambridge. With around 500 students and fellows, it is also the second smallest of the traditional colleges of the University (after Peterhouse).

The College is one of the more academically successful colleges in the University of Cambridge. In the unofficial Tompkins Table (which ranks the colleges by the class of degrees obtained by their undergraduates), Corpus's 2012 position was third, with 32.4% of its undergraduates achieving first-class results. Its average position is 12 out of 29.

Corpus ranks among the wealthiest Cambridge colleges in terms of fixed assets, being exceptionally rich in silver.[4] The College's investments valued at £87.3m at the end of June 2014 and its freehold land and buildings were valued at £118m at the end of the fiscal year 2013.[5] The guild of Corpus Christi was founded in Cambridge in 1349 by William Horwode, Henry de Tangmere, and John Hardy[6] in response to the Black Death.[7] They determined to found a new college in the University of Cambridge, the sixth in the University's history.[6] Later the same year the new guild merged with an older guild, the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which had been decimated by the Plague.[6] The united guilds acquired land in the centre of town[6] and their patron, the Duke of Lancaster,[6] applied to King Edward III for a licence to found a new college, which was granted in 1352.[8]

Construction began immediately of a single modest court near the parish church and in 1356 it was ready to house the Master and two fellows.[8] The college's statutes were drawn up in 1356.[9] The united guild merged its identity with the new college, which acquired all the guild's lands, ceremonies, and revenues.[6][7] The grandest of these ceremonies was the annual Corpus Christi procession: a parade through the streets to Magdalene Bridge, the host carried by a priest and several of the college's treasures carried by the Master and fellows, before returning for an extravagant dinner. The parade continued until the English Reformation, when the Master, William Sowode, put a stop to it in 1535.[6] The college continues to have a grand dinner on the feast day of Corpus Christi, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

The newly constructed court could house 22 fellows and students. The statutes laid down the rules governing the behaviour of fellows only. Students were not part of the foundation at this stage and would not come within the scope of the statutes for another 200 years. Medieval Period[edit] In its early centuries, the college was relatively poor[3] and so could not construct new buildings; thus Old Court has survived to the present day. It had no chapel, so the members worshipped in St Bene't's Church next door.[7] For many years, particularly during the Reformation when Catholic references were discouraged, Corpus was known as St Bene't's. By 1376 it possessed 55 books, and many more would be donated or bequeathed over the succeeding centuries, including, most significantly, those donated in the 16th century by Archbishop Matthew Parker, who is celebrated by the college as its greatest benefactor.[3]

Old Court

The back of Old Court, built in 1356, seen from the Old Cavendish Lab. During the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, the college was sacked by a mob of townspeople (and apparently some students[2]%29 led by the mayor[3] which, according to the college, carried away its charter to be burned and plate while gutting the rest of the college buildings.[10] Corpus was the only University college, although by no means the only University building, to be attacked.[10] The revolt, which ironically took place during the Corpus Christi week, focused on the college as centre of discontent due to its rigid collection of "candle rents".[3] The college claimed £80 (roughly £50,000 in modern terms) in damages.[7]

In 1460 during the Wars of the Roses, the college paid for armaments including artillery and arrows, and protective clothing to defend the college's treasures from a "tempestuous riot".[7]

Elizabeth, Duchess of Norfolk, and her sister Lady Eleanor Botelar née Talbot, who is believed by some to have been secretly married to Edward IV,[11] endowed the college with scholarships in the 1460s and financed repairs to the college buildings.[6] As a monument a 'talbot', the heraldic supporter of the Talbot family, was placed on the gable of Old Court and can still be seen today. At the same time the Master, Thomas Cosyn, built the college's first chapel and a passageway between Old Court and St Bene't's Church.[9] Over the next few centuries, garret rooms were added in Old Court increasing student numbers.[6]


The New Court seen from Trumpington Street. Although spared the worst of the religious tumult that the Reformation brought to England,[7] the college produced adherents and indeed martyrs to both traditions. Notable are William Sowode who cancelled the Corpus Christi procession, St Richard Reynolds who was martyred by Henry VIII and Thomas Dusgate and George Wishart who were both burned as Protestants.[7][9] It was during this time that Matthew Parker became Master. He donated his unrivalled library to the college, much silver plate and its symbol, the pelican. In order to ensure the safety of his collection Parker inserted into the terms of his endowment one which stated that if any more than a certain number of books were lost, the rest of the collection would pass first to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and then (in the event of any more losses) to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Every few years, representatives from both of those colleges ceremonially inspect the collection for any losses.[9] Parker placed a similar condition on the silver that he bequeathed to the college and these stipulations are part of the reason why Corpus Christi College retains to this day the entirety of the library and the silver collection: they were unable to sell off (or melt down) the less valuable parts of either collection without losing both. So assiduous was Archbishop Parker in his acquisition of books and manuscripts he earned himself the epithet of "Nosey Parker", bringing about a phrase still used today.[12] Parker was forced to resign as Master in 1553 by the accession of Mary I but was elected Archbishop of Canterbury upon the succession of Elizabeth I.

The playwright Christopher Marlowe is perhaps the college's most-celebrated son, having matriculated to Corpus in 1580. Although little is known about his time there, it is often believed that it was during his study for his MA that he began his work as a spy, a claim based on only a single cryptic statement by the Privy Council.[13] In 1953 during renovation of the Master's Lodge a portrait of a man "in the 21st year of his age" was discovered. As the painting is dated 1585, the year Marlowe was 21, it has been claimed as a portrait of the playwright himself.

As the number of students rose a bigger chapel became necessary. In 1578 Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, who had already endowed several scholarships to the college, donated £200 (roughly £30,000 now) for the construction of a new chapel.[9] This sum was not nearly great enough to build a chapel, and despite the efforts of the Master and fellows, the project outran estimates and nearly bankrupted the college. The college sold all of its silver, apart from the gifts from Parker, and the building work was not completed until 1662. Other contributors included Elizabeth I and Sir Francis Drake.[9]

Owing to disputed appointments to the Mastership, Elizabeth I imposed the appointment of John Jegon as Master in 1590.[3] The college did not appoint its own Master for some time. Although not the college's choice, Jegon extricated the college from its financial difficulties by instituting fellow commoners, who would stay for one or two years and were never technically members of the University. Their parents were required to pay with a silver cup or tankard, which would then be melted down.

The next notable Master was Henry Butts, who was also Vice Chancellor of the University. When the plague returned to the city and the rest of the University had fled, Butts stayed at his post and tried to limit the pestilence while staying alone in the college. He was unrewarded for his bravery and this experience seems to have had a terrible effect on him. In 1632, when Butts failed to turn up to deliver the University Sermon on Easter Day, he was found to have hanged himself.[3][9]

Jacobean period

Corpus maintains an impressive collection of silver as it was the only college not to sell its silverware in support of either side during the Civil War.[3] That, and its unrivalled collection of manuscripts and massive collection of rare wines and ports, fuels rumours that it is Cambridge's richest college per student. This is a moot point, since these assets cannot be sold and the majority of them cannot be valued.[7]

Unlike other Oxbridge colleges, the college managed to remain neutral during the Civil War. This was due to the ministration of Richard Love who was Master throughout the Civil War and the Commonwealth. According to college legend, the silver plate was distributed to the fellows to keep it from being requisitioned by the warring factions.[3][9] When the fighting finished the plate was returned and melted down to pay for repairs. Twelve college heads were removed from their posts, but Love and three others were retained. The college also escaped the worst excesses of the puritan Commonwealth. When William Dowsing inspected the college he found "nothing to amend".[9] St Bene't's Church was not so lucky and indeed there was much disturbance in the fellowship as many were forced out and reinstated as circumstances changed through the period.[9]

Age of Enlightenment The New Court

In 1688 the college was attacked once again by a mob, this time with an anti-Catholic bent. They made for the rooms of the bursar, Clement Scott, whom they suspected of popery. He hid himself from the mob so they destroyed his books and papers.[9]

The college continued to grow throughout the 18th Century and did produce several distinguished scholars and clergymen including the so-called Benedictine Antiquaries, a dozen or so men all well known for antiquarian research including such figures as Richard Gough, Brock Rand and William Stukeley.[3][9]

In the 1740s Archbishop Thomas Herring left £1000 for the rebuilding of the college and this led to several abortive attempts to start construction. In 1770 Matthias Mawson, former Master and Bishop of Ely, bequeathed £3000 to defray the costs of demolishing and rebuilding the college but this was not enough. It was not until 1822 when £55,000 had accrued in the rebuilding fund that efforts started. William Wilkins, who had recently completed major works at Downing, King's, and Trinity, was appointed architect and the New Court was completed in 1827 in a neo-gothic style.[3] This involved the demolition of several buildings, including the Elizabethan chapel. The chapel currently standing in New Court is part of the 19th Century construction. Completion of a new, larger court allowed for many more students and numbers increased from 48 to 100.

Victorian Period

During the 19th Century the college became associated with the Evangelical religious movement. In the 1860s its popularity grew so great that it became the third largest college in Cambridge. Corpus was always strongly clerical as, at the time, all the fellows had to be in Holy Orders of the Church of England. For many years the majority of the college's graduates went on to be clergymen. The University around the college was changing quickly, with the repeal of the Test Acts and Catholic emancipation allowing Catholics to join the University for the first time. The syllabus also broadened and the fellow commoners faded away. In 1882, there was a momentous change in Corpus; fellows were allowed to marry. This meant that being an academic fellow could be a lifelong career rather than a stop gap between study and becoming a country parson. Consequently, the demographics of the college fellowship changed significantly during this time. The first married fellow was Edward Byles Cowell who was the first professor of Sanskrit. Later in the century the college fell on hard times and the number of undergraduates dropped to fewer than 50. It was around this time that the infamous 'Chess Club' was founded. Despite their impeccant name they became notorious for hard drinking and partying. They were outlawed in the 1980s for their activities and there has been a blanket ban on all "drinking societies" since.

Edwardian Period

Colonel Robert Caldwell was made Master in 1906 and was the first ever layman to be appointed to the post.[3] He changed the policy of the college with regard to admittance of fellows and undergraduates encouraging men from other colleges and outside Cambridge to become fellows. The college was no longer chiefly training men for the clergy.[3] Student numbers increased significantly and a new undergraduate Library named after one of the Burgesses for the University, Geoffrey Butler[3] was completed. The college also began construction of its sports grounds in west Cambridge in 1939.

World War II

The War Memorial plaques in the college Chapel. Note that the WWII plaque has more names than the First During World War Two, the Master was Sir Will Spens, who was also Regional Commissioner for the Eastern Region: had Hitler invaded, he would have been in charge of running Eastern England. This has led to a persistent rumour of a network of tunnels under the college excavated for this purpose. While there are extensive wine cellars, there is no evidence of such tunnels.[14] While there were fewer undergraduates, the space was taken by cadets and officers taking short courses. Due to the increase in student numbers in the 1930s, Corpus is one of the few British institutions to have lost more members in the Second World War than in the First. Their names are inscribed in the Chapel.

Corpus owns The Eagle Pub, which is managed by Greene King. Watson and Crick are said to have refreshed themselves in this pub while studying the structure of DNA in the nearby Cavendish Laboratory. Upon making the discovery in 1952, they are said to have walked into the pub and declared, "We have found the secret of life".[15] A blue plaque on the front of the pub commemorates the event. The Eagle is also well known as a haunt for RAF officers in World War Two; renovations revealed hundreds of signatures, drawings and messages written, or even burnt, onto the walls and ceilings.[16]

Modern Period

During the 1960s, central heating was extended across the entire college campus. Women were also allowed to join the college Chapel Choir and dine in hall. In 1963, the college's first bar was opened in New Court.[3] In 2008, it was moved to Library Court and the old bar was converted into a post room, staffroom and a graduate student common room.

In 1962, the college approved the conversion of the Leckhampton site to allow for more accommodation for fellows and postgraduate students.[3] Further properties were purchased adjacent to the site and a new building, the George Thomson building, named in honour of a former Master, was completed in 1964.

In 1983, women were first admitted as undergraduates.[3] They had been able to become research students and Fellows for a few years before this. In the same year, the college completed building work in Botolph Court, adding further undergraduate accommodation. Similar renovation work was completed in Bene't Court above the Eagle pub in the 1990s along with the creation of the Robert Beldam building.

In recent years, the College has spearheaded the Northern Ireland Initiative.[17] It also has strong links with New Zealand, taking a student on a full scholarship from the country each year, paid for by the Worshipful Company of Girdlers.[18] A former president is the historian and Cold War scholar Christopher Andrew. He also chairs the 'Cambridge Intelligence Seminar' which convenes regularly in rooms.

In July 2013, Corpus was 16th in the Tompkins Table with a score of 23.9% firsts. It saw the biggest drop having fallen from 3rd in 2012.[19]

The current college visitor is the Chancellor of the University of Cambridge,[20] Lord Sainsbury of Turville.[21]

In 2008, the college completed the renovation of an adjacent bank building and other college buildings to create Library Court, the third court within the main college campus.

In January 2012, several pieces of silver worth a total of £11,596 were stolen from the college collection. The items, which included chalices and patens, were taken from the college chapel while it was open to the public.[22] Several pieces worth £956 in total were recovered a fortnight later; the remainder was discovered to have been melted down. A local man was arrested and charged with the theft.[23] None of the pieces lost were part of Parker's bequest.