Theres’ a neat narrative here: from the castle mount, one can address the landscape, with a single hill right by a fording place of a wide river, just where anyone making their way from central England/Mercia to eastern England/East Anglia round the south of the fens would want to cross. A strategic point then. And so a Roman fortlet, a Norman castle, a modern county hall. And to the south, a flat floodplain with a few gravel ridges… watch Granta-chester (C7) become Granta-Bridge (by 875) become Cambridge (?C12) as the town spreads down there, and the hill becomes a suburb.
Then at the Round Church, one can discuss the fascinating C12; its relative cosmopolitanism (centre of Jewish settlement next door); its expansiveness and exploratory-ness, whether by Crusader or C12 Renaissance (form of church). How people might gather together to form communities or teach…
Then outside St John’s one can address the C13, by which time the gorwing town has 19? parishes, a nunnery, an Augustinian house, a hospital, and more to come. Yet with the hospital chapel buried beneath the First Court, there is no good C13 architecture inside the town boundary; an absence redolent of the times, for this is when (in 1208) teachers came (intellectual refugees from Oxford) in enough numbers to be noted, and although still freelance and renting rooms, in the 1220s and 1230s were granted various priveleges and obligations on the model of similiar studium at Oxford and Paris: a university. Junior to Oxford for several hundred years, and no architecture yet, but still only the fifth example in Europe of this unique (if madrasah-influenced) and world-changing two-fold institutional idea: 1) teaching is defended from external interference; 2) the qualification is recognised universally.
Then the mendicants come, Franciscans and Dominicans in the 1230s, and then others, hoovering up impressionable young men, building theologyy-factory-teaching churches. Perhaps its in response to that them that in 1255 someone founds a wealthy college of priests in Paris, a religious community whose secondary function is academic. This had been done before, but the Sorbonne is on a new and grand scale; as is the second example, Merton college Oxford. And Cambridge has Peterhouse within a decade or so.
Peterhouse takes a while to find a home, eventually colonising and rededicating a parish chuch by a town gate and building a small residential complex next to it. Nothing much compared to mighty Merton (which wisely buys an old manor in the town, just in case there is another flight from Oxford), and a drop in the ocean compared to the 6-700 students of the university, but an academic/religious institution with its own permanence: an endowment, buildings. Something is taking root.
Over the next 70 years or so, in a great wave, 7 more colleges. Witness their place of worship at Michaelhouse, a colonised parish church rebuilt in the 1320s by Royal chancellor cum college founder Hervey de Stanton in a very good sub-Ely late Dec, with large choir and seperate presumed chantry chapel some *very* interesting tracery. Mention a key turning point: the King’s Hall, its remains later and now within Trinity, a college found by the king expressly for up and coming clerks of the Royal chapel (ie St Stephen’s college, Westminster?). So now we have a royal connection; and King’s Hall was the first to admit undergraduates. Many of these colleges are on the edge of town, by gates: but a central focus is developing, colonising presumably sparsely-developed/easily flooded land between the high street and the Cam.
This phase ends dramatically, with the onslaught of the Black Death and the 1352 coming together of two town guilds based at the two chief town churches, Great St Mary’s and ancient St Bene’ts. Remarkably, these townsmen found an acacemic college to salve their souls, and Corpus Christi, Cambridge’s first planned quad, can be visited today; as can its colonised parish church St Bene’t, with its remarkable Anglo-Saxon tower. And the decision only a few years later by the university to create its first buildings of its own: a quad for admin and the teaching of divinity, law etc, the Old Schools. Oxford had nothing on this scale, only a vestrylike-meeting-room-with-library-above, the Old Combination R0om, added to St Mary’s church in the 1320s. So although it took several decades to complete, the Old Schools is the first standalone architectural expression of the university, and the first time Cambridge had done something Oxford hadn’t. Shame its hidden behind a C18 facade and the court of King’s.
A good moment to pop into Great St Mary’s, which for much of this time and for many things up to the C18 was, as would be natural for any medieval association of people, the place where the university met, conferred degrees, kept its records. A witness to the many traumas of this cuckoo-in-the-nest institution, not least the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, when said records were destroyed and the university viciously assaulted by a compact of peasants and wealthy townsmen. Every such resulted in a settlement in the university’s favour, however; and by the mid c15 it dominated the town and the church was rebuilt as a grand Perp town church, much funded by the teachers.
As to the colleges, after the mid-C14, everything goes quiet for 80-90 years. The story restarts around 1440: the first monastic hostel, later to be Magdalen; Godshouse, a failed experiment in creating a teacher training college, which later became Christ’s; Queens’, the impressive upgrading by a local rector of his student teaching hostel into a college by badgering two successive queens sworn to enmity into endowing it. They knew they were doing something new though: it’s founded for the extirpation of heresy and the laud and honour of sex feminine.
That’s what’s been happening in the meantime. Oxford’s greater prowess has been its downfall: Wycliff and all. Tainted by association, Cambridge became a safer place to invest in. Meanwhile, New college there had posed a new and thorough architectural and educational model for college life. The changes of the 1440s respond to both these pressures, and the piety of 19-year-old Henry VI, who founds the mighty college of St Nicholas (6 Dec = his birthday) and St Mary. The King’s college.
King’s college was different. It borrowed from New college Oxford its intended plan, with a residential quad and a second cemetery-cloister quad with a bell tower. It borrowed its educational set-up, too, with a feeder school a la Winchester, but more closely associated with the court: Eton, hard by the Windsor castle. Shades of the King’s Hall, then. It focused enormous resources on liturgy and chantry masses; the first Cambridge college to have a standalone chapel (except perhapsd Trinity Hall) is also the most emphatically a grand chantry of all. But then it is collossal, in numbers and endowment more like a cathedral commuinity. It deliberately – we know this – outsteps New college in scale; but at least New college squeezed itself into a corner by Oxford city wall. King’s galumphs itself down right in the heart of town, opposite St Mary’s, next to the barely-complete Old Schools, squashing several hostels and a parish church (St John Zachary: more anon) to do so, making a major thoroughfare stop at the chapel door.
The chapel. The chapel is enormous. A great plain rectangle, it combines the form of a Royal/courtly chapel (St Stephen’s, Westminster in particular, perhaps) with the scale of a cathedral: a giant hybrid, dominating the town as if it was its fons et origo, its Durham or Salisbury or York, rather than a piece of aggressive planning. But then in 1462 Henry is captured and everything stops in its tracks. The first quad is complete, the foundations of the chapel are down and its east end, when covered with a temporary roof, fit to function. That’s it.
Until around 1500. Now another new spirit is afoot; top churchmen are learning Humanism in France, Bologna, Rome. When bishop Alcock of Ely decides to experiment with dissolving monasteries and making new institutions, he does so at St Radegund’s, a nunnery outside the town ditch and Cambridge’s one piece of decent C13 architecture. This, Jesus college, has among its supporters bishop Fisher of Rochester and Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of king Henry VII and effective foundress of the Tudor dynasty. They would drive a decade of dramatic change.
Following in Henry VI’s footsteps, both out of deference to a man now acclaimed (by the Tudor court) a saint and to avoid the percievded instability of Oxford, Bishop Fisher and Lady Margaret over the first decade or so of the C16 turn Cambridge into a university every bit the equal of Oxford, an enormous training ground for the Tudor administrative class. Godshouse, squashed out to the town-edge when King’s came along, is refounded as Christ’s. St John’s hospital is dissolved and refounded as a college. Both have Lady Margaret’s curious, galumphing heraldic beasts spraygunned over their grand gates (a Cambridge speciality these, since the 1440s). And King’s is completed, by Henry VII himself, ignoring his predecessor’s plans for a relatively plain interior, and an extended complex (the land HVI bought for King’s remains largely greenfield to this day…) but taking his chapel and reworking it into a building of great elaboration. Exquisitely carved heraldic beasts and dynastic messages pepper the interior of the west end, which has one of John Wastell’s high stone fan vaults added to it. Only the pulpitum stops the contrast between plain HVI east and elaborate HVII west jarring. The fan gives total embracing unity. Rows of tiny chapels anticipate an ever increasing round of private masses. The screen of pannelling that divides the walls is at once a perfect expression of the Perp ideal (and indeed of the Ste Chappelle/gothic glass cage ideal), and like many Tudor expressions in hoc to the great experiments of the C14: Gloucester, Ely Lady chapel, St Stephen’s Westminster. But more than anything else this is a sibling to that other dynastic/Henry VI-tastic pre-Reformation Tudor memorial building, the new Lady chapel at Westminster abbey. Kings and Henry VII chapel: the pair are English gothic’s great final hurrah.
The king wouldn’t have known that, of course, but his son might of. Henry VIII and his father’s executors glazed and fitted out the building within 15 years of the Reformation – the west window was never completed – and it remains, almost uniquely in England – intact: the finest decoration on the finest architecture, and no iconoclasm in sight. All we lack is floortiles and polychromy: for a taster of the latter, try Hacumblin’s chantry chapel.
Ah, chantry chapels: try the Ashton cadaver in St John’s, and the remains of Fisher’s own chantry there. And ah, Humanism: all these C16 colleges were witness to new things: obligations to free public preaching; teachers of long-lost Biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek: Fisher installed Erasmus in Cambridge. And new ideas, ideas aware of Luther and others.
Not only did Henry VI’s foundation unwittingly lead to Cambridge being the great Tudor university (and gave it the one world class medieval building in either Oxford or Cambridge); it also helped it end the medieval era. Latimer and Cranmer preached real Protestantism here, in the little St Edward’s church; that they could do so is because, when Henry demolished St John Zachary to make way for Kings, two colleges – Trinity Hall and Clare Hall – had to find somewhere else to call a chapel, and they found here. Little aisles were built on a cramped existing site. In 1510 a pulpit was put in. And the living became a peculiar of the colleges, independent of the bishop of Ely, and so allowing latitude in preaching. And latitude was taken.
So this is where medieval Cambridge ends; being asked by the king to give legal advice on the Great Matter; its colleges threatened more by the 1547 dissolution of the chantries than (unlike Oxford, with several monastic colleges) by the dissolution of the monasteries. In the event, Henry VIII already sealed the town’s importance, adding Trinity to the great Tudor run that makes the Cambridge landscape from Kings to St John’s one great series of mighty self-satisfied institutions where 300 years earlier there had been only marsh. Trinity is architecturally indistinguishable from its pre-Reformation siblings; but its function is different: extirpation of heresy, yes, but especially extirpation of the pope.
Phew. And a moment’s reflection. Because nowhere outside England took to the ‘college’ model like Oxford and Cambridge did, these two cities preserve more medieval university-related architecture than anywhere else in Europe. Not a lot of people know this. So nowhere else can one watch the one medieval institution that really shaped the modern world unfold as one can in these two cities.
Cambridge is split. Split between chalk farmland and barren fen. Split between Roman heart and Saxon new town. Split between town and gown. And somehow crammed-in, too: dense, significant, yet hard to love.
Start with the fen, and of course it made the place: making this the northernmost easy landcrossing from east anglia to the midlands, and a key port to boot. Even today, far from the sea, the watermeadows are a metre deep in black liquid, the Camgranta thick and strong with icy water; ducks swoop towards their own reflections beneath a colossal moon.
Then to the Roman heart: it’s been ripped out. Or has it? The suburb north of the river, the original Grantchester, on its steep chalk hill. Small strips of houses running from the bridge, a real medieval suburb; Magdalen to one side. Almost inaccessible on the other (just make like a lecturer), School of Pythagoras, a rich merchant’s house of c1200: I have a pee beside a C12 attached column. To go to Oxbridge (or Durham) is to know architectural privelige. St Peter’s a heartbreaking country church, Samuel Palmer primitive, by the busy road. And then the proof of the pudding, the castle, on its Roman site, dominating the great wide bowl, almost an entire county. Here comes Norman. And he’s still here: the county council offices occupy the bailey.
The bridge is tiny. Into the Anglo-Saxon town. The two roads, Roman and later, come to join. The infilled markets between them. The half-blocked lanes and houses of yellow-grey brick. The density of churches. Great St Marys the classic Perp town church, grand and vapid. Holy Sepulchre the most intriguing thing: by the Jewry, by a hospital, at the joining point of the two roads, show-off cosmopolitan.
There may have been clerks, and advanced schools, developing here in the C12, as there were at Oxford and Northampton. But there is nothing certain before 1209; some kind of corporacy by the 1230s; yet no architecture existed until the late C13. The Old Schools are the centre of power. In the area between the A-S road and the river, concentrated in one area. Why here? Floodplain comparatively undeveloped still? Just happened to be land available? In any case it’s a fateful decision. The first academic colleges come in the late C13, and at first they circle the edge of the city, where there is land. But then they too start to take up sites along Trumpington. Peterhouse, suburban; Corpus Christi, less so. As they march up the W side of the town they gobble up parish churches: St Mary the Less is lost, its chancel rebuilt as a grand sober-Dec college chapel. St Bene’t with its Saxon tower is later appropriated, too. St Michael’s another exercise in the Dec college-chapelisation of (part of) someone’s parish church. In general Cambridge colleges suck up parish churches or construct small chapels: again, Oxford tends to greater grandeur early on; more senior patrons, too: those at Cambridge are much more varied. Anyway by the Black Death the area around the Old Schools must have already obviously been the centre of operations. The seventy years silence, and then comes the great C15 wave. Christ’s. Jesus, dissolving and appropriating the C12 St Radegund’s nunnery. Then Henry VI comes along, and a step-change occurs. King’s will plonk its footprint down right in the middle of this, next to the Old Schools, but to the S on top of some existing college and oh yes a city parish too and arterial road too. This area was presumably built up in a way that the area to the Old Schools ‘patch’ had not been in the late C13. Half of this is shunted to St Edward’s, creating a peculiar that would sow the seeds of Reformation. It will have a chapel that couldn’t be further than a new aisle on an old parish church; a chapel that’s virtually a cathedral. A chapel that still dominates and which until the C19 was by far the most ambitious building in town. A chapel that remains a unique amalgam of college chapel and Great Church. A chapel that, in spite of three master masons and various changes of mind is (mostly thanks to Henry VII) among the greatest buildings in Europe. And the Tudor court follow: St John’s, Trinity, and further out Christ’s, Magdalene; additions to several existing colleges. Everywhere copying King’s without matching it for sophistication (or in chapel terms, ambition). So King’s is not only the first monumentally-scaled fan vault (or that’s what the guide says; but surely Bath and Henry VII chapel where on the stocks by 1512. Sherborne of course is not a true fan vault), or the most vainglorious statement of academic-college architecture, in a city for which there was little precedent; it is also a turning point in the university as a place for top-rank architecture, an institution that *is* the whole western strip of the town serious: a kind of campus. I don’t think even Oxford was quite so emphatically zoned until the C17; was there any University building before the Divinity School, etc, there?. And the Old Schools still the centre of power today, private and unmarked right next to King’s gate.
A series of churches, a series of sketches of Cambridge people: the Locals, manning the bookshop in Great St Mary’s, chatting cynically about the world, suspicious, going out of their way to mask their helpfulness and kindness. These people are everywhere, keeping the university running, given petty power and glory-by-association; unlearning how to smile as they do so. Perhaps it’s the Fenland air, or too many Fellows. The Retired Academic, lonely in St Edward’s, starting up intriguing lines of conversation I don’t have time to follow through. The Junkies, huddled in a corner of St Bene’t, disintegrating in quiet chaos. The Fellow, leading the choir in St Radegund’s, his easy authority turning a bunch of 20-year olds in tight jeans into a spine chilling evocation of Gregorian bliss. It’s hard to disaggregate the reverse-snobbery and reaction against privilege; what’s left is, for all its failings, a combination of excellence and tradition cannot be copied unless one has a few centuries to spare in development; it is surely one of the high points – at both Ox and Bridge – of our culture.