Julian Humphrys discusses King’s College Chapel on the audio guide that accompanies this piece.Download the Audio guide (Right-click and select 'Save as')
Julian Humphrys takes a stroll through the history of English architecture in Cambridge, one of the world’s foremost seats of learning for 800 years, and a treasure trove of magnificent buildings
In 1209, conflict with the townspeople of Oxford led a number of scholars to migrate to the prosperous town of Cambridge and settle there. At first they found lodgings in the town but later hired houses as hostels, with a master in charge of a group of students. By 1226 the scholars had set up an organisation headed by a chancellor and with regular courses of study.
Initially the new university had no premises of its own and used churches and religious houses for ceremonies and private houses for teaching. However from the late 14th century it began to acquire its own property and build ‘schools’. The first to be erected was the Divinity School. The late 13th century had seen the establishment of the first college, Peterhouse, which was founded by Hugh de Balsham, bishop of Ely.
Colleges were initially founded by pious individuals for law or divinity students who, in exchange, were expected to pray for the souls of their benefactors. Later the colleges housed the young undergraduates who had previously lived in hostels or private houses. Today, 800 years after those first students arrived, Cambridge University comprises 31 colleges and over 150 departments, faculties, schools and other institutions. Degrees are awarded by the university but each college is an independent institution where students live and eat and receive some tuition.
With its gatehouses, courtyards, gardens, chapels and bridges, the university dominates the centre of Cambridge and a stroll through the city is a journey through the history of English architecture. For this day trip I’ve concentrated on the Trumpington Street/King’s Parade area of the city but for those with more time there’s so much more to see.
All the colleges are worth visiting but three of my favourites are Trinity – its Great Court is the largest in Cambridge; St John’s, with its Bridge of Sighs; and Emmanuel College with its ducks and Wren chapel. The city is also rich in museums. In addition to the Fitzwilliam there’s the Folk Museum; Kettle’s Yard with its collections of 20th-century art; the Scott Polar Research Institute; the Whipple Museum of the History of Science; and the Zoology Museum, which includes displays of materials collected by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle.
1. Fitzwilliam Museum
The university museum features outstanding displays of fine and decorative arts. The monumental Founder’s Building opened to the public in 1848. Designed by George Basevi, it was finished by CR Cockerell after Basevi was killed when
he fell off the octagon tower of Ely Cathedral.
Founded in 1284, Peterhouse (never Peterhouse College) is the oldest college in Cambridge. Its 17th-century chapel is an extraordinary mixture of gothic and classical. Eminent former members include Charles Babbage, Henry Cavendish, Christopher Cockerell, Frank Whittle, Thomas Gray and Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood.
3. Queens' College
Queens’ was originally founded in 1446 by Andrew Docket. His effigy glowers down on passers-by from the college gatehouse. Two years later the college was refounded by Queen Margaret of Anjou and further endowed by Elizabeth Woodville (consort of Edward IV) in 1465. Cloister Court, with its half-timbered gallery and President’s Lodge, is particularly picturesque. The wooden ‘mathematical’ bridge was originally built in the 18th century.
4. Corpus Christi College
Established in 1352 to train priests, Corpus Christi is the only college in Cambridge to have been founded by the townspeople. However this didn’t prevent them from sacking it 30 years later. The 14th-century Old Court is the oldest surviving enclosed court in Cambridge. The neo-gothic New Court was designed by National Gallery architect William Wilkins. It was his favourite building and he’s buried in the chapel. Don’t miss the newly installed ‘grasshopper clock’ outside the college.
5. St Benet’s Church
The church once served as a schoolroom and as a chapel for Corpus Christi College. Its pre-conquest west tower is the oldest piece of building in Cambridge. Inside, the Saxon tower arch catches the eye but also look out for the 17th-century fire hook used to pull burning thatch off buildings and, in the south aisle, a 15th-century monumental brass of a kneeling figure in academic dress.
6. King’s College
King’s was founded in 1441 by a young Henry VI to accommodate 70 poor scholars who were to be drawn from Eton College, his other great foundation. Henry drew up detailed plans for a ‘great court’ but in the end only the magnificent chapel was completed. The classical Fellows Building was designed by James Gibbs, who also designed the university Senate House.
7. Gonville and Caius College
Caius is pronounced ‘Keys’ after Dr John Keys who refounded the college in the mid-16th century. Keys erected three famous gates to symbolise the ideal student’s progress through university life: the Gate of Humility (now rebuilt in the Master’s Garden), the Gate of Virtue, and finally the exuberant Gate of Honour with its miniature classical portico, dome and sundials.
8. Great St Mary’s Church
Great St Mary’s was for many years the centre of university administration and ceremony. Degrees were conferred here until the Senate House was completed in 1730. A disc at the base of the west tower marks the official centre of Cambridge.
Cambridge is 50 miles north of London, off Junction 11 of the M11. Trains run from London King’s Cross and Liverpool Street
Cambridge Tourist Information Centre, Wheeler Street, Cambridge CB2 3QB
Tel 0871 226 8006
Two-hour walking tours of Cambridge leave from the information centre seven days a week.
Fitzwilliam Museum Tel 01223 322900 www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk
Choral evensong is held in King’s College Chapel 5.30pm Mon–Sat, 3.30pm Sunday, term times.
Tel 01223 331250 www.kings.cam.ac.uk/chapel/services
Please check opening times and admission prices before making a special journey.