The Universities of Oxford & Cambridge: Jesus College, Cambridge – I. by Arthur Oswald


On account of its position, aloof from the town of Cambridge and standing well back from its own lane, Jesus College has about it an air of isolation from the rest of the University. In Henry VII’s charter of foundation it is said to be “near Cambridge,” being, in fact, outside the King’s Ditch, which, at one time, formed the boundary of the town to the east. When Queen Elizabeth visited the University in 1564 she did not go to Jesus “because it stood far out of the way,” and it is to be feared that many visitors to Cambridge – besides Americans – still imitate her example, though, perhaps, with some slight prickings of conscience at the omission. James I, however, felt none of these objections to its site, since it lay conveniently on the road to Newmarket. Twice in 1615 he stopped to visit the College and ” commended it,” as Fuller relates, “for the situation thereof as most collegiate, retired from the town and in a meditating posture alone by itself” and there is his well known saying, that if he had the choice of all the colleges in Cambridge, he would “pray at King’s, dine at Trinity and study and sleep at Jesus.”

Fig 1. The “chimney” and entrance gates in Jesus Lane. The gate piers erected by Robert Grumbold, 1703.

This feeling of ancient seclusion is preserved to-day by the great open spaces of Butts Green, Jesus Green and Midsummer Common, which shield the College on three sides from the menace of Cambridge suburbs ranged round in solid phalanx as far as Barnwell and Chesterton. And besides this outer zone of defences there is a covering breastwork of foliage formed by the trees which line the Close, so that the College in summer appears indeed “embowered in its own green leaves.” Fig 4, taken from the steeple of All Saints’ Church, gives a good idea of its park-like situation.

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For three hundred and fifty years before its foundation a Benedictine nunnery occupied this secluded site, and it has left a lasting impress on the character of the present buildings. The cruciform chapel, the square tower set over the crossing, the narrow approach to the gate-house between high walls, and the disposition of the buildings themselves round a cloister on the north side of the church are all features suggesting a monastic origin. No other Oxford or Cambridge college is laid out in this way, in spite of what appears the obvious suitability of the monastic plan for collegiate purposes. Each University, on the other hand, developed its own separate system, and that adopted at Cambridge, best seen at Queens’ and St. John’s, is the courtyard arrangement of the mediaeval house, more regularly and logically planned.

Fig 2. The gate-house.

The history of the nunnery will be treated in more detail next week, when the college chapel, the former church of the nunnery is described. Here it will be sufficient to say, that it was founded early in the reign of Stephen, that it came to be called the nunnery of St. Radegund, and that its first charter seems to have been given by Nigellus, Bishop of Ely from 1133 to 1169. This last fact is important for its bearing on the subsequent history of the nunnery, for it was by virtue of this grant that John Alcock, when he was appointed to the See in 1486, claimed the right of interfering in the nuns’ affairs. About the middle of the fifteenth century the community had fallen on evil days. Fuller attributes its decline to the growing importance of the University and the inability of the nuns to resist the attractions of the young men living so close to their house. Scandals followed, and the nunnery fell into debt and disrepute. In 1478 the prioress had to confess that they were without money “for our pore lyffing,” so much so that they were unable to pay their butcher’s bills. In spite of attempts at reform in 1487, when Alcock appointed a new prioress, the nunnery remained in the same condition, and when he visited it a second time, eight years later, he found the buildings dilapidated and only two nuns remaining, one of whom is described as infamis and the other as professed elsewhere. Alcock accordingly decided to obtain permission to suppress the nunnery and found a college in its place.

Fig 3. The entrance court.

In the letters patent granted Henry VII, June 12th, 1496, the new foundation is entitled “the College of the Blessed Mary the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist, and the glorious Virgin, Saint Radegund.” Alcock added the name of his patron saint to the original dedication of the nunnery. The title, Jesus College, however, is nowhere mentioned in the document. But, in spite of the omission, it seems clear that it was Alcock’s original intention that it should be so called. The chapel was rededicated to the Name of Jesus, a cult then obtaining wide popularity, and almost from the first the College must have been called by its present name, since, even in 1497, the road running along its south wall was known as Jesus Lane, and the words ” commonly called Jesus College” are added to the original title in very early documents.

Fig 4. Bird’s eye view of the college from the steeple of All Saints’ Church.

At this point some consideration is due of the man who founded the College and left everywhere on its buildings the stamp of his personality, outwardly figured in his rebus, a cock standing on a globe. John Alcock was a native of Beverley in Yorkshire, which was also the birthplace of the illustrious Fisher. His Yorkshire upbringing made him, in after years, appoint a native of his own county, William Chubbes, as the first Master of his College. On entering the Church he obtained rapid preferment, being made successively Bishop of Rochester and Worcester before being translated to Ely. The character of the man has been left us by John Bale, author of the Illustres Britanniae Scriptores, who was himself a member of the College. He describes him as “given from his childhood to learning and religion and so growing from virtue to virtue that no one in England was more reputed for his holiness.” This is a real tribute to his piety coming from the “bilious Bale,” who, in Fuller’s words, was “very sparing in praising persons of that age.” The portrait in the hall (Fig 12), in which the bishop is represented kneeling before a desk in an attitude of devotion, certainly bears out Bale’s statement. Though painted as late as 1598, its style shows it to be a copy of an older and possibly contemporary likeness. The ascetic character of the face agrees well with Fuller’s quaint saying that “he fared very sparingly.”

Fig 5. An old wall in the Fellows’ Garden.

Alcock evidently possessed practical and administrative abilities, since he was more than once Lord Chancellor and was several times employed on political missions. Like his greater contemporaries, Rotherham of York, Fisher of Rochester and Fox of Winchester, he was both prelate and statesman. Though absorbed for the most part in affairs of State, these men tried at the same time to reform the Church of their day by founding schools and colleges. Towards the end of Edward IV’s reign Rotherham, when Bishop of Lincoln, refounded Lincoln College, Oxford; Fisher was responsible for the sister foundations of Christ’s (1505) and St. John’s (1511) at Cambridge; and Fox, in 1512, for that of Corpus Christi, Oxford. An earls’ revival of learning, associated with the names of Colet and Erasmus, was on the way, but it did not touch Cambridge till after Alcock’s time. His foundation was in the old hide-bound mediaeval tradition. Cranmer, who entered the College in 1503 as a boy of fourteen, “was nursled,” according to his contemporary biographer, “in the grossest kind of studies” until he was twenty-two years of age, when he first began to be influenced by the new learning. Up till then the course of studies to be followed was along the dusty, well trodden paths of the trivium and the quadrivium.

Fig 6. The 1638 range.

The charter of foundation provided for a Master, six Fellows (socii) and “a certain number” of boys (pueri) to be trained in grammar. No mention is made of discipuli, or undergraduates. The boys were to be under fourteen years of age at admission, and they had a schoolmaster and usher of their own. The inclusion of a grammar school within the walls of a college was an unusual and distinctly reactionary idea. Its object was mainly to provide acolytes and choristers for the chapel services. In this respect the institution was similar to the Jesus College founded by Rotherham, some years earlier, for a provost, three fellows and six choristers at his native town in Yorkshire. The fact that the two bishops were close friends, taken together with the similarity of dedication, strongly suggests that Alcock owed the model of his foundation to Rotherham. The school was situated in the building west of the gate-house (Fig 3), and the schoolmaster had a room in the tower. After the Reformation, its raison d’être gone, a school within the College became an anomaly, and in 1570 it came to an end.

Fig 7. Chimneys in the 1638 range. Sharp angular projections breaking up the flat wall surface.

As soon as he had obtained the letters patent – or, according to Sherman, who wrote a history of the College in the seventeenth century, even before they had been granted – Alcock set about remodelling the nunnery buildings. Bishop West, some twenty years after Alcock’s death, states in the preamble to his revised statutes that he found the College pene ab ipsis fundamentis noviter oedificatum et constructum. It is clear, however, that Alcock incorporated as far as possible the walls of the old nunnery, merely encasing them in brick and heightening them. His work is, on the whole, plain in character and dictated by practical considerations of convenience and economising space. The area of the nuns’ cloister was small, so small that it can now easily be roofed over for a May Week ball, but the retention of a covered walk connecting all the parts of the College was an obvious asset. It needed, however, great ingenuity to fit all the requisite parts into such narrow limits. Alcock effected this by a number of expedients. He destroyed the aisles of the church, thus enlarging the court on its south side. The whole of the nave, with the exception of the three eastern bays, he converted into chambers. The nuns’ refectory was raised above cellars on the north side of the court. He retained this position for the hill, so that the usual arrangement of screens does not exist at Jesus. The prioress’s rooms, in the west range adjoining the nave, were converted into the Master’s lodge, and additional rooms were built for him westward to the gate-house (Fig 4). This left most of the west range and the east range north of the transept for chambers. In order to provide additional accommodation the walls were carried up to the full height of those of the chapel, so that it was possible to place the library on the third floor of the west range directly under the roof (Fig 3). The effect of low roofs and a continuous parapet in place of battlements is to give the buildings a marked horizontal character, which has been maintained in all subsequent additions to the College. The brick used is mostly of a warm red colour, though in the parapet of the gate-house it is diapered in yellow.

Fig 8. Oriel for the Master to view the proceedings in the hall.

Once started, the main work of transformation probably proceeded quickly. Alcock died on October 1st, 1500, but he would have seen the buildings of the cloister court and, probably, the gate-house completed. The range to the west of the gate-house, originally the grammar school (Fig 3), was not built for some years. Sherman records that contributions to its erection were made by Lady Catherine Bray, widow of Sir Reginald Bray, the reputed architect of Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey and of St. George’s, Windsor. As Sir Reginald died in 1503 and his widow in 1507, its erection must fall between those two dates. Work on the cloister was still going on as late as 1511, as we know from the will of Sir John Rysley, dated September 13th of that year:

“Item I bequeth towards the making of the cloyster and glasyng of the werke by me made at Jesus College in Cambridge, if I performe it not in my life. clxli.”

The glazing refers to the windows in the antechapel or nave of the church, which was re-built at his expense. We may conclude that these two works marked the completion of Alcock’s scheme.

Fig 9. Interior of the hall.

It is an interesting question to what extent we may attribute the design of the buildings to Alcock himself. He was for some time Comptroller of the King’s Works under Henry VII, and would have had considerable architectural experience in that capacity. When Bishop of Worcester he built churches at Westbury and Little Malvern. At Ely he added two great towers to the Bishop’s Palace, and the elaborate chantry chapel at the east end of the north choir aisle of the cathedral, where he lies buried, was erected at his direction during his own lifetime. There is a marked similarity between his work here and that in the Bishop’s Palace at Ely, particularly in the treatment of the parapet and the fenestration, so that it is at least likely that the planning and general appearance of the College owe a good deal of their character to him. The actual supervision of the work was entrusted to William Plumme, one of the original Fellows, who, by a special Grace of the Senate, was excused from attending “congregations, processions and funerals so long as he was engaged in the building of Jesus College.”

Fig 10. Doorway and passage leading to the cloister. Arms of the See of Ely and of Bishop Alcock.

The gate-house (Fig 2) is the only part of A!cock’s work whose architectural character is much emphasised. Seen, however, from the end of “the Chimney” (Fig 1), as the narrow, walled approach to the College is popularly called, it appears uncomfortably cramped between the high shoulders of the buildings flanking it, as if, in trying to force a way through, it had been held and wedged by its thickset neighbours. Originally, these flanking ranges were only of two storeys, with steep-pitched roofs. The addition of a third in the eighteenth century has detracted from the height and dignity of the tower. It maintains a certain independence, however, by having its string-courses at lower level . No doubt, it was built before the buildings on either side of it, since its walls grow narrower at each horizontal stage. The graceful scheme of decoration is in the form of a memorial to the founder. His arms and the arms of his See are carved over the entrance. A hood-mould of tenuous, ogee outline carries the eye upwards to a niche containing his statue, while the crockets have the appearance of hands delicately raised to support it. Over the canopy is the niche is his rebus. The carving is of a thread-like delicacy, and seems almost to have been spun on to the flat wall surface. The general scheme was afterwards imitated – though much more elaborately – in the gateways of Christ’s and St. John’s, where, however, the addition of angle turrets gives strength and relief to the design.

The range which forms the third side of the entrance court, opposite the gate-house, was added in 1638. The cost was largely defrayed by subscribers, principal among whom was Christopher, Lord Hatton, a notable Cavalier and former member of the College, who contributed £100 and granted the free use of his quarries at Weldon for what stone was required. From its design and the beautiful quality of the brick, this building forms one of the most attractive portions of the College. The character of Alcock’s work has been scrupulously followed, but on the northward garden front there is a modification in the design, the surface of the wall being splayed outwards at intervals to form angular projections for chimneys (Figs 6 and 7). The clear-cut definition of their vertical lines gives character to the whole façade, breaking up the flat wall surface and providing a pleasant contrast by the sharp edges of their quoins against the velvet texture of the brick background.

Fig 11. Fifteenth century doorways at the north-west angle of the cloister.

The hall (Fig 9) is approached by a modern flight of stairs leading from the passage shown on the right of Fig 11. Its raised position over the buttery and cellars is unique in the planning of Cambridge colleges, although the arrangement has been followed in the nineteenth century halls of Corpus and Caius. The core of the walls is, probably, that of the nuns’ refectory. The interior is well proportioned and distinguished by a fine open timber roof. Its arched braces, well defined and carried down on to stone corbels, have the effect of binding it securely to its walls. The oriel – a graceful piece of Perpendicular work – is on the north side of the hall instead of looking into the court, where its projection would have interfered with the cloister. High up in the west wall is another miniature oriel with Alcock’s mitre cared as a supporter (Fig 8). This charming feature served as a “spy-hole” so that the Master could overlook proceedings in hall, although, in order to make use of it, he would have had to walk the length of the library, which separates the hall from the lodge. The screen and panelling were set up in 1703, when the open fireplace next the oriel was concealed. The audit-book for that year records the payment:

“To Mr. Grumbald for ye Peers and ye Hall 79. 16 .05.”

This was the Robert Grumbald, or Grumbold, whose work at Clare College has already been described and illustrated in COUNTRY LIFE. The “Peers” mentioned are those of the entrance gate (Fig 1), which Grumbold designed. The name of the smith, however, who worked the fine

wrought-iron gates is not known. Grumbold’s work in the hall was,

probably, confined to paving it with freestone. He was a master mason

and there is no recorded instance of his working in wood. The

wainscoting is, probably, to be referred to one of the Austens,

Cornelius or John, both of whom were often associated with Grumbold in doing joinery work. The screen behind the high table is a clean and

elegant piece of designing. The temptation to overstress the central

feature is avoided, and the fluted pilasters are merely used as supports

for an elaborate representation of the Royal arms. This is a most

spirited piece of carving rounded off with baroque flourishes at the

base. Mr. T. H. Lyon is responsible for the tasteful colouring in deep

chocolate and gold.

Fig 12. John Alcock, founder, Bishop of Ely 1486-1500. Painted in 1598. A copy of an older portrait.

On the walls there are several interesting portraits. The founder, in the centre of the cast wall, is flanked by contemporary portraits of Henry VIII and Cranmer (Fig 9). From the north wall look down the two great literary men the College has produced, Laurence Sterne and S. T. Coleridge. Sterne, painted by Allan Ramsay, is shown as a young parson, trim and smiling. Facing him on the other side is the portrait he presented of his great-grandfather, Richard Sterne, who was Master when the Civil War broke out, and suffered arrest and imprisonment at the hands of Cromwell. After his reinstatement at the Restoration he became first Bishop of Carlisle and then Archbishop of York. A fine Reynolds portrait of a later Master, Dr. Philip Yonge, who was also raised to the episcopal bench, is preserved in the Lodge (Fig 13). It is an admirable study of a comfortable eighteenth century divine in his powdered wig and ample lawn sleeves.

Fig 13. Portrait of Dr. Philip Yonge, by Reynolds. Master 1752-58 and Bishop of Norwich 1761-83.

In the course of the eighteenth century various alterations to the buildings were made, mostly not for the better. The square-headed windows in the cloister were replaced by the present rather jejune “Gothic” arches, much of the entrance and cloister courts was re-faced in yellow brick, and Alcock’s doorway (Fig 10) was removed from its original position close to the angle of the court, so as to be nearer the centre of the range. It was probably at this time that a great walnut tree was cut down, which stood in the middle of the court and was long associated in College tradition with the memory of Sterne. It is mentioned in the College accounts as early as 1592:

“Item for making ye rayle about ye walnutt tree ijs,”

and in 1710 it measured 96ft. across. Sterne used to study under its shade with his friend John Hall, the Eugenius of Tristram Shandy, one of them one day making the rhyme:

“This should be the Tree of Knowledge
As it stands in so very wise a Colledge.”

Fig 14. The new pavilion. Designed by Mr. Morley Horder.


Several additions were made to the buildings in the nineteenth century. In 1822 the range forming the east side of the cloister was extended northwards, the work being carried out, without the aid of an architect, by a local builder, who was ordered to copy the adjoining range, and did so obediently in white brick. With the erection of the Waterhouse and Carpenter buildings in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties the College lost much of that “inward, meditating aspect” that Fuller remarked on. The solid Carpenter block of uncompromisingly red brick (seen on the right of Fig 4) was built during the first great period of Jesus rowing, when the boat was head of the river for eleven years in succession. Its position, facing east, seems to symbolise a change of front outwards, in the direction of the boathouses. The large expanse of the Close, behind the College, has provided playing fields adjoining its very walls. A hundred years ago these fields, in the words of the Cambridge Portfolio, served as “a pleasant walk conducive to friendly chat and wholesome meditation,” but even then they sometimes presented “a more animated appearance,” when “a match at cricket” would be coming off between the Jesus Cricket Club and some other college. There is mention, too, of “the distant tent, to which in time the scene of action is removed,” and “where the cup for which Jesus College is renowned makes its hospitable rounds.” Since 1924 the “distant tent” has been replaced by the friendly pavilion designed by Mr. Morley Horder (Fig 14), which is the latest outward addition to the College. In the near future a further range of buildings, for which Mr. Morley Horder has furnished designs, is to be erected east of the chapel, forming a south range to the new chapel court.

Photographs by Country Life.
All images are available for purchase from the Country Life Picture Library.