St John's College, Cambridge

St John's College, an institution known formally as The Master, Fellows and Scholars of the College of St John the Evangelist in the University of Cambridge is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1511. It is geographically the largest college of the University of Cambridge, and the third largest in terms of its membership. One of the richest of all the Oxbridge colleges, St John's has fixed assets of £504,109,000 and an annual income from endowments estimated at £7,000,000. Nine Nobel Prizes have been awarded to members of St John's, and the college has educated six Prime Ministers. The college is also known for its famous choir.


The college was founded on the site of the 13th century Hospital of St John in Cambridge at the suggestion of Saint John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and chaplain to Lady Margaret. However, Lady Margaret died without having mentioned the foundation of St John's in her will, and it was largely the work of Fisher that ensured that the college was founded. He had to obtain the approval of King Henry VIII of England, the Pope through the intermediary Polydore Vergil, and the Bishop of Ely to suppress the religious hospital and convert it to a college. The college received its charter on April 9 1511. Further complications arose in obtaining money from the estate of Lady Margaret to pay for the foundation and it was not until October 22 1512 that a codicil was obtained in the court of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In November 1512 the Court of Chancery allowed Lady Margaret's executors to pay for the foundation of the college from her estates.

Buildings and Grounds

First Court (1511-1520):The first three courts of St John's college are simply called first, second and third court in order of their construction. First Court was converted from the hospital on the foundation of the college, and constructed between 1511 and 1520. Though it has since been gradually changed, the front (east) range is still much as it appeared when first erected in the 16th-century. The south range was refaced between 1772-6 in the Georgian style by the local architect James Essex, as part of an abortive attempt to modernise the entire court in the same fashion. The most dramatic alteration to the original, Tudor court however remains the Victorian ammendment of the north range, which involved the demolition of the original mediaeval chapel and the construction of a new, far larger set of buildings in the 1860s. These included the imposing Chapel, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, which includes in its interior some pieces saved from the original chapel. It is the tallest building in Cambridge, standing six feet taller than the University Library. The alteration of the north range necessitated the restructuring of the connective sections of First Court; another bay window was added in order to enlarge the College's hall, and a new building constructed to the north of Great Gate. Parts of First Court was used as a prison in 1643 during the English Civil War.

The Great Gate (1516):St John's Great Gate is one of the most famous in Cambridge, and follows the standard contemporary pattern employed previously by Christ's College, and later imitated by the Great Gate of the neighbouring Trinity College. With its extensive crenelations, the gate the arms of the foundress Lady Margaret Beaufort, as well as her ensigns, the Red Rose of Lancaster and Portcullis. The College Arms are flanked by curious creatures known as yales, mythical beasts with elephants' tails, antelopes' bodies, goats' heads, and swivelling horns. Above them is a tabernacle containing a socle figure of St John the Evangelist, an Eagle at his feet and symbolic, poisoned chalice in his hands. The doors date from 1665-6, and the fine fan vaulting above the tholobate was built by William Swayne, the master mason of King's College Chapel.St John's Chapel (1866-9):The Chapel of St John's College is entered by the north west-corner of First Court, and was constructed between 1866-9 in order to replace the far smaller, mediaeval chapel which dated back to the 13th-century. When in 1861 the College's administration decided that a new building was needed, Sir George Gilbert Scott was selected as architect. He had recently finished work on a similar project at Exeter College, Oxford, and went about constructing the Chapel of St John's College along similar lines, drawing inspiration from the Church of Saint Chapelle in Paris. The benefactor Henry Hoare offered a downpayment of £3000 to finance the chapel's construction, in addition to which he promised to pay £1000 a year if a tower were added to Scott's original plans, which had included only a diminuitive fleche. Work began, but Mr Hoare's unexpected death in a railway accident left the college without £3000 of his expected benefaction. The tower, based on Pershore Abbey, was thus left without belld, its louvres purely decorative. The Chapel's antechamber contains statues of Margaret Beaufort and John Fisher, the niches around the building commemorating other College benefactors. Inside the building is a stone-vaulted antechapel, at the end of which hangs a 'Deposition of the Cross' by Anton Rafael Mengs, completed around 1777. Freestanding statues and plaques commemorate College benefactors such as James Wood, Master 1815-39, as well as alumni who include William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and William Gilbert.

Second Court (1598-1602):Second Court, built from 1598 to 1602, has been described as 'the finest Tudor court in England'. Built atop the demolished foundations of an earlier, far smaller court, Second Court was begun in 1598 to the plans of Ralph Symons of Westminster, and Gilbert Wigge of Cambridge. Their original architectural drawings are housed in the College's library, and are the oldest surviving plans for an Oxford or Cambridge college building. The court's two Oriel windows are perhaps its most striking features, though the dominating Shrewsbury Tower to the west is undoubtedly the most imposing. This gatehouse, built as a mirror image of the College's Great Gate, contains a statue of the benefactress Mary, Countess of Shrewsbury, added in 1671. Behind the Oriel window of the north range lies the so-called Long Gallery, a promenading room that was, prior to its segmentation, 148 feet long. In this room, the treaty between England and France was signed that established the marriage of King Charles I of England to Queen Henrietta Maria, and in the 1940s, parts of the D-day landings were planned here. Now the Senior Combination Room, but before the 19th century part of the Master's Lodge, the first-floor gallery along the north range has the largest unsupported ceiling in Cambridge. The college has blocked the installation of electrical power sockets and lighting (as well as smoke alarms) in the room, and all meals held after dark are lit by numerous candles.The College Library (1624):The Old Library was built in 1624, largely with funds donated by John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln. It includes a very fine bay window overlooking the River Cam that has the letters ILCS on it, standing for Iohannes Lincolniensis Custos Sigilli, or John of Lincoln, Keeper of the Seal.Third Court (1669-1672):The remaining parts of Third Court were added in 1669 - 1672.Kitchen or Wren Bridge (1696-1712): The other bridge over the river, the Kitchen Bridge (named after the lane it followed the line of, Kitchen Lane), which is to the south of the Bridge of Sighs, was partly based on plans made by Sir Christopher Wren, and is therefore also known as the Wren Bridge.The Bridge of Sighs (1831): Though it bears little resemblance to its namesake in Venice, the bridge connecting Third Court to New Court, originally known as New Bridge, is now commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs. It is one of the most photographed buildings in Cambridge.The New Buildings (1831-1987):The 19th century neo-Gothic New Court, probably one of the most famous buildings in Cambridge, was the first College building on the west side of the river. It was designed by Thomas Rickman and Henry Hutchinson and built between 1826 and 1831. It was built mainly as a result of the need to accommodate the increased numbers of students. Its prominent location (especially when seen from the river) and flamboyant design have led it to be nicknamed the "wedding cake." :New Court connects to the Fisher Building, named after John Fisher; the Cripps Building, named after its benefactor, the Cripps Foundation (see Sir Humphrey Cripps); the School of Pythagoras; and Merton Hall. The Fisher Building was designed by Peter Boston and completed in 1987.The Cripps Building was built in 1966-67 to meet a post-1945 expansion in the numbers of students. It has two courts, and was designed by architects Philip Powell and Hidalgo Moya. The building received many awards, and has become a famous example of later 20th-century architectural style. The School of Pythagoras was built around 1200, predating the foundation of the College (1511). Merton Hall is so called because from 1266 until 1959 both the School of Pythagoras and Merton Hall were property of Merton College, Oxford.


The choir has a tradition of religious music and since the 1670s has sung the daily services in the College Chapel during the University Term. The services follow the cathedral tradition of the Church of England, Evensong being sung during Term six days a week and Sung Eucharist on Sunday mornings. The boys of the choir are all educated at the St John's College School. During university vacations the choir carries out engagements elsewhere. Recent tours have taken it to places including Holland, the USA and France. The choir has made a large number of recordings.

The men of the choir, or choral scholars, also form their own close harmony group, The Gentlemen of St John's. Their repertoire spans the 15th century through to the modern day, and concert tours have taken them to Europe, the USA and Japan. They provide a mixture of classical a capella music and folksongs, as well as covers of recently chart hits and light-hearted entertainment.

College life

The College is on the Backs, the area of College parkland on the banks of the river Cam, providing a particularly beautiful setting. This allows the college to maintain a significant fleet of punts in its purpose-built punt pool behind the Cripps Building.

The School of Pythagoras predates the College proper, and was originally a private house. It is said to be the oldest building continuously in use by a university in Britain. In addition to its Nobel prize winners, St John's is usually placed highly in the Tompkins Table of undergraduate degree results, but has not been in the top ten since 2001.

The 'Red Boys' is the nickname of the 1st XV Men's Rugby Team, and the Red Boy is the name of the red jumper they wear. The 'Red Girls' is the nickname of the 1st Women's Rugby Team. St John's College Men's Rugby Club has won the Division One League title for the last eight years in a row and the cuppers trophy for the last four making it one of the most successful collegiate rugby teams in Cambridge's history. The women's team has also experienced success this year with them securing the inter collegiate cup on the same day that the red boys won the double for the fourth year in a row.

The college rowing club, the Lady Margaret Boat Club (LMBC), was founded in 1825. Despite many gruesome rumours concerning the name of the club, it was merely the most successful of the many boat clubs established in the College in the 19th century. In a similar fashion the traditional rival of the LMBC, the Boat Club of Trinity College, is known as 'First and Third' in a reference to its formation from two original clubs.

Every year the college awards scholarships to a handful of graduate students under the Benefactors' Scholarships Scheme. The scholarships include the Craik Scholarship, the J.C. Hall Scholarship, the Luisa Aldobrandini Studentship Competition, the Paskin Scholarship and the Pelling Scholarship. Competition for these scholarships is very fierce as students from any country reading for any graduate degree—not only members of the college—can apply.

St John's and the abolition of the British slave trade

Several of St John's graduates were deeply involved in the efforts to abolish the British Slave Trade which culminated in the Act of 1807. In particular, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Thomas Gisborne and Thomas Babington were active in the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and other abolitionist efforts.

As part of the commemoration of the bicentenary of the 1807 Act, and as a representative of one of the Ivy League universities offering American historical perspective on the Triangular Trade, President Ruth J. Simmons of Brown University (herself a direct descendant of American slaves) gave a public lecture at St John's College entitled "Hidden in Plain Sight: Slavery and Justice in Rhode Island on February 16 2007. St John's College hosted some of the key events relating to the commemoration, including an academic conference and a Gospel Mass in the College Chapel with the London Adventist Chorale.

May Ball

St John's traditionally holds its annual may ball on the Tuesday of May Week, and it is one of the most sought after balls in Cambridge. In recent years, tickets have only been available to Johnians and their guests. Highlights include an extravagant fireworks display and a variety of musical acts - in 2008 including Dizzee Rascal and Lesley Garrett. (More details on past acts can be seen on the May Ball page).

Famous alumni

See also Alumni of St John's College, Cambridge
See also Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge

Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom


Nobel Prize Winners

Science, mathematics, and technology




External links

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