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Five hundred years and counting: St John’s celebrates half a millennium of teaching

John Hammond’s map of Cambridge in 1592, showing St John’s.

Half a millennium after it first opened its doors to students, St John’s College is celebrating 500 years of teaching successive generations of the brightest young minds.

The College was actually founded in 1511, using funds provided by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. The original construction work, however, took another five years, and it was not until 29 July, 1516, that the College was officially opened and the first students arrived to be taught by 31 founding academic “Fellows”.

To mark the anniversary of the date when it officially became active as a place of education and learning, the College is holding a special quincentenary service on Friday, 29 July, for its present-day Fellows, students and staff, followed by a buffet lunch. A free public exhibition, which explores the changing life of St John’s over the last 500 years, is also open in the College Library.

The guest of honour at the service will be the Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, whose predecessor, James Stanley (Lady Margaret’s stepson), was instrumental in the College’s foundation in 1511, resulting in an ongoing link between the College and the Diocese.

At the start of the 16th Century, Lady Margaret was encouraged by John Fisher, the Chancellor of the University and Bishop of Rochester, to found a College on the site of the Hospital of St John, a run-down Augustinian monastic house, which stood on part of the modern-day grounds. She agreed to set aside funds for the project, after apparently receiving consent from Stanley, whose approval was needed to turn the Hospital into a place of learning and research for academics and students.

Before work could begin, however, Margaret died, in 1509. Stanley became reluctant to stick to the original agreement, but eventually upheld his end of the bargain having secured substantial compensation and the right to nominate three College Fellows – a privilege which the Bishops of Ely retained until 1860. Today, the Bishop is still the “Visitor” of St John’s – a statutory officer who can help to mediate on certain matters if appealed to by the College Council.

By 1516, Stanley had also died, and John Fisher was the star of the day on 29 July when the College opened. He travelled to Cambridge for a ceremony which involved reading out King Henry VIII’s permission to inaugurate the College, also referring to the permission of Pope Leo X to found it (England still being a Catholic country at the time). Fisher almost certainly also consecrated the College’s old chapel that day, the outline of which can still be seen etched into the grass of its First Court, and where several Masters and Fellows lie buried.

Like other colleges at the time, St John’s was originally a school of theology, designed to send preachers out into the wider country. Unlike some of Cambridge’s older foundations, however, early students also took what were considered more “liberal” subjects, such as Greek, mathematics and medicine.

Many were younger than today’s students, often in their mid-teens, and their living arrangements were also very different. Each Fellow had a group of pupils studying and sleeping in his room, and according to the College Statutes, the rules advised “not having more than two to a bed, unless they be under 14”!

Although living arrangements, and student life in general, have continually changed with the times, some of the College’s earliest principles have stuck. From the very beginning, St John’s tried to support those students best suited to handle the challenges of study at Cambridge regardless of their circumstances. Even in its early years, it provided scholarships for those from low-income families, especially in the north of England, foreshadowing the studentships and other support schemes that it continues to offer today.

The modern-day College has about 580 undergraduates, as well as 300 graduates, who come from all over Britain and across the world to live and learn at St John’s. This means that in any given year, it provides more than 12,000 small group teaching sessions (known as supervisions), as well as about 50 hours of extra academic support per undergraduate.

Over the years, St John’s alumni have gone on to become top academics, Prime Ministers, medics, novelists, actors and entrepreneurs – to name just a few of their chosen callings.

The extensive list of famous “Johnians” includes the Nobel Prize-winners John Cockroft, Allan Cormack, Abdus Salam, Fred Sanger and Paul Dirac; writers such as William Wordsworth, Jennifer Egan and Douglas Adams; actors including Hugh Dennis, Amanda Boyle and Derek Jacobi; and equality campaigners ranging from the slavery abolitionists Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, to Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.

Some of the most famous graduates appear in the Library exhibition, “Opening The Great Gate”, which is open now. The display profiles a famous student from each of the five centuries of teaching, including the photographer and Academy Award-winner Cecil Beaton, and the medical pioneer William Heberden. The exhibition is open to the public from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Further information may be found here

Inset images: St John's as portrayed by the engraver David Loggan in 1690 / Then and now: A student room in 1900 compared with student accommodation in 2016.