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Quincentenary of the Opening of the College

Our beloved College of St John the Evangelist came into legal being on 9 April 1511 as the result of the expressed intentions of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby, the mother of King Henry VII. Lady Margaret had died in 1509 and it was her loyal counsellor, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who brought her wishes for St John’s to fulfilment. In 2011 the College celebrated the Quincentenary of its foundation.

It was not until 1516, however, that the buildings of First Court – comprising the Great Gate, the Hall, the first Library, residential chambers and the much rebuilt Chapel of the suppressed Augustinian Hospital of St John – were ready for occupation. These buildings can be seen on the view of Cambridge in 1592 by John Hammond, on the front of this service leaflet. (The small court behind was added by the third Master, Nicholas Metcalfe, in 1529–1530.) The early historian of the College, Thomas Baker, wrote that “we are not to imagine, as some have dream’t, that there was any setled Society or School of Learning … whilst the Building was going up, and the noise of Axes and Hammers banish’t more peaceable Studies.” Neither the first Master, Robert Shorton, nor the small handful of early Fellows actually lived here whilst the buildings were under construction, and there were no students.

On 29 July 1516, then, Bishop Fisher came to Cambridge to open the College formally. A lawyer named Thomas Stacy drew up an ‘Act or Instrument of Opening St John’s College’, detailing the events of that day. In “a certain high vaulted building within the College” (most likely the new Hall) Fisher, accompanied by another of Lady Margaret’s executors, Henry Hornby (Master of Peterhouse), opened and read out a licence sealed by King Henry VIII giving permission for the College to be built and opened.

The ‘Act’ also states that the opening was taking place in the fourth year of the reign of Pope Leo X, whose permission for the suppression of the Augustinian Hospital and establishment of the College had also been secured by Fisher from Rome. It is almost certain that Fisher, acting on a licence issued three days earlier by the Bishop of Ely, then proceeded to re-consecrate the Chapel, doubtless with the celebration of Mass. If music was sung, it was quite possibly by Robert Fayrfax who, in 1507, had been paid 6 shillings and 8 pence for “a newe masse” by Lady Margaret, or by William Cornysh, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. Cornysh’s ‘Ave Maria, Mater Dei’ that was sing today appears in the Eton Choirbook, put together c.1490–1502, and it is likely that this beautiful Marian prayer would have been known to a pious woman at the early Tudor Court such as Lady Margaret.

At the opening ceremony in 1516, the College’s second Master, Alan Percy, was admitted to his office, as were thirty-one Fellows. Shortly afterwards they were joined by six students (rising to more than twenty over the next three years) and seven staff. The College’s first Statutes were drawn up and chained to a stall in the Chapel for all to see. These are the events that we remember and celebrate today, exactly five hundred years on.


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