Clare College Cambridge

College History

Statutes of Clare College

Masters of Clare Past and Present

Clare College is the second oldest of Cambridge’s thirty-one colleges (its foundation having been anticipated, among surviving institutions, only by Peterhouse). It was founded in 1326, and generously endowed a few years later by Lady Elizabeth de Clare (Lady de Burgh), a granddaughter of King Edward I (1272-1307). In 1336 King Edward III (1327-77) granted licence ‘to his cousin Elizabeth de Burgo’ to establish a collegium (the word originally meant ‘a corporation of scholars’, not, as in modern English ‘college’, the buildings in which the scholars were housed); although it was in the first instance referred to unspecifically as ‘the House of the University of Cambridge’, it became known as Clare Hall as early as 1339 (the present simplified title, ‘Clare’, dates from 1856). The original endowment consisted of estates at Great Gransden and Duxford, and provided for the maintenance of a maximum of fifteen ‘Scholars’ (subsequently to be called ‘Fellows’), of whom no more than six were bound strictly by priestly orders.

Provision was also made for ten ‘poor scholars’ (pauperes or ‘students’), who were to be maintained by the college up to the age of twenty. In 1359, a year before her death, Lady Elizabeth de Clare promulgated a set of statutes by which the new college was to be governed. The remarkably enlightened attitude to learning and university education in these statutes has guided the college for nearly seven centuries: ‘the knowledge of letters ... when it hath been found, it sendeth forth its students, who have tasted of its sweetness, fit and proper members in God’s Church and the State, to rise to diverse heights, according to the claim of their deserts.’

The history of Clare in its earliest days in the later fourteenth century is not well recorded (a fire in 1521 destroyed most of the college’s early muniments), and we have little more than a list of names of those who were the college’s Masters, of whom the first was one Walter de Thaxted. During the fifteenth century, however, we know that the college fought successfully to remain independent of the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop of Ely (the independence being eventually settled in 1430 by the so-called ‘Barnwell Process’). In 1439, a generous bequest by William Bingham provided for the maintenance of a chaplain and twenty-four scholars housed in what was called ‘God’s House’ (the location of which lies beneath the present Old Schools); so, within a century or so of its foundation, Clare Hall had begun to grow modestly in size.

In the early sixteenth century, particularly in the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47), the nation was in turmoil as a result of the royally-driven movement to religious reform and rejection of papal control of the Church. Debate in Cambridge was as fierce as anywhere, and from the debate emerged one of the principal leaders of the English Reformation, and one of Clare’s greatest alumni, namely Hugh Latimer (1485-1555), who was elected as a Fellow of Clare in 1510, while still an undergraduate. Latimer was renowned for his blameless life, practical tact and trenchant oratory, and he soon rose to national prominence as a result of his preaching in favour of reform. He became royal chaplain to Henry VIII in 1534 (and to Anne Boleyn) and bishop of Worcester in 1535; he was one of the king’s advisers who supported the dissolution of the monasteries. At the time of the violent counter-reformation under Queen Mary (1553-8), Hugh Latimer refused to recant his protestant beliefs, and, together with Nicholas Ridley (sometime bishop of London), he was burned at the stake in Oxford on 16 October 1555. Although he is known to history as one of the ‘Oxford Martyrs’, he was in fact a Cambridge product and a Fellow of Clare. In any case, his influence on sixteenth-century religious politics was profound.

In spite of the turmoil caused by the Reformation, Clare Hall continued to grow in size and wealth during the sixteenth century. A number of endowments of land at Potton, Everton and Gamlingay allowed for an increase in the number of scholarships, and it soon became evident that the college buildings were inadequate to house the increasing numbers of its fellows and scholars. The present college buildings which surround the ‘Old Court’ were built over a period of seventy-seven years, from the mid-seventeenth-century to the early eighteenth (1638-1715). There is no record of the architect who designed these beautiful buildings, the prospect of which, looking across King’s College lawns, is one of the most famous in England. (Clare tradition has it that the architect was the great Inigo Jones; but this tradition cannot be verified.) The building programme was prompted by the acquisition of land belonging to King’s across the river to the west of the college (Butt’s Close); accordingly the first new buildings to be constructed were the East and South Ranges (1638) and then the bridge (1639-40). The North and West Ranges, including the hall, were built in 1686-8, and the programme was completed with the construction of the Master’s Lodge in 1715. (The present chapel dates from a somewhat later time; its foundation stone was laid in 1763.)

Shortly after the completion of the North Range, accommodation for the Fellows’ Library was planned (1689-90); it was fitted out in something resembling its present form before 1738. The library possesses some thirty-five incunabula (books printed before 1500) and about 400 books printed in England before 1640; and although books continued to be acquired during the course of the eighteenth century, the Fellows’ Library is essentially a fossil of the seventeenth century. The thirty or so medieval manuscripts which the Library possesses are the result of acquisition in post-medieval times (seven manuscripts which belonged to Clare Hall in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are preserved elsewhere, in Oxford and London); most of them were acquired as a result of a bequest by John Heaver (d. 1670).

The majesty of the seventeenth-century buildings was matched, to a remarkable degree, by the distinction of the college’s fellowship at that time, which included John Tillotson, who came up to Clare in 1647 and became a Fellow in 1650; many years later he became archbishop of Canterbury (1691-4). Nicholas Ferrar (1593-1637), a precocious scholar who came into residence at the age of thirteen, was influential in religious circles and a close friend of the poet George Herbert; on the outbreak of the plague in 1625, Ferrar established the Protestant retreat at Little Gidding (Hunts.) which is commemorated in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Abraham Whelock (1593-1653) was Professor of Arabic and University Librarian; he also produced one of the earliest scholarly editions of an Anglo-Saxon text. Lastly, George Ruggle (1575-1621) was a scholar distinguished in Spanish, French and Italian whose play, Ignoramus (1615), an attack on the pedantry of lawyers, was so much admired by King James I that he returned to Cambridge to see it a second time. On his death in 1621, Ruggle bequeathed to Clare the collection of books which forms the core of the present Fellows’ Library.Clare in the eighteenth century is similarly marked by the careers of a number of remarkable men. Samuel Blythe was elected to a Fellowship in 1657; he subsequently became Vice-Chancellor of the University, and Master of Clare from 1678 to 1713. He was perhaps the college’s most generous benefactor after Lady Clare herself; his memory is perpetuated annually in a college feast which still bears his name. William Whiston (1667-1752) was Isaac Newton’s successor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University; and John Moore, sometime bishop of Ely (1707-14), is best known for the large collection of medieval manuscripts which he bequeathed to the University Library. It was also during the eighteenth century that the college numbered among its fellowship its only Poet Laureate: William Whitehead, who held that position - not, it must be said, with great distinction, judging from the subsequent reputation of his poetry - from 1757 to 1785.

During the nineteenth century the academic distinction which the college had attained during the two previous centuries declined noticeably. During the second half of the century the Master was Edward Atkinson (1856-1915), whose tenure of the mastership was one of the longest on record. Various adminstrative changes were made under his aegis. The name of the college was changed from ‘Clare Hall’ to ‘Clare’. The various scholarship funds which the college had received by way of endowment were amalgamated into a single fund in 1861. In 1866 the college choir was established. The college cricket ground (which lay across the river on the site of the present University Library) was improved, so that the college was able to achieve some distinction in that field. By 1870 the college consisted of sixteen fellows and seventy undergraduates.

It was during the twentieth century, particularly in the decades after the Great War, that numbers of students grew substantially, to the point where further accommodation became a necessity. Memorial Court was built during the 1920s to a design of Giles Gilbert Scott and dedicated in 1926. Much later in the century [1986] the Forbes-Mellon library, intended principally for undergraduate use, was constructed in the large and open court of Memorial Court. Through the earlier part of the century, the fellowship regained the academic distinction it had enjoyed in earlier centuries, with such distinguished scholars as the following forming part of the fellowship: T. McK. Hughes (geology), J. Rendel Harris (palaeography), H.M. Chadwick (Anglo-Saxon), A.D. Nock (classics), H.M. Taylor (architectural history), N.G.L. Hammond (classics), Sir Harry Godwin (botany), Lord Baker (engineering), Sir Henry Thirkill (physics), Lord Ashby (natural sciences) and Sir Geoffrey Elton (history). The list could be much extended if it were to include living fellows. In 1966 an endowment from Clare led to the foundation of Clare Hall, designed to be a community of scholars, consisting of both Official and Research Fellows as well as a substantial number of Visiting Fellows; and the first President of Clare Hall (Sir Brian Pippard) as well as several of its founding Fellows were Fellows of Clare at the time of the foundation. A few years later, in 1972, Clare was one of three Cambridge colleges to admit undergraduate women, a change which had a dramatic effect on the nature of the society, particularly in the immediately enhanced academic standing of the college in examination results.

Professor Michael Lapidge
(Fellow of Clare, 1991 - )