St John’s College | Attraction Guides | History Hit

St John’s College

Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

Amy Irvine

21 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About St John’s College

St John’s College is one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious colleges in Cambridge University. It was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII.

The full name of the College – ‘The Master, Fellows and Scholars of the College of St John the Evangelist in the University of Cambridge’ – is known more familiarly as St John’s.

History of St John’s College

The site of what is now the College was once home to a monastic house, the ‘Hospital of St John’, since the early 13th century. By the start of the 16th century, this had fallen into disrepair, and Bishop John Fisher, Chancellor of the University and a friend of Lady Margaret Beaufort, persuaded her to build a college in its place.

Although Lady Margaret died in 1509, the foundation of the College went ahead two years later in 1511, thanks to the endeavours of Bishop Fisher who worked to release the necessary funding from her estate. Originally, all the accommodation and facilities were focused around a single court, and by 1545, had 152 Fellows and scholars.

The College gradually expanded, with Second Court built in 1599-1601, and the Old Library added in 1624-8. By the mid-19th century, the College had expanded across the River Cam, with the construction in 1826-31 of its famous Bridge of Sighs to New Court.

The famous Chapel of St John’s College in the first of 11 courts was designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1863-9 (inspired from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris) and constructed between 1866-1869 to replace a smaller, medieval chapel. The tower is 50 metres high, the tallest structure in Cambridge, and can be climbed via a small door on First Court. It contains 15th century glass and numerous paintings and panelling from 1516, salvaged from the old chapel.

During the 20th century, more courts were added on the north side of the College, and further to the west across the river Cam. The refurbished Old Divinity School opened in 2012. Over the centuries, the pattern of studies developed – originally focused on the liberal arts, theology, and biblical languages, St John’s gradually became a centre for studying classics and mathematics, and in the 20th century for other subjects in humanities, medicine and science.

St John’s College has a long-standing rivalry with neighbouring Trinity College, stemming from Henry VIII (Trinity College’s founder) executing Saint John Fisher (who was responsible for the foundation of St. John’s).

St John’s College today

The bridge connecting Third Court to New Court is commonly known as the Bridge of Sighs, and is one of the most photographed buildings in Cambridge. It is a single-span stone bridge with a highly decorative Neo-Gothic covered footwalk over the top, with traceried openings. From the three bay arcade at the East end you can sometimes see rowers from the Boat Club practicing for the famous races on the Cam river.

Famous alumni include Prime Ministers Lord Palmerston and Manmohan Singh of India; equality campaigner William Wilberforce; writers such as William Wordsworth and Douglas Adams; 10 Nobel Prize winners; film and television personalities including Hugh Dennis and Derek Jacobi, and sportspeople such as Rob Andrew to name a few.

Getting to St John’s College

St John’s is a 30 minute walk and 10 minute cycle from Cambridge’s central train station – accessible from London via either Kings Cross or Liverpool Street stations.

Space is limited in the College’s car parks, so if arriving by car, use the public multi-storey car park in Park Street, adjacent to the College. (Take the A1309 Milton Road south at junction 33 of the A14, then follow signs to Cambridge. Once you’ve crossed the River Cam, turn right onto Newmarket Road and then turn onto Jesus Lane, then right into Park Street).

Cambridge also operates a handy ‘Park & Ride’ service – the Madingley Road and Newmarket Road sites’ bus route passes just outside the College.

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