Early Years – 1546 to 1642

Many of the University’s customs and unusual terminology can be traced back to the early years of its long history. To better understand the history of Trinity College it is recommended that you refer to the history of the University of Cambridge for some background information.

Henry and his chair leg
Henry and his chair leg

King Henry VIII founded the College in 1546 as one of the very last acts of his life. His interest was in establishing an institution that would produce the future leaders of the reformed church and formed Trinity through the amalgamation of two existing Colleges – King’s Hall and Michaelhouse. King’s Hall had received its charter in 1337 and occupied buildings that are now the northern parts of Trinity’s Great Court. Michaelhouse, founded in 1324 by Hervey de Standon, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Edward II, occupied buildings to the southern parts of Great Court.

Western side of Great Court
Western side of Great Court

From the outset Trinity was a much richer society than King’s Hall and Michaelhouse put together. Their joint endowments amounted to less than a quarter of those of Trinity. Most of this endowment was derived from land and endowments that had belonged to dissolved monasteries, but also included small private estates purchased by the King.One of the most notable gifts made by Henry VIII toTrinity was the convent of the Franciscans or Grey Friars, occupying what is now the site of Sidney Sussex College. The stones of the friary were used in the construction of new buildings of Trinity.

Since then, Trinity has received further benefactions from many members and friends wishing to assist its work in education, learning and research, or to help with the preservation and extension of its buildings. It is now the largest college in the University.

During the First 100 Years

Bishops Hostel gate
Bishops Hostel gate

During the first 100 years, Trinity grew quickly in size and importance. It was much patronised by the prominent families with many leaders of the time receiving their education at Trinity. Sir Edward Coke, Lord Bacon and the Earl of Essex were undergraduates in the late 16th century; in the 17th century, the College supplied six of the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible from among its resident Fellows, and counted among its members the poets George Herbert, John Suckling, Andrew Marvell and John Dryden.

Queen Elizabeth I appointed Thomas Nevile as Master of Trinity in 1593. At that time, the College was, architecturally speaking, merely King’s Hall and Michaelhouse strung together without clear boundaries or structure. From 1593 to 1615, Nevile designed and presided over the architectural development of Trinity to form the basis of what it is today. During his Mastership, Great Court was created using existing structures to form a single coherent space. He replaced the decaying Michaelhouse buildings with the Hall and privately funded the building of Nevile’s Court.

During the Civil War the sympathies of the College were mainly with the Royalists and the aftermath of persecutions resulted in purges that drove out more than 40 Fellows, including Thomas Comber, the first Master of any distinction since Nevile. Even in these unsettled times, the College continued to develop and several members came into residence who were to have an important effect in establishing the College as a home of scholars, scientists and mathematicians. In the new developments in natural science in 17th century Trinity assumed a leadership that it has never lost. It was also during this time that John Ray, a Trinity Fellow, and his pupil Francis Willughby, made great strides in establishing natural history as a science.


Neville's Court, facing the Wren
Neville’s Court, facing the Wren

In 1660, King Charles II was restored to the throne. During the critical period of transition that followed the death of Cromwell, the College was particularly fortunate in its Heads. In those days the Master’s authority was very great but Wilkins, Ferne and Pearson, who occupied the Master’s Lodge in rapid succession during the years 1659 to 1662, were all moderate in temper, and acted with humanity and tact. The ten years of John Pearson’s Mastership were notable for the rapid rise to eminence in the University of the young Isaac Newton. Newton’s whole academic life, from 1661 to 1696, was spent at Trinity, first as an undergraduate and then as a Fellow from 1667. Isaac Barrow later succeeded Pearson as Master. It was Barrow who persuaded his friend Sir Christopher Wren to design the Wren Library (completed in 1695), the finest of the Trinity buildings.

After Barrow’s untimely death in 1677 the College gradually deteriorated, though in the next two decades Newton was doing his greatest work. The number of students declined and discipline grew lax. This was due partly to the lowering of standards used to elect new Fellows and partly the result of the poor leadership qualities of the succession of Masters after Barrow ending with John Montagu.