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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.

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.

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

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.


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.

18th Century

King William III delegated the selection of Montagu’s successor to a Commission of Bishops. In order to restore its discipline and standards of learning they sought a strong administrator and great scholar. The Bishops believed this man to be Richard Bentley, who served as Master from 1700 to 1742. Bentley was chosen for his ability as a scholar and for his fearlessness. However, this period was dominated by his uncompromising, confrontational leadership style, which caused division and feuds not only amongst the members of Trinity but also of the University. Although the influence of Newton remained strong, in the middle years of the 18th century Trinity shared something of the torpor that tranquillised many contemporary institutions. The reversal of this trend began during the Mastership of Thomas Postlethwaite who wisely instituted a new system whereby Fellowship candidates sat for a public examination, instead of being privately examined by each elector. This resulted in a marked improvement in the type of Fellow elected and the next 20 years saw a fundamental revival in the life of the College and the inauguration of one of the most fruitful periods of its history.

19th Century

The College had already begun to earn the reputation it was to preserve throughout the 19th century of leading the University in movements of reform to meet the changing needs of the times. It fostered the growth of new subjects with extensive support from its endowments. Among its Fellows, later in this century, were to be found many of the leading scholars and scientists of the day; the geologist Adam Sedgwick, the physiologist Michael Foster, the physicists Clerk Maxwell, and Rayleigh; the English historians Macaulay, Acton, and Maitland and the English theologians F.D. Maurice, Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort. Trinity can also claim its share of 19th century literary figures: Byron, Thackeray, Tennyson, and Fitzgerald were all members of the College.

There was much concern at that time of the temptations laid in the way of the young undergraduates, by the fact that most of them had to live in lodgings outside the gates of Trinity. Christopher Wordsworth (younger brother of the poet William Wordsworth and Master of Trinity from 1820 to 1841) addressed this problem by building New Court in 1823. Further accommodation was provided during the Mastership of William Whewell who presided over the construction of Whewell’s Court.

During the 25 years of Whewell’s Mastership, Trinity went from strength to strength and the life of undergraduates and dons was never more vigorous or more varied. During the 20 years of Whewell’s successor,W.H. Thompson, Trinity stood at the forefront of the reform movement in Cambridge. Great changes took place owing to the parliamentary legislation that altered the Statutes of the University and of the College. These reforms are the basis of the system as it exists today

20th Century to Present

The three decades immediately before the First World War include names as famous as almost any in Trinity’s history. A.N. Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, G.H. Hardy and A.E. Housman, amongst others, earned an international reputation which lent great lustre to the College and acted as a force to attract gifted scholars from all over the world.

The new College Statutes of 1926 made further changes that were important in the domestic life of the College: the Mastership ceased to be a life appointment, the tenure of junior Fellowships became conditional upon research and life tenure of Fellowships became, in general, the reward for long service rather than a privilege acquired with first election.

The post World War II period saw the College overcrowded with undergraduates. One of the most urgent problems to be faced after 1945 was the need for more rooms and there have been few years since then in which new buildings were neither being erected nor planned. Major recent developments include Blue Boar Court and Burrell’s Field which were completed in the 1990s.

There were important changes in the organisation of the College during the 1960s and 70s. In 1975 the College Statutes were altered to allow the admission of women as members of the College. The first woman Fellow was elected in 1977; women graduate students arrived in 1976, and women undergraduates in 1978. The total number of undergraduate students has been steady at around 650 for a long period of time but during the last 20 years there has been a large increase in the number of graduate students to the current figure of 300.

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