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Queen Katherine Parr’s role in founding Trinity is ‘romantic fiction’

Trinity alumnus and Professor of Reformation History at Cambridge, Richard Rex, has debunked the popular belief that Queen Katherine Parr played a significant role in the foundation of Trinity College by her husband King Henry VIII in 1546.

Statute of King Henry VIII above Great Gate

Katherine was well known for her interest in education and as a patron of intellectuals and scholars. She was the last of Henry’s six wives.

Generations of historians have argued that Trinity College was founded following the intervention of the Queen on behalf of Cambridge Colleges who feared they would lose their income or be closed down because of the Chantries Act in 1545.

The Act gave the King power to take over religious foundations, colleges, free chapels, chantries (a monument or chapel in a person’s memory) and hospitals.

Professor Richard Rex

Professor Rex’s research, published in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, shows that many powerful people at court helped to defend the University from the potential threat posed by the king. Crucially he claims that Henry had already decided to establish Trinity before the University lobbied Katherine Parr. Professor Rex said

Katherine Parr was undoubtedly a patron of learning and in particular of the ‘new learning’ of the Protestant Reformation. But the idea that she had a crucial role in the foundation of Trinity is romantic fiction with only the slenderest basis in the historical record.

In response to a letter from leading University officials asking for support, Queen Katherine’s reply of 26 February 1546, provided reassurance that the King,  ‘being such a patron to good learning doth tender [ie favour] you so much that he will rather advance learning and erect new occasion thereof than to confound those your ancient and godly institutions.’

Trinity College was formed by the amalgamation of the two institutions of Michaelhouse and King’s Hall later in 1546. Trinity’s sister College – Christ Church, Oxford – was founded in the same year.

Despite the appeal to many that a historic bastion of masculinity in part owed its foundation to a woman, Professor Rex believes that Henry VIII always intended to establish new Colleges.

The fact that Cambridge and Oxford were, from the start, set apart from the rest of the country in the implementation of the Chantries Act is just one among several indications that Henry VIII already had something special in mind for them.

Henry’s plan to establish lasting memorials to himself in both universities had probably been in his mind since mid-1545 at the latest. The ‘Cambridge version’ of events appears to have been an academic flight of fancy. Our lobbying efforts weren’t quite as influential as we once liked to imagine.

The popular idea of Queen Katherine’s influence originated in the late nineteenth century in a work by J B Mullinger, historian and librarian of St John’s College  Cambridge and was repeated by historians including Trinity’s Master, G M Trevelyan, in Trinity College: an Historical Sketch, which was published in 1943.

As recently as 2013, Visiting Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts, Ulyana Gumeniuk, painted Katherine Parr. This portrait hangs in Hall. Katherine’s presumed role was recognised during the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the admission of women to Trinity in 2019.

Katherine Parr by Ulyana Gumeniuk

While Queen Katherine is now no longer a key ally of the College, Trinity continues to recognise Henry VIII’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, who were benefactors of the Chapel. Until, that is, another historian reassesses the evidence!


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