A brief history of medieval Trinity Hall

Although it is popularly touted, particularly amongst the punt tour guides, that Trinity Hall was founded primarily to train new priests to replace those who died during the Black Death, but in reality, Bishop Bateman had most likely been planning his foundation before the outbreak of 1349.

Archival document

His application to found a new college was dated January 15th 1350, and it was approved by the Bishop of Ely on January 20th and by the University the following day. The royal licence for the foundation must have predated this. On February 23rd 1350, the King gave permission to the Master, fellows, and scholars of Trinity Hall to acquire houses.

The first piece of property was purchased on November 6th 1350 (and confirmed by royal charter on November 20th) from Simon de Brunne for £300 for land and a house, which formerly housed the monks of Ely studying in Cambridge. Four years later the house called “Draxesentre” was purchased, thus completing the acquisition of land and buildings that would make up Front Court. Soon building work began on the hall and east range of the quadrangle. Permission to build a chapel was granted in 1352, but it is unclear when it was actually built, as it wasn’t consecrated until 1513. Work began on the kitchens and additional chambers in 1374. Once it was finished, the quadrangle was larger than any of its predecessors. The College continued to acquire small parcels of land, and the present size of main site was reached by 1544, save for one small piece of land in the northwest corner purchased in 1769.

Bishop Bateman’s vision for his new college was ambitious. He planned to create a college with more members (a master and 23 fellows and scholars) than any other college in Cambridge at the time. However, when he died suddenly in 1355, he left the college with only a master, 3 fellows, and 3 scholars. Seven fellowships were funded through bequests in the 16th century, but only one fellowship was created between then and 1931. It wasn’t until 1952, 602 years later, that his vision was finally realized.

Foundation statutes
Foundation statutes

Daily life for the medieval students and fellows was very different than it is today. Members were to say the De Trinitate on rising and going to bed, were always to speak Latin, were to dispute 3 times a week on some point of canon or civil law (Mon, Wed, Fri), and were to listen to scripture being read to them during meals. All members of College were to be in Holy Orders or intending to proceed to Orders (and thus all took a vow of celibacy), but only canonists had to proceed all the way through to priesthood. Because of its focus on law, students of Trinity Hall were being trained to go into positions in the Church or the State.

Books were extremely expensive, so students were not allowed to borrow books, unless they needed to take them to their lectures. As stipulated in the foundation statutes, books were never to be taken out of Cambridge and never allowed out at night (except for repairs). The original library, probably built in

1374, was located over the passage between what is now Avery Court and Front Court. The Old Library, as we know it, wasn’t built until the end of the 16th century.

There were originally only five servants (staff): a steward, a baker, a baker’s assistant, a cook, and a cook’s assistant. Fellows and students were expected to take over their own housekeeping responsibilities, but if they had the means, they could hire private servants. According to the statutes of 1354, private servants of fellows must be ‘pacificus, castus, humilis et quiestus.’ (peaceful, chaste, humble, and quiet).

Loggan map 1688
Loggan map 1688

The medieval hall, before it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1740s, had a firepit in the middle of the room and a hole in the ceiling with a cupulo to let out the smoke. There were no doors in the screens between the hall and the kitchen, so it would have been a very cold place. In 1596, an alumnus left money in his will to cover the costs of having a fire burnt in the hall every day for the months of November, December, and January and for doors to be added to the screens. The fellows table was located where it is today, and behind it hung a tapestry that was gifted to the College by Dr Eden.

By the 14th century, Cambridge was a mid-sized market town. Its position on the Cam and multiple crossroads made it particularly well situated for trade. It had several large fairs, including the Stourbridge fair which at its height was the largest in Europe. However even by medieval standards, it was a fairly unpleasant place to be. The streets were unpaved and heaps of dung from farm animals and other refuse was allowed to accumulate. The ditches that allowed for drainage into the river were stagnant and seldom cleared. There were many complaints about the unpleasantness of the town and concerns about the dangers it posed to health. Several royal charters ordered the townspeople to keep the streets and watercourses clean, but the cleanliness of the town remained a problem until 1575.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is estimated that half of the population of Cambridge was wiped out by the Black Death. The social and economic impact of the plague was profound and most likely deepened the already great animosity between the townspeople and the University. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 the violence in Cambridge was so severe that it was one of six towns whose rebels were not pardoned. Many of the University’s and colleges’ earliest records were destroyed during this revolt. Continual outbreaks of plague, and other epidemics, would ravage England for 300 more years.

670 years on I think it is safe to say that life in Cambridge is much better than it was then, even with Covid-19. No matter how bleak things are now, it is some comfort to know that people have survived much worse and the College has weathered many storms.

By Alexandra Browne
College Archivist