Trinity College was founded by the infamous King Henry VIIIFaris Qureshi for Varsity

It’s 1267. The Second Barons’ War, though drawing to its close, continues to plague England. King Henry III arrives on our home turf, hoping to fortify the city and prevent pesky baronial encroachment. To speculate that this explosive arrival disturbed the scholars at the youthful University of Cambridge likely wouldn’t cause the Seeley Library to self-implode. However, it would be rather silly to assert that these 13th century fellow neeks could expect that, 700 years later, students would be pulling a Walter Raleigh – thrusting their gowns onto the ground for the late Queen Elizabeth II to walk on while on a visit to the University.

The long and winding history of royal visits to the University is as abundant with pomp and laughter as it is with chaos and tumult. Let’s begin with the latter, shall we? Hurray for pessimism! Old Harry’s 1267 visit certainly falls into this category. But not for the reasons you may expect.

I needn’t spell it out. War-torn people create all kinds of oddities in an effort to, well, stay alive. Henry, during his Cantabrigian getaway, was no exception. Amid wall-constructing and castle-fortifying, the pious man endowed the town with a brand new “magnum mossatum” (great ditch), served with a side of stinkiness and grime. Truly a blessed gift. Just think of all the cardboard boat races the medieval scholars would now be able to hold!

“16th century Cambridge ditched ditch-bitching and maintained more amicable royal relations”

Sadly, they didn’t have their priorities in order. As Thomas Fuller, a 17th century historian and churchman put it: the ditch “became a great annoy[ance] to the University”. How ungrateful! The reaction to this bestowal was so bitter that it seems to have forced Henry, in a 1268 letter sent to Cambridge’s bailiffs, to vow to “præcipue ut magnum fossatum villæ mundetur” (clean the great ditch of the town). Yet, the ditch continued to be a source of irritation for hundreds of years. In 1574, the vice chancellor of the University, Andrew Perne, lamented the “corruption of the King’s Ditch which goeth through Cambridge” as it was apparently causing “infection”.

Fear not, for 16th century Cambridge ditched ditch-bitching and maintained more amicable royal relations in other cases. For instance, the reaction to Henry VIII’s 1522 state visit to the University, was a far cry from the Tripadvisor-esque negative reviews of Henry III’s mud-fest. Henry’s visit was a less pungent affair. One University member appreciated the kynges beyng heyr and in aduent and att the grett cessacyon, which – in early modern parlance – probably meant they thought the King’s visit was a ‘mad one’ indeed.

Modern day Trumpington Street looks very different to when Henry VIII visited Keira Quirk for Varsity

And they were justified in their positive review of the splendorous occasion. Senior University officials and clerics, such as Hugh Latimer, were meticulously configured while awaiting the King’s arrival on what is now Trumpington Street – with clouds of incense surrounding them. If the King was dissatisfied with these gifts, Latimer also ensured that a “standynge autar” and “candlestycks” were ready for the later Mass well in advance of the visit. Though the ditch-bashing persisted, these carefully chosen and holy gifts make up for it.

“Unlike her papa’s visit, however, the Colleges themselves seemed to have used Elizabeth’s call-in as a competition – which involved them flexing their financial muscles to impress the Queen”

That spirit of largesse didn’t end in 1522, however. In 1564, Elizabeth I streamed down Queens’ Lane during her glorious summer visit to the University. Like her father, she was surrounded by an array of well-ordered University members. Unlike her papa’s visit, however, the Colleges themselves seemed to have used Elizabeth’s call-in as a competition – which involved them flexing their financial muscles to impress the Queen. A volume of verses given to the Queen by the University, now held in the University Library, shows that every College prepared a verse for her. Most are rather pithy. Some colleges, however, put in some extra elbow grease. For example, King’s College paid 12d “for the byndynge of a book of verses in crymysen velvet given to the queen’s grace.”

Another document housed in the UL shows that Christ’s College went the extra mile. After giving an “oracion before her maieste in greeke verses”, it “presented unto her a payer of gloves in remembruance of her grandam the Ladye Margaret [Beaufort] Countesse of Richemonde”, the College’s founder. Cute. I doubt the Queen would have needed gloves in August, but I think the sentiment gives Christ’s the win.

As the centuries rolled on, performing well in this inter-collegiate contest meant meticulously catering to the tastes (quite literally) of each monarch. Charles I’s visit to the University in March 1641 began much like his predecessors’ – with speeches and a warm reception from an array of University officials on the street. However, John Buck, Esquire Bedell to the University, noted that “two masters of arts [from St John’s College] presented his majesty with a banquet”. Of this mammoth culinary creation, Charles could only eat “a little” and “the prince” (who would become Charles II) made a “good store to put in his pocket”. Here, it seems the College had satisfied the appetites of the King and his son, which was no easy feat.

“On occasion, efforts to tailor a royal visit to the monarch’s interests were somewhat overbaked”

On occasion, efforts to tailor a royal visit to the monarch’s interests were somewhat overbaked – an awkward experience for all involved. During Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s visit in July 1847, the Public Orator catered to the Queen’s classical education by delivering a speech in Latin. Regrettably, according to registrary Joseph Romilly, it was “too long for the occasion (lasting nearly an hour) and was frequently interrupted by marks of disapprobation.” If this error doesn’t dissuade you from waffling in your weekly essays, I have naught else to say to you.

Unlike the Public Orator, the students who entertained Queen Elizabeth II on her 1955 state visit to Cambridge executed their stunt in a concise, creative and well-delivered manner. The Times noted that, much like her predecessors, the late Queen was surrounded by a “sea of black gowns” while touring the Colleges, leading the “programme [to unfold] with happy ease.”


Mountain View

A look back at King Charles’ time at Cambridge

It would be a few students, however, who would rise out of this sea and steal the show. Several veterinary students threw their gowns onto the ground for the Queen to walk on, ostensibly in reference to the tale of Sir Walter Raleigh placing his gown on a puddle for Elizabeth I to walk over. Very cool, very cool, but one question remains: why veterinary students, not English or History ones? Whatever the answer, their stunt reflects the rapidly changing demography, academic interests, and dramatic prowess of students at the University over the years.

So, the long and varied history of royal visits to Cambridge and the University naturally reflects the University’s inextricable links to the Crown – for better or for worse. However, from dissing ditches to cumbersome classical speeches, they provide a unique insight into the shifting interests and priorities of the people of our University. While these monarchs may have possessed a dieu-given droit to visit our home turf, how our neeky forebearers responded was in their hands alone.