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Christ’s College, Cambridge

A Brief Guide to Christ’s College Old Library

Welcome to Christ’s College Old Library The story of Christ’s College actually begins on the site now occupied by King’s College Chapel. It was there, in 1436, that the London parish priest William Byngham first established his College, God’s-house. Shortly after receiving its royal licence from Henry VI in 1439, God’s-house was required to move to its present site, where it was subsequently re-founded as Christ’s College in 1505 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of the Tudor dynasty. From the time of its re-foundation in 1505, Christ’s College has possessed a Library. Over the years, its large and valuable holdings have expanded, primarily through the bequests of members and benefactors. Lady Margaret was the first to leave books to the College, but many others have followed her example in a proud record of nearly five centuries’ donations. Thanks to such generosity, the Old Library is now home to some 50,000 rare printed books and manuscripts covering a wide variety of languages, historical periods, and subject areas. A vital part of the remarkable heritage of the College, it remains a precious academic resource, serving the needs of the worldwide scholarly community. Christ’s College Library, St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge. CB2 3BU. Email: Special Collections Blog: Twitter: @ChristsLibrary

History of the Library The Library was originally housed, and in part still is, in one of the oldest sections of the College. Situated on the first floor of the College’s western range, between the Great Gate and the south-west corner of First Court, it occupied a space behind the five close-set, two-light windows represented on Loggan’s 1690 engraving of the College, shown below. Original location of Christ’s College Old Library

Engraving of Christ’s College c.1690 from David Loggan, Cantabrigia illustrata (Cambridge, 1690)

As with many libraries of this period, the books in Christ’s College Library would have been placed with their spines inwards, and chained to the cases, an arrangement attested by an order of 1589-90 authorising expenditure of £3 for ‘chaynes and letheryinge of Mr Laughton’s books in the librarie’. At that time, the Library was placed in charge of a scholar, who was endowed with a stipend amounting to one shilling and eightpence for his services. The Library itself, however, remained the sole preserve of the Master and Fellows, with a penalty of two pounds being incurred by any undergraduate who dared to enter. During the centuries which followed, the flow of donations and bequests of books to the Library quickened, to the extent that a collection which was reckoned to have numbered around six or seven hundred volumes in 1700, had swelled to approximately four thousand by the opening decades of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, the pressures of space had become acute, and, with little sign of benefactions ceasing, in 1893 the College resolved that a new Library should be built to house its expanding collections. The result of that decision is, substantially, what exists to this day.

The architect chosen to undertake the project was George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907), the leading proponent of Gothic Revivalism in the latenineteenth century. The College’s historian, John Peile, reports that some £3200 was subscribed by past and present Masters and Fellows of Christ’s, and work began in 1895 under Messrs. Kett and Rattee. It was finally completed in 1897 at a total cost of £6275 5s. 8d. Under Bodley’s design, the College’s western range was extended southwards to its present position abutting Christ’s Lane, with the new Library—properly known as the Bodley Library, in honour of the architect—likewise extending across the newly-enlarged first floor. George Frederick Bodley (1827-1907)

The new space, approximately 25 metres in length, thus straddled old and new, with the two bays on either side of the double doors at the northern end occupying part of the site upon which the original Library had stood from the sixteenth century. Bodley introduced two oriel windows on the west side, and one at the southern end facing Christ’s Lane. A handsome bay window was fitted on the eastern side, overlooking Bath Court, where, in 1974, the new undergraduate Library was constructed. The traditional roof is said to have been exactly reproduced, and the four original midseventeenth-century wooden bookcases which were still extant in the 1890s were used as the model upon which the others were constructed. Commenting on the Bodley Library in the 1950s, the leading architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, praised it as ‘a job done exemplarily tactfully’.

Christ’s College Old Library shortly after the completion of G.F. Bodley’s extension, c.1900. [Image reproduced from J. Peile, Christ’s College (London, 1900), 266.]

The Collections A Library is, of course, more than just a building. Above all, it is the collection of books which it contains. Christ’s Old Library is home to over 50,000 items dating from the 11th to the 20th centuries, and besides being well-stocked in works on theology, classical literature, history, and law so characteristic of all Cambridge Colleges, it also possesses a number of unique collections associated with particularly famous or generous past members. Arguably Christ’s most renowned alumnus, John Milton (1608-74) has been honoured at his College by the systematic acquisition, over several centuries, of numerous valuable and rare editions of his works (including six first editions of Paradise lost), and of much secondary scholarship pertaining to him.

John Milton (1608-74)

Christ’s other leading son, naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82), is also commemorated in the Old Library. In addition to a large collection of his own works, of which many are first editions, there is a fascinating run of letters written to his cousin William Darwin Fox, also a student at Christ’s in the late 1820s. One such letter, in which Charles Darwin talks of his “snug and comfortable” College rooms, is framed and hangs at the end of one of the Old Library’s bookcases. Charles Darwin (1809-82)

Upon his death in 1878, Christ’s Fellow and Rector of Little Canfield, Charles Lesingham Smith (1806-78), bequeathed his valuable collection of over 900 early books on mathematics and astronomy, as well as a portrait bust, sculpted by the American Hiram Powers. His extensive art collection was left to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Charles Lesingham Smith (1806-78)

The Latin inscription below the large oriel window at the southern end of the Library memorialises the important bequest of William Robertson Smith (184694), Fellow from 1885, and Adams Professor of Arabic from 1889 until his death in 1894. A Christ’s contemporary commented of Robertson Smith that ‘No man of greater intellectual power...ever lived within the walls of the College’. The books he left to Christ’s, comprising works in Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic, are located in the bays immediately surrounding this wooden plaque to his honour, and remain an important source for Oriental scholarship.

William Robertson Smith (1846-94)

More recently, thanks to a major donation in 1950 by W.H.D. Rouse (1863-1950), Fellow in Classics from 1888 to 1894, and subsequently Headmaster of the Perse School in Cambridge, the Old Library possesses a large collection of books on Indian studies, including many works in Sanskrit and Pali. A passionate philologist, Rouse also donated a considerable number of Russian and modern Greek texts.

W.H.D. Rouse (1863-1950)

Items of Interest In addition to the books themselves, there are various other diverse and interesting items on display in the Old Library. Portraits Amongst the various framed images adorning the ends of the Old Library’s bookcases are portraits of some of the most prominent figures in the College’s history, including Lady Margaret Beaufort, the martyred Bishop of Rochester John Fisher (1469-1535), the theologian and moralist William Paley (1743-1805), and, of course, Milton and Darwin. Slightly less familiar Christ’s alumni, such as the former Master Samuel Bolton (1605-54), the Puritan divine William Perkins (1558-1602) and the Victorian poet Charles Stuart Calverley (1831-84), are also featured, and so too significant benefactors to the Old Library, including the late-nineteenth century archaeologist Harry Mengden Scarth (1814-90), and the classicist John Archibald Sharkey (1849-1906). The large, imposing painting at the south end of the Library is of John Kaye (1783-1853), Master of the College, 1814-30.

John Kaye (1783-1853)

William Paley (1743-1805)

Objects The striking sculpture which is located in one of the southern bays of the Library was constructed by the awardwinning artist Sir Anthony Alfred Caro (1924-2013), and is entitled Table Piece Y-79. Having graduated with a degree in engineering from Christ’s, Caro worked as an assistant to Henry Moore during the 1950s, before honing his own unique style based upon welding or bolting together collections of prefabricated material. Table Piece Y-79, Table Piece Y-79 by Sir Anthony Alfred Caro (1924-2013) which was presented to the College by Caro in 1986-7, is made of waxed steel. In the bay opposite sits the great seal of Elizabeth II, which was presented to Alexander Andrew Mackay Irvine (1940-) upon his elevation to the peerage as Baron Irvine of Lairg in 1987. An alumnus of Law at Christ’s, Baron Irvine served as Lord Chancellor under the Labour Government, 1997-2003.

Together with our rich bibliographic collections relating to John Milton, the Old Library also houses a spectacular mask which was used in a 2008 College production of the great poet’s play Comus (1634), performed as part of the celebrations held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth. Mask used in the 2008 College production of Milton’s Comus (1634)

Of the two busts on display in the Library’s central bays, the ubiquitous Milton forms the subject of one; the other honours Peter Fraser (1773-1852), a former Fellow and the Rector of Kegworth from 1831, who bequeathed over 3,500 books to the Library upon his death in 1852.

Peter Fraser (1773-1852)

At the northern end of the Old Library lies a plastercast of the tomb of Lady Margaret Beaufort, foundress of the College. The original bronze effigy from which this cast was taken is situated in Westminster Abbey, and was the work of the Florentine sculptor Pietro Torrigiano (14721528). Notice, too, in the plasterwork ceiling above, the numerous large embossed roses, the famous heraldic symbol of Lady Margaret. Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509)

Window The stained glass of the great bay window at the southern end of the Library is dedicated to William Walter Skeat (1835-1912), Fellow from 1860, and Elworth and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1878. The rather Chaucerian imagery is no doubt testament to his pioneering contributions to the study of early English language and literature. Further Reading C.P. Courtney, ‘The Printed Books and Manuscripts in the Old Library’, Christ’s College Magazine, 231 (2006) J. Peile, Christ’s College (London, 1900) J. Peile, Biographical Register of Christ’s College 1505-1905, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1910-13) H. Rackham (ed.), Christ’s College in former days (Cambridge, 1939) D. Reynolds (ed.), Christ’s: a Cambridge college over five centuries (London, 2005)

Memorial stained glass window to William Walter Skeat (1835-1912)

Support the Old Library For more than 500 years, the Old Library’s precious collections have helped to inspire and mould some of the greatest minds that have ever lived. Only by providing for their long-term preservation can we ensure that they continue to enthuse and inform the countless generations to come. If you would like to assist in conserving our splendid collections, why not consider becoming a Friend of the Old Library or sponsoring one of our books?

Friends of the Old Library - annual subscription: £50 / £70 (couple) As a Friend, you will enjoy a wide range of benefits, including  

 

Privileged access to the Old Library and its collections Exclusive invitations to exhibition launch parties (generally two per year) Expert lectures about items in the collections Recognition of your generosity in the ‘Supporters of the Old Library’ list in the College Magazine Regular updates on the fascinating work involved in the custodianship of the Old Library

Sponsor a Book - £100 upwards In addition to the ‘Friends of the Old Library’ scheme, we offer a unique opportunity to ‘Sponsor a Book’ from the Old Library’s collections. From as little as £100, you can choose from a range of books identified by the Library team as requiring urgent conservation, with your money going towards helping to restore them to their former glory. Books may be sponsored by individuals, or on behalf of others as a deeply personal and lasting gift, ideal for marking special occasions. In recognition of your vital support in preserving the Old Library’s collections, a personal book-plate acknowledging your sponsorship will be placed inside your chosen volume.

For further information on becoming a Friend or Sponsoring a Book, please contact the Development Officer, Sarah Proudfoot: Email: Telephone: 01223 761769

A Brief Guide to Christ's College Old Library  

An illustrated insight into the history of the Old Library at Christ's College Cambridge, also known as the Bodley Library. Includes brief i...

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