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Visiting Peterhouse, Cambridge, England: A College, Founded in 1284, at Coe Fen

Updated on October 20, 2020
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Peterhouse, Cambridge
Peterhouse, Cambridge | Source
The rear of Peterhouse, Cambridge, United Kingdom, from Coe Fen
The rear of Peterhouse, Cambridge, United Kingdom, from Coe Fen | Source

Cambridge University's oldest College, known for its Laudian Gothic chapel

In the year 1284, the mists rose from the marshland at Coe Fen, near the Cam River, in Cambridge, England. Adjacent to this fenland, in that year, a College was founded: Peterhouse (1), the University's oldest.

Bear in mind that the universities of Cambridge and Oxford both pre-date the foundation of their first Colleges. (And another thing: no-one founded either of these venerable universities: the operative word about their inception is: they emerged.)

Anyway, the mists still rise from Coe Fen. Peterhouse, the College, still exists also; indeed, it thrives.

While the identity of Oxford's oldest College is in doubt (or, should I say, slightly more accurately, in dispute), no such dispute surrounds the origins of Peterhouse. It is also a small College, by Cambridge standards.

Among its noted buildings are its chapel, in what is known as Laudian Gothic, representing a mixture of Renaissance and Gothic stylistic influences, dating from the 17th century, when Matthew Wren, uncle to Sir Christopher Wren, was Master of the College. (Previously, the College used the neighbouring church of St. Mary-the-Less as its chapel, which is still in use as a parish church.) My impression of Peterhouse Chapel was that it has quite the darkest interior of all the Cambridge or Oxford College chapels that I have visited.

The Hall, off Old Court, beyond the Chapel cloisters, is reckoned with certainty to be the oldest commissioned building for the College, dating from circa 1290.

The College is situated on Trumpington Street, and opposite its main entrance on the other side of the street is the Queen Anne-style Master's Lodge, which the College acquired in the early 18th century.

Alumni of the College include the following Nobel Prizewinners: Sir John Kendrew and Max Perutz (shared, Chemistry, 1962); Sir Aaron Klug (Chemistry, 1982); Archer Martin (Chemistry, 1952). Others alumni include: William Brewster, the oldest Pilgrim to sail on the Mayflower; 1620; The 3rd Duke of Grafton, British Prime Minister 1768-1770; Charles Babbage, considered as having conceptualized the programmable computer; James Clerk Maxwell, physicist and mathematician who formulated electromagnetic theory; Sir Christopher Meyer, British Ambassador in Washington, DC, 1997-2003; Sir Frank Whittle, Royal Air Force engineer officer often credited with inventing jet propulsion; and many others.

The College also has what is known as a Deer Park. (There have not been any deer there, however, since the 19th century: surely, a relatively short period in the College's long history?)

A Deer Park without any deer at a College where the memory of centuries unfolds like the real life mist which sometimes still surrounds it; a venerable University which was never formally founded: there are some of the features which visitors to England find intriguing.


Everyone has a 'favourite' academic writer, I suppose, but one of mine is Sir Denis (D.W.) Brogan, historian, who wrote most incisively about modern France, Professor of Political Science in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Peterhouse from 1939 until 1968. whose France Under the Republic: The Development of Modern France 1870-1939 , was published in 1940.


(1) For reasons which are not wholly apparent, people say: 'Peterhouse' rather than 'Peterhouse College', although 'St Peter's College' was sometimes previously used.

Also worth seeing

In Cambridge itself, among the huge number of visitor attractions are included the chapel of King's College, Senate House, St John's College's Bridge of Sighs over the Cam River, and many others.


How to get there

United Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Rail services link Cambridge with London's Liverpool Street and St Pancras railroad stations. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada


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