Chapel Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
There’s a popular story in Drogheda of a young child proudly bringing a group of her friends into Saint Peter’s Church to show them “the head of Blessed Oliver Cromwell.”
Well, they don’t have the head of Oliver Plunkett in Cambridge, but they do have the head of Oliver Cromwell, which is said to be buried under the floor of the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, where I took part in Matins this morning.
I arrived in Cambridge last night for the Ninth Cambridge Summer School, which has been organised by the Institute for Christian Studies, which is part of the Cambridge Theological Federation. Before we got down to work this morning, we had dinner in the Dining Hall at Sidney Sussex College last night and then went around the corner to Wesley House on Jesus Lane for Vespers and for a very relaxed reception on the lawn.
The theme of this year’s summer school is “The Ascent to Holiness,” and my participation is possible because of a generous grant from the Oulton Fund. Throughout the week, the summer school is taking place in Sidney Sussex College, and my room, which looks out towards Sidney Street, is K5 – what a laugh if they really had placed me in K9. My stairs is in New Parlour, which is part of Cloister Court, and looks out over Sidney Street to Sainsbury’s and Trinity College. Cloister Court is an inspired and charming neo-Jacobean building designed by Pearson as New Court and built in 1890 to provide more room for the growing numbers of undergraduates.
Sidney Sussex is sometimes known simply as Sidney, although students from neighbouring colleges also call it “Sidney Sainsbury’s” – well I am only a few steps across the street from the Sidney Street branch of Sainsbury’s, which every Cambridge student uses because of its central location.
Sidney is one of the 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge. But Sidney Sussex is a very well-kept secret. Its legacy of Nobel Prize winners, its Elizabethan brickwork, its charming Cloister Court, its haunting Chapel, its exquisite rococo Hall, mediaeval cellars and its beautiful ancient gardens all lie behind a rather self-effacing wall of Roman cement. The student population is relatively small with about 350 undergraduates and 190 graduates. But Sidney Sussex has traditionally excelled in certain subjects, notably engineering, history and law. And Sidney boasts strong women’s football and netball teams … and performs well at darts.
The college also claims to have the cheapest bar in Cambridge, although I have yet to find it … perhaps it’s not open at the moment.
For those who delight in Trivial Pursuits, Sidney Sussex had a winning team on University Challenge in both 1971 and 1978-1979, and the 1978 team went on to win the “Champion of Champions” University Challenge Reunion in 2002. But then, this small college has always punched way above its weight and from 1596 Sidney fellows and students have made a huge impact on all aspects of English national culture, religion, politics, business, law and science.
A Puritan foundation
From the beginning, Sidney Sussex was an avowedly Puritan foundation: “some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge.” The college motto is: “Dieu me garde de calomnie.”
Oliver Cromwell was among the first students here, although his father became ill and he never graduated. His head is now buried beneath the college chapel. Sidney has produced soldiers, political cartoonists, alchemists, spies, murderers, ghosts and arsonists as well as media personalities, film and opera directors, a Premiership football club chairman, best-selling authors, the man who introduced soccer to Hungary, the 1928 Grand National winner and – according to Dorothy Sayers – it must have been the college of Sherlock Holmes.
Sidney excels academically across the board in most subjects yet retains its unique friendly, informal yet traditional atmosphere. It has given us five Nobel Prize winners (the fourth highest among Cambridge colleges). From the 1940s, history has also been a huge success story with Asa Briggs, David Thomson, Derek Beales, Tim Blanning, Otto Smail, John Brewer and Helen Castor among the many names who have acquired international reputations. Politicians and commentators include the former Foreign Secretary David Owen, and Frank Owen, the legendary editor of the Evening Standard. In the arts, there is John Madden, director of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Christopher Page, who brought the music of the mediaeval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to our attention.
Who was Lady Sidney Sussex?
For a college officially founded on Saint Valentine’s Day, Sidney also had a “Lovers’ Walk.” But was Lady Frances Sidney Sussex a romantic person, and how did Sidney Sussex College get its strange name?
Before Sidney was founded, the Grey Friars, or Franciscans inhabited this site for almost 300 before the upheavals of the Reformation which led to Sidney's foundation as an explicitly protestant college. The cellars housing Sidney’s wine below Hall Court are said to be mediaeval structures from that monastic age.
Long after the Reformation and the dissolution of the monastic foundations, Sidney Sussex, founded in 1596, and was named after its founder, Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. Lady Frances Sidney is an enigmatic woman. She was the aunt of the poet Sir Phillip Sidney, and was married to the leading courtier and soldier, the Earl of Sussex. At Queen Elizabeth’s court, she was an adviser and patron of literature and music. Her homes included Bermondsey, near the royal palace at Greenwich, and the magnificent New Hall at Boreham, Essex, close to the Mildmay family who founded Emmanuel, another Protestant college in Cambridge.
She died in 1589 and is commemorated in a grand physical monument in Westminster Abbey as well as the “goodly and godly” one at Cambridge. But what inspired Lady Frances to found a college in Cambridge in the first place? Her will was written just after the Spanish Armada and five years after the death of her husband, who had been a loyal Catholic under Mary and a fierce rival of Leicester and his protégé, Lady Frances’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. Was it her idea to leave a small sum to found a college, or did the idea come from powerful and influential her theological mentor, Archbishop Whitgift?
Whitgift was a moderate Calvinist and a strong enemy of radical Puritanism. Nevertheless, he wanted a serious transformation of the training of priests in the Church of England priests. James Montagu, the first Sidney master, was James I’s editor and one of the translators of the Authorised Version of Bible in 1611.
Other fellows and students in the crucial years leading up to the English Civil War included: Thomas Gataker, a classical scholar and Puritan theologian who became embroiled in a debate about predestination and gambling; the High Churchman and Hebraicist John Pocklington, whose Sunday No Sabbath was burned in 1635; Samuel Ward of Ipswich, who was a celebrated preacher based in Ipswich and one of Britain's first political cartoonists; Jeremiah Whitaker, the oriental scholar and friend of Cromwell who took a leading role at the seminal 1643 Westminster Assembly of Divines; the royalist Sir Thomas Adams, founder of an Arabic professorship at Cambridge and Lord Mayor of London; and Thomas Adams, who was a major influence on John Bunyan.
However, there is a question as to whether Sidney was ever really a Puritan college, for royalists abounded at Sidney too. The most notable was Archbishop John Bramhall (1594-1663) of Armagh, who played a crucial role alongside the saintly Bishop Jeremy Taylor in the Church of Ireland after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Sidney took a lead in science and medicine too. Bishop Seth Ward of Winchester was a major mathematician and astronomer and a founder of the Royal Society. John Sterne was founder of the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin as well as a professor of law and Hebrew.
Perhaps the most important figure at Sidney in the early 18th century was the theologian and moral philosopher William Wollaston, whose Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) led to his being one of five British “worthies,” alongside Newton and Boyle. The Lichfield-born writer, Samuel Johnson, famed for his dictionary, is known as Dr Johnson because of the honorary doctorate he received in Dublin. But he once made visit Sidney which nearly led, it seems, to the great doctor becoming a Fellow.
A High Church tradition
Although the head of Oliver Cromwell was somewhere beneath the chapel floor as we sang Matins this morning, the Chapel of Sidney Sussex now has a very visible High Church tradition, now adorned with a previously unthinkable Catholic altarpiece by the Venetian painter Pittoni. The Chapel was redesigned by James Essex in the 1770s and is an impressive make-over of a plain if evocative 17th century religious space.
For much of the early Victorian period, Sidney became in effect an Anglican seminary. The Victorians included Robert Machray, who became Canada’s first archbishop, the pioneering Anglo-Catholic Thomas Pelham Dale, who was jailed for his ritualism and High Church practices, and John Wale Hicks, who became an Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Bloemfontein. A new chapel was built in Sidney in the Edwardian era, becoming in the eyes of many the finest and most elaborate modern Catholic-style chapel in Cambridge.
But why did this once “Puritan” college respond so positively to the rise of the High Church tradition and Anglo-Catholicism? I hope to find out over the next week, even if I don’t find the cheap beer.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College.