10 July 2009

A Puritan foundation with a High Church chapel

The interior of the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni, above the altar

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, the participants in the Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies have enjoyed the daily hospitality of the chapel at Sidney Sussex, and the convenient location of the college in the centre of Cambridge.

Sidney Sussex College is also conveniently opposite Sainsbury’s. Tourists are often confused by the fact that the college is often known simply as Sidney or even – because of its location – as Sidney Sainsbury’s. Every morning, I have been buying The Irish Times on the day of publication in Sainsbury’s across the street from Sidney Sussex on Sidney Street.

As a small college, Sidney Sussex and its grounds have changed little since it was founded in 1596, despite extensive reworking of the buildings in the 1800s. With about 350 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, this is still a small college, even by Cambridge standards. Indeed, this was rarely a wealthy college –some say that indeed this was a distinctly impoverished college until about 50 years ago.

Sidney performs mid-table when it comes to academia and sporting achievements. The unofficial Tompkins Table of undergraduate performance ranks Sidney at 14 out of 29 colleges, although traditionally Sidney’s students have excelled at history, law and engineering. However, a table like this fails to show that Sidney has strong women’s sport teams, and that the college team is always placed highly in darts and pool each year.

Sidney students – undergraduates and graduates alike – wonder whether there is a connection between these achievements and their bar. I wonder. The bar is a point of pride for them as it is the only student-run bar in Cambridge … and the cheapest. Since the students are only present during term-time, the bar has an unusual tradition of holding a “drink-the-bar-dry” evening every term on the last day of the licence. Drinks start out at the usual prices, but the prices decrease in inverse proportion to the remaining supply. And it is said all remaining drinks are free for the last hour of the licence.

Mind you, I have yet to experience this to confirm it. For the last few evenings, I have adjourned with friends to the Mitre in Bridge Street or the Eagle, across the street from Saint Bene’t’s in Benet Street. The Eagle dates back to 1625, and is still legally the property of Corpus Christi, whose Masters have included Archbishop Matthew Parker.

Apart from darts, pool and bars, Sidney Sussex students are proud to point out that they have always performed well on television in University Challenge, with winning teams in 1971, 1978 and 1979. Indeed, the 1978 team went on to win the “Champion of Champions” reunion competition in 2002.

Sidney alumni

This is all hard to credit to a college that was supposed to be affirmedly Puritan from its inception. When Sidney Sussex was founded in 1596 by Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, this was supposed to be a firmly Puritan foundation. No wonder Oliver Cromwell was among the first students here and that thee college had an important role during the English Civil War – even if I am sceptical about the claims that Cromwell’s head is buried beneath the floor of the antechapel.

Better, perhaps, to think that, apart from Oliver Cromwell, the college's most famous alumni include Sherlock Holmes, well, yes, and Carol Vorderman, five Nobel Prize winners – which is the fourth highest figure for a Cambridge college – or even those Sidney graduates who were integral in breaking the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park.

But Sidney Sussex is older than Carol Vorderman – indeed the college might even claim to be older than Lady Frances Sidney Sussex, who has been smiling down on me benignly morning, noon and night at breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Hall all this week.

The plaque in Cloister Court remembering the Franciscans, including Duns Scotus, who lived on the site of Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although Sidney Sussex was founded in 1596, this college stands on an older, mediaeval site. The Grey Friars, or Franciscans, including Duns Scotus (1266-1308), one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages, lived here for almost 300 years at their foundation in Bridge Street – now Sidney Street. Arguments continue over whether Duns Scotus was born in Duns in Berwickshire or in Ireland.

Greyfriars was a common name for Franciscan houses, just as Blackfriars was the name of Dominican houses. From the mid-14th century, Greyfriars in Cambridge included a church and cemetery on the site of the present Cloister Court – last year, my room there was on Staircase K. But the cloister itself was on the site of the present Hall Court, and it is said Sidney’s wine cellars below Hall Court are mediaeval structures from this lost monastic world. Greyfriars also had a refectory and several other buildings.

Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College … the site of the Greyfriars’ church and cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over half a century ago, excavations in 1958 unearthed traces of a huge complex of buildings, a lay graveyard complete with skeletons that have since been reburied, bucket-loads of superb shattered stained glass, and a massive Saxon jar.

Until the reformation, Greyfriars’ Church was used regularly for Cambridge University ceremonies. But in 1538, at the dissolution of the monasteries, the Franciscans were forced to leave this site, Henry VIII gave the freehold of the site to his new foundation, Trinity College, and most of the Greyfriars’ buildings were demolished.

It is said that after the dissolution Trinity removed much of the stone from Greyfriars to build its own chapel, and that 3,000 cartloads were removed in 1556 alone. Even the conduit from Greyfriars was redirected and it still supplies the fountain in Trinity Great Court.

A Puritan foundation?

A generation or two later, the foundation of Sidney Sussex was supposedly as a Puritan, Protestant seminary. But is it true to say that Sidney was ever really a Puritan college?

When visitors are shown around Sidney Sussex and the college chapel, guides relish in pointing out that Anglican churches are traditionally oriented on an East-West axis, but that the chapel here is oriented on an a South-North axis in some sort of Puritan protest. But is this so?

Perhaps it was due to the exigencies of the available site after a bruising battle with the Masters and Fellows of Trinity for possession of the former Greyfriars’ site. Perhaps nothing theological was intended at all. After all, the chapel at Emmanuel College, which is only a short walk away, had a similar orientation until Christopher Wren was invited to design a new chapel in 1667.

Shortly after the death of Lady Sidney Sussex, the Harrington and Montagu families became closely identified with the life of the college. Both families were among the rising powers in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. One of the first aristocratic students here was the glamorous and talented Sir John Harrington, a son of one of the executors of Lady Sidney Sussex and the closest friend of Prince Henry. Sidney’s first master, James Montagu, was James I’s editor and one of the translators of the Authorised Bible (1611).

Men like this drew around them a remarkable body of fellows and students at Sidney in the decades preceding the English Civil War. Among the Puritans was Thomas Gataker, a classical scholar and Puritan theologian who became embroiled in a debate about predestination and gambling. William Bradshaw was the author of the important history English Puritanism (1605). Jeremiah Whitaker, a friend of Cromwell, moderated at the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1643. Thomas Adams, the “prose Shakespeare of puritan theology,” was a major influence on John Bunyan. And there were the two related Daniel Dykes – one a puritan divine who refused to wear a surplice, the other a Baptist minister who was one Cromwell’s chaplains.

On the other hand, royalists prospered at Sidney too. Sir Thomas Adams founded an Arabic professorship at Cambridge. Walter Montagu, the author of The Shepherd’s Paradise, an eight-hour masque for Queen Henrietta Maria in the 1630s, was arrested as a spy in France and was sent to the Bastille by Richelieu. He converted to Roman Catholicism, and ended his days as an abbĂ© in France. John Pocklington was a High Churchman and a Hebrew scholar whose Sunday No Sabbath was burned in 1635.

Sidney sent £100 to help Charles I during the English Civil War. The Caroline Restoration seems to have been the beginning of a deep and troubling change in at Sidney, which suffered under the stigma of its Cromwellian connections. Yet John Bramhall (1594-1663), who matriculated at Sidney, became the restoration Archbishop of Armagh in 1663, and is the subject of a major essay by TS Eliot. A little later, the celebrated Bishop of Winchester, Seth Ward (1617-1689), was at Sidney, as was John Sterne (1624-1669), the first president of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

Ward was the restoration Bishop of Exeter and then of Salisbury. While Ward was at Salisbury, James II imposed Joshua Bassett, a Roman Catholic, was imposed on Sidney as Master. But Bassett fled overnight with the arrival of William of Orange.

Richard Reynolds (1674-1743), the early 18th century Bishop of Lincoln, was also at Sidney. But the most important figure at Sidney in the early 18th century may have the theologian and moral philosopher William Wollaston. His Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) achieved huge sales and led to his being chosen as one of five British “worthies” – along with Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle – who were sculpted by Rysbrack for Queen Caroline’s Hermitage at Kew. John Garnett, a Fellow of Sidney Sussex, became Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782), and his portrait still hangs on the stairs up to the Old Library, where we had our dinner last night, above the ante-chapel and looking out onto Chapel Court.

A new chapel

It is probably true that the one surviving building from the old Greyfriars was the refectory and kitchens, and that these were converted into the college chapel. However, the present chapel in Sidney Sussex dates from 1780, when the last buildings of Grey Friars on the site were torn down.

The new chapel was re-designed by James Essex in the 1770s. It appears he had tough taskmasters, as he produced four plans for redesigning the chapel before he was allowed to proceed with his work. In the end, it was an impressive makeover of a plain if evocative 17th century religious space, meeting the classical tastes of the day.

One of the most striking features on entering the chapel is the remarkable Catholic altar-piece, The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni, which was bought in 1783 for 20 guineas. This Catholic work of art and its presentation would have been unthinkable in previous generations at Sidney Sussex … or would it?

By the early 19th century, Sidney was a very small college in terms of undergraduate admissions. And so it must have been a surprise for many Victorians period that was in effect an Anglican seminary. The “massive” Victorian, Robert Machray, became Canada’s first Anglican archbishop. The controversial Anglo-Catholic, Thomas Pelham Dale (1821-1892), was jailed in 1880 for his ritualism. Later, John Wale Hicks, who became Bishop of Bloemfontein, was typical of his time in publishing books on both doctrine and inorganic chemistry.

Despite this theological history, the reforms at Cambridge from 1850s on, despite being resisted fiercely by the Master of Sidney, Robert Phelps, changed Sidney’s intellectual course forever. From the largely theological and mathematical college it had been for its the first two centuries or so, it became a power-house in the rapidly expanding medical, natural, physical and chemical sciences, due principally to the inspiration of Clough Williams Ellis.

The laboratories that once stood along the Sidney Street wall beyond A Staircase, now a bicycle shed, were among the first in Cambridge. There, a string of important experiments were carried out by the metallurgist FH Neville. Neville’s portrait hangs at the top of the stairs leading to the Old Library. Following his conversion in 1904, Neville became the first-ever Roman Catholic fellow at Sidney Sussex ... the Jacobite master, Joshua Bassett, might have been pleased.

Meanwhile, the chapel, which had been redesigned by James Essex, was proving to be inadequate in size. It only extended to half its present length. However, between 1911 and 1923, TH Lyons completed the present proportions of the chapel, along with its fine neo-baroque interior.

His work suited the High Church complexion that had become part of the life of Sidney by then. He altered and lengthened the chapel, and gave it elaborate oak-panelled walls, a variegated marble floor and Sidney’s distinctive bell turret. The side chapel has the reserved sacrament.

The distinctive bell turret seen from my room in Sidney Sussex ... it was part of the alterations to the chapel a century ago by TH Lyons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In transforming the sanctuary of Cromwell’s college into an Anglo-Catholic chapel, the Edwardian high churchmen inscribed above Pittoni’s Catholic Venetian altar-piece, The Holy Family, in large, capital, gilt letters the Latin phrase “Gvstando Vivimvs Deo.” Those words, “gustando vivimus deo,” “by tasting we live in God,” are taken from the seventh century Latin hymn for Easter Vespers, The Lamb’s high banquet we await.

Some more recent additions to the chapel include the panels of stained glass fragments that have been inserted into the antechapel window. These fragments were unearthed during the archaeological investigations about half a century ago in 1958 and they appear to come from the mediaeval windows of the former Franciscan church.

And so, in some unexpected way, the Franciscans have found a new place in the daily worship life in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, and not merely in the presence this week of this former pupil of the Franciscans at Gormanston.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

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