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Katherine Parr did not persuade Henry VIII to found Trinity College Cambridge, new study argues

The story that Trinity College Cambridge was only founded because Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, pleaded with him to do so, has become part of the folklore of Cambridge University. It resurfaced again in Cambridge News this month, along with the claim that it was only the queen’s intervention that stopped Henry from closing down some or all of the Cambridge colleges. 

But research by Richard Rex, Professor of Reformation History at Cambridge, now shows that this much loved and repeated tale is misleading. Rex’s study, published in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, reveals that numerous powerful people at Court helped to defend the university from the potential threat posed by the king in his final few years, and that Henry had already decided to establish Trinity before the university lobbied Katherine Parr.

The university’s fears centred on the Chantries Act of 1545, which empowered the king to take over, at will, any of the ‘colleges, free chapels, chantries, hospitals’ or other religious foundations with which his kingdom abounded. In principle this power could certainly have swept up the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge to swell the royal coffers.

But as Professor Rex explains: “While the Chantries Act did indeed give Henry the power to suppress any college or church foundation he chose, it’s clear that the university’s friends at Court did all they could, from the start, to ensure that this new power would not be used against Cambridge or Oxford.” 

“Even before the universities knew what was going on, they were given different treatment from the rest of England and Wales as the new law was put into effect.” 

Cambridge did write to Katherine Parr, among others, to lobby against the potential threat to their interests. But her reply only confirms what other sources studied by Rex also make clear: that Henry had already taken the decision to found Christ Church in Oxford and Trinity in Cambridge. 

Parr’s letter, dated 26 February 1546 and preserved in Corpus Christi College’s library in Cambridge, assures the university that the king: 
‘being such a patron to good learning doth tender [i.e. favour] you so much that he will rather advance learning and erect new occasion thereof than to confound those your ancient and godly institutions’.

Even though the processes for establishing the twin foundations were delayed so that the colleges only came into being a month or two before Henry’s death at the end of January 1547, key parts of the plan were already in place as early as summer 1545. 

Rex said: “Katherine Parr was undoubtedly a patron of learning and in particular of the ‘new learning’ of the Protestant Reformation. But the idea that she had a crucial role in the foundation of Trinity is romantic fiction with only the slenderest basis in the historical record.”

Rex’s study undermines other long-held assumptions based on chronological errors, including that Cambridge’s lobbying secured the favourable appointment of university insiders Matthew Parker, John Redman and William May as commissioners to survey its Colleges for the king. 

In fact, their appointment preceded any known Cambridge lobbying by about a month and, Rex argues, this came about thanks to ‘the unsolicited intervention of the university’s friends at court’. Rex found supporting evidence for this among Matthew Parker’s papers in Corpus Christi’s library, which still bears Parker’s name because he left the College his magnificent private collection of books and manuscripts.

Rex, himself a student at Trinity in the 1980s, made these discoveries while working with Colin Armstrong (another Trinity alum) on a chapter for a forthcoming book about the college’s history.

The popular narrative which emphasises Parr’s influence and that of Cambridge lobbyists originated in a book published in 1884 by J.B. Mullinger entitled The University of Cambridge from the royal injunctions of 1545 to the accession of Charles the First. Mullinger was a historian and librarian at St John's College Cambridge. But Rex concludes that he both misread and misdated the patchy original sources which describe these events.

He said: “When I started this work, I simply wanted to nail down the traditional story by checking the sources and footnotes. It had been retold so often by so many good historians that I had no reason to doubt it was true. But I found that the whole thing was a mess, the chronology didn’t make any sense. So I set about trying to put the record straight.”

“The fact that Cambridge and Oxford were, from the start, set apart from the rest of the country in the implementation of the Chantries Act is just one among several indications that Henry VIII already had something special in mind for them. 

“Henry’s plan to establish lasting memorials to himself in both universities had probably been in his mind since mid-1545 at the latest. The ‘Cambridge version’ of events appears to have been an academic flight of fancy. Our lobbying efforts weren’t quite as influential as we once liked to imagine.” 

“Strangely, a fashion has grown up of attributing too much of what Henry VIII did to the influence of those closest to him – Wolsey, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, or Katherine Parr. Like anyone, Henry was liable to be influenced by those around him. But the big decisions – and the founding of Christ Church and Trinity were big decisions – were his.”

Reference
R. Rex, ‘The University of Cambridge and the Chantries Act of 1545’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History (2022); doi.org/10.1017/S0022046921001494

King Henry VIII had already made up his mind to found Trinity College Cambridge and Christ Church Oxford before Cambridge lobbied his queen, a re-examination of 16th-century sources suggests. Professor Richard Rex's study undermines a popular 'Cambridge version' of events, sheds new light on the Chantries Act and emphasises the king's ability to take big decisions.

Henry’s plan to establish lasting memorials to himself in both universities had probably been in his mind since mid-1545 at the latestRichard RexThe Master and Fellows, Trinity College CambridgeHenry VIII statue on the Great Gate of Trinity College Cambridge


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Our world-leading research

Cambridge’s global reputation is recognised by the Research Excellence Framework, with 93% of our overall submissions rated as world-leading or internationally-excellent.

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Cambridge researchers awarded European Research Council funding

Cambridge received the most awards of any UK institution, alongside University College London, which also received five awards.

The Cambridge winners are among 313 winners of the latest round of Consolidator Grants, backed with some €632 million. Part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme, this new round of grants will create an estimated 1,900 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff at 189 host institutions.

Dr Ana Cvejic from the Department of Haematology was awarded a grant for her CONTEXT project (Aneuploidy and Its Impact on Blood Development: Context Matters). The focus of her research is to understand how blood cells develop and how their development and their ultimate function is influenced by their environment and environmental cues. The aim is to use this knowledge to develop new ways to treat disease and improve human health.

Professor Nikku Madhusudhan from the Institute of Astronomy was awarded a grant for his SUBNEPTUNES project (Probing Exoplanetary Atmospheres in the Sub-Neptune Regime). His research is focused on the atmospheres, interiors and formation mechanisms of exoplanets. In 2021, he identified a new class of exoplanet, dubbed Hycean planets, which could greatly accelerate the search for life outside our Solar System.

Professor Ulrich Schneider from the Cavendish Laboratory was awarded a grant for his KAGOME project (A quantum gas microscope for the Kagome lattice). Schenider studies ‘many-body’ phenomena at the interface between quantum optics and solid state physics.

Dr Philippa Steele from the Faculty of Classics was awarded a grant for her VIEWS project (Visual Interactions in Early Writing Systems). Her research focuses on the relationships between Aegean writing systesm and the development of the early Greek alphabet.

Dr Laura Torrente Murciano from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology was awarded funding for her RESTARTNH3 project (Energy functional processes and materials for storage of renewable energy in ammonia). Her research focuses on the integration of processes and development of novel catalytic routes for sustainable technologies.

President of the ERC Professor Maria Leptin said: ”Even in times of crisis and conflict and suffering, it is our duty to keep science on track and give our brightest minds free reign to explore their ideas. We do not know today how their work might revolutionise tomorrow - we do know that they will open up new horizons, satisfy our curiosity and most likely help us prepare for unpredictable future challenges. So, I am thrilled to see a new group of ERC grant winners funded for their scientific journey. I wish them the best of luck on their way to push the frontiers of our knowledge!”

Five University of Cambridge researchers have been awarded Consolidator Grants from the European Research Council, the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research.

Westend61European Commission, Brussels


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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Road radar to reveal York's Roman secrets

Did the Romans alter their legionary fortress at Eboracum in the late Antique period? What was the settlement around it like and how did this change? Did Eboracum receive a makeover when emperors came to town?

These are just some of the questions which Cambridge archaeologist Professor Martin Millett and his colleagues hope to answer without lifting a single spade or trowel.

Over summer 2022, a vehicle equipped with specialist radar equipment will survey 20km of streets around York – the first time a project on this scale has been undertaken in the UK. The team behind the scheme are working with City of York Council to access as much of the city centre road network as possible, including some pedestrianised streets, during the survey, with minimal disruption to the public.

Alongside the road surveys, a different radar system will scan the green spaces in the city centre, particularly around the Yorkshire Museum and York Minster.

The initiative is a joint project between Universities of Cambridge and Reading, York Archaeology and the York Museums Trust funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The 30-month-long project aims to collate everything archaeologists and historians know about the whole of Roman York into a single database which will then be made freely available to the public.

Among many other things, the team will be looking for evidence of Eboracum's architecture and infrastructure being enhanced during periods of imperial residence (AD 208–11 and AD 305-06), or following York’s promotion to colonial status in the early 3rd century. They are also hoping to find evidence for changes in the organization and use of land in the immediate environs of York through the Roman period.

Alongside the research there will be a series of public engagement projects including volunteer-run research projects, an art initiative and a project for schools around the country linking research findings to geography, physics, geology and archaeology.

The radar mapping exercise will start in the summer, with dry weather being crucial to the success of the scanning, as the radar can only penetrate down to the water table, which is notoriously high for much of the year in York.

Project leader Martin Millett, Laurence Professor of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge and a trustee of York Archaeological Trust, said: “This is a key initiative where we hope to learn much more about the layout of the Roman city without having to dig a single trench.”

Co-investigator Dr John Creighton of the University of Reading said: “Over many years, various investigations have opened small windows into different parts of the Roman city, but we hope that this scanning will reveal far more about the city including details where the roads and significant buildings in the city were located, particularly around Micklegate.”

The wider research will bring together not only the results of archaeological excavations over the last 50 years, but also other less formal sources of information, including historic press reports of Roman finds, notebooks and published reports from the 18th century onwards. It is hoped that volunteers from across the community will be involved.

Cllr Darryl Smalley, Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities at City of York Council, said: “This exciting new project will provide a new basis for understanding of Roman York and will enhance the ways in which the City can assess the impact of planning and future development on this valuable but hidden heritage.”

Updates on the project will be posted on yorkarchaeology.co.uk/romanyork

Professor Millett recently led the team which successfully mapped a complete Roman city, Falerii Novi, in Italy, using the same technology. This research received global media coverage. Find out more here.

The biggest investigation ever undertaken into Eboracum, the Roman city buried beneath York, is set to begin this summer. Ground penetrating radar will be used to map as much of the influential ancient settlement as possible in a bid to learn more about its evolving layout and use.

We hope to learn much more about the layout of the Roman cityMartin MillettView of the city of York in England including walls and cathedral


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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