Campus curiosities

October 14, 2005

Number 15: The redundant nuns of Jesus College, Cambridge

Hidden in the fabric of Jesus College, Cambridge, is a story of ambition, heartless expropriation, academics and nuns.

In the late 15th century, John Alcock, the Bishop of Ely and Lord Chancellor to Henry VII, wanted to found a college in Cambridge. He identified a nunnery that had been in the city since the 1130s as the ideal location and then ruthlessly set about clearing the nuns from the site. An inquisition initiated by Alcock led the Bishop to appoint his own nominee as prioress. A freeze was then put on recruitment and the nunnery run down.

By the 1490s, just two nuns remained. They were then slandered as to their supposed bad behaviour, giving Alcock a pretext to turf them out before the college received its charter in 1496.

Much of the nunnery survives, though. Part of the chapel was converted into the master's lodge, the rest was simply retained, though its interior panelling and details have been largely reworked over the centuries. Inside is the tombstone of an early prioress, Bertha Rosata. The archways of the chapter house are still visible at the side of the cloister, as is a "turn"

where nunnery workers collected their allowance of beer.

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