Every tourist gets told that the name of Queens’ College is spelled in the plural form with the apostrophe after the final letter ‘s’ because the College was founded by two Queens of England — first in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (daughter of Duke René of Anjou), wife of King Henry VI of England (the founder of King’s College Cambridge), and secondly in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV of England.
But how true can this story about the apostrophe be? It turns out: not much.
First: the use of the apostrophe in English to indicate the possessive is of no great antiquity: it would not have been used in the period after the second foundation of the college, and so the question of the position of the apostrophe would never have arisen at that time. In John Hamond’s view of Cambridge in 1592, the name is spelled Quenes college. Even as late as 1655, Thomas Fuller did not use apostrophes in his History of the University of Cambridge, where he used the form Queens Colledge.
Second: the earliest examples of the name of the College spelled with an apostrophe always spelled it as Queen’s. The earliest example so far found in print of an apostrophe in the name of the college occurs in 1660, in the Select Discourses, of John Smith [Fellow], edited by John Worthington, where the name of the college appears as Queen’s, with the apostrophe before the ‘s’. The name remains spelled that way for the next 160 years, at least.
The earliest example so far found of the name of the College spelled as Queens’ was in 1823, in the Form of Service for the Commemoration of Benefactors, edited by G.C. Gorham. Elsewhere, the singular spelling continued to be used for some years.
The spelling changed from Queen’s to Queens’ in the Cambridge University Calendar of 1831. You may compare the Calendar of 1830 with the Calendar of 1831. Many guide-books and histories followed this change of spelling during the 1830s.
In the early editions of Le Keux’s Memorials of Cambridge, by Thomas Wright and Harry Longueville Jones, published in part form 1837–1842, the name of the college is spelled Queen’s College, and a footnote is appended:
A custom has arisen latterly of writing the name Queens’ College, as being the foundation of two queens. This appears to us an unnecessary refinement. We have the authority of Erasmus against it, who always calls his college “Collegium Reginæ”.
“Reginæ” is Latin for “of the Queen”, in the singular. Despite this complaint, the change of spelling to Queens’ became well established in the 19th century.
The formal corporate title of the College is now:
The Queen’s College of St Margaret and St Bernard, commonly called Queens’ College, in the University of Cambridge.
which shows both forms of spelling. This is formally correct. The name of the college when qualified by the patron saints is spelled in the singular; the short-form name is spelled in the plural.
Related spelling issues
Queens’ Lane is named after the College, and should therefore be spelled in the same way.
Queens’ Green is presumably named for its proximity to the College, and should therefore be spelled in the same way. Queens’ Green is registered Common Land, owned by the Cambridge City Council.
Queen’s Road is named after Queen Victoria, so is correctly spelled Queen’s. It appears to have been named Queen’s Road at some time around the 1850s: previously it was known as the Arrington Road.