Old Court was the original Queens’ College, built in 1448-49.
Queens’ is the earliest example of a complete purpose-designed college in Cambridge. It incorporates all necessary components of a mediæval college in a single building: residences, dining hall, kitchens, library, and chapel. There are, of course, older colleges, some having absorbed older non-collegiate buildings, and older collegiate buildings, but none of those were built as a complete college from the outset.
The form of Old Court is approximately rectangular, with a square turret at (or near) each corner, and a large gatehouse in the eastern range, facing what was Milne Street (now Queens' Lane), a commercial thoroughfare from the town centre down to the mills.
The rectangular gatehouse, with octagonal towers at each corner, is the earliest example of this architectural form in a collegiate context, complete and in its original location (the earlier 1426 gatehouse at King’s Hall was moved and substantially altered to become King Edward’s Tower at Trinity College, and the earlier 1441 gatehouse at King’s College was never finished above the ground floor, until the 19th century, and now forms part of the University central administrative buildings). Several later Cambridge colleges incorporate similar styles of gatehouse: Christ’s, St John’s, Trinity, and others less exactly. This gatehouse style was unique to Cambridge (Oxford had none in this style), but this style spread around the world as symbolic of an educational institution: consider, for instance, Blair Arch at Princeton University.
The college was built over two years. In the first contract of 1448, the north range (library, chapel), the east range (along Queens’ Lane, residences and gatehouse), and part of what is now B staircase residences on the south range were built. Then, in a second contract, in 1449 the remainder of the south range (along Silver Street, residences), and the east range (kitchens, hall) were built. The external load-bearing walls were made of clunch (a local soft chalk), with a thin skin of hard red brick, and the internal fabric is timber-framed. The junction between the two contracts can still be seen as a vertical line in the brickwork of B staircase: the bond of the brickwork is different on each side. The north-west corner, containing the Senior Combination Room, and President’s Study above, might have been added shortly afterwards. In the second, 1449, contract, the brickwork in the south range facing Silver Street is decorated with lozenges made from very over-baked bricks, which have turned almost green. The vast majority of the bricks that can be seen in Old Court are the originals, as laid in 1448/49, such has been their hard-wearing qualities: often better than the contemporary surrounding stone details.
Clunch is a soft chalk, which can be easily obtained from local chalk pits. But clunch has little weather resistance: the brick skin serves to protect it from the elements, rather than bear any load. The source of the red brick is not known: Cambridge clay makes a white brick, not red. Many of the red bricks are slightly over-baked, which has made them very hard and given them a smooth, slightly polished sheen. The choice of these cheap building materials meant that Queens’ could be erected very quickly by comparison with its contemporary, King’s College, where the specification of expensive stone, which had to be shipped in by river from far away, made progress very slow.
In the eighteenth century, many other mediæval Cambridge college buildings were externally lined with stone in classical style, and the gothic windows converted to rectangular sash windows. Queens’ escaped that fate, so that, today, Old Court, of all Cambridge courtyards, gives the best possible impression of what a mediæval college looked like. The worst that happened was that the cusps (vestigial tracery) were scraped off the stone gothic window frames: even so, the cusps survived in the north-facing first-floor windows of the Old Library, which had stained glass.
1448–49: Erection of Old Court. It has been suggested that the architect might have been Reginald Ely (co-parishioner of founder Andrew Dokett), who was then working as master mason on the early stages of King’s College nearby. [Andrew Doket and his Architect, Arthur Oswald, Proc. Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol XLII, 1948]
1592: This detail from the bird’s-eye view by John Hamond, published February 1592, is the earliest reasonably accurate view we have of Queens’. Points to note:
- The asymmetry of Old Court is over-emphasised, perhaps exacerbated by showing too many windows for the Hall, but otherwise the view is quite an accurate impression;
- The lawns (or cobbled areas) of the court are surrounded by fences;
- There are suggestions of dormer windows for attics along the Silver Street and Queens’ Lane elevations, and above the kitchens and Library, but not over the Hall or Chapel, suggesting perhaps that those rooms had not yet had flat ceilings and attics inserted above.
1685: This detail of the Loggan view of 1685 shows the layout of Old Court as it was then. Points to note are:
- Dormers are shown over the Hall, indicating that the Hall had a ceiling with attic rooms above;
- Dormers are also shown over the Chapel, indicating attic rooms over a ceiling (although the east window has not been lowered). Access to these attic rooms might have been by an external staircase, as a curious small roof can be seen rising above eaves level, visible between the roofs of Old Court and Walnut Tree building. A tall chimney can be seen above the north side of the Chapel: this would have served the vestry below, which was, until 1778, a projecting building north of the chapel;
- To the right of the Oriel Window is shown an extra Hall window, which would have looked over High Table. This was later blocked, probably when the present panelling of 1732 was put up;
- The sun-dial is already present in Old Court, thus disproving the oft-quoted date of 1733 for its creation;
- A belfry is shown on the north side of the passage to Chapel. This became unsafe and was pulled down in 1804 to be replaced by the present building. The bell and clock were moved to the roof of the Library;
- The wicket gate is shown in the south main gate, before its move to the north gate.
1814: View drawn and engraved by John Greig, published in Vol 2 of History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge by George Dyer in 1814. Points of change to note:
- whereas the Loggan view shows tracery in the Hall windows, this view shows plain mullioned windows;
- five dormers are shown over the Hall, when all other views show only four (this view is probably in error);
- the window to the right of the Oriel Window has been blocked, probably when the present panelling was erected, around 1732.
Some editions inscribed:
J & H S Storer delt & sc
Pubd by W Mason Cambridge
Points of change to note:
- The windows of Old Hall still have plain mullions without tracery (lasted until 1846), but now stained glass is visible in the oriel window, and in the centre of each side window: this glass, by Charles Muss, was inserted 1819–1822;
- The clock tower of 1804 is shown - it lasted until 1848;
- A lamp-post has appeared in the middle of Old Court: town gas started in Cambridge in 1823, but the date Queens’ took it is not known;
- Battlements have been erected all around Old Court. There is no record of this change, but the erection of battlements required the installation of rain-water down-pipes (there are none in Greig’s print of 1814), and two of these can be seen on the west elevation. The date on the lead hoppers at the top of some of the pipes elsewhere in Old Court is 1819. In the college accounts, there is a surge of expenditure on building-related items in 1819–20. So I conclude that the battlements were erected in 1819. The battlements were an inappropriate change, and were removed again in stages 1910–1926. This period is possibly also when the mortar between the bricks was changed to black cement, another undesirable change, because the cement was now harder than the brick, leading to frost damage to the bricks.
1831: Old Court, Harraden, 1831.
Of a similar period to the print above, but with less detail, and less accurate. Almost all shadows, of people or of the lamp-post, point in different directions!
Of a similar period to the previous two prints, showing the effect of the battlements on the east range and gatehouse.
1851: View by Rock & Co. of Old Court, looking north, dated 1851 April 15th. This is one of a series of views designed to be used as letterheads, and so are of quite low resolution. Points to note:
- Dormer windows have disappeared from above the Hall and the Chapel, indicating the removal of flat ceilings and attics;
- Over the Hall can be seen the new dinner-bell tower, and the louvre, both designed by Dawkes, built in 1846;
- Also of the same date, tracery by Dawkes can be seen in the side windows of the Hall: this lasted until around 1857/8;
- Above the north range can be seen the massive clock tower by Raphael Brandon, built in 1848, which lasted until 1910;
- A lantern has appeared over the doorway to the screen passage;
- The lamp-post in the middle of the court seems to have been omitted.
1857: Photo, probably by Robert Cade, ca 1857. Points of interest:
- The present stained glass by Hardman has appeared in the oriel window, installed in 1854;
- The side windows show the tracery of Dawkes from 1846, but as yet no stained glass, which was to be installed in 1857/58;
- Some internal walls can be seen built up above the roof slates: this was done as a fire-break to prevent fires spreading along attics and roof structures.
A photo of the north range, also probably by Robert Cade, ca 1857. Points to be noted:
- The west-most side window of the chapel has plain glass: stained glass was fitted in 1860;
- The dial is without its gnomon. It was repainted in 1864, so we guess the gnomon was restored by then;
- Dormer windows have disappeared from the chapel: the flat ceiling had been taken down from the chapel, and the attics above removed, in 1845;
- Several members of college staff are posing for the photograph: the gentleman on the left in top hat and tail-coat is probably the Head Porter.
- The dial is back in use;
- The three side windows of the old chapel are newly fitted with plain glass, as the previous stained glass was moved to the south windows of the new chapel;
- The huge scale of the Brandon clock tower is apparent: it was higher even than the gate tower. It was taken down in 1909/10 and replaced with the present one;
- This photo was mis-dated 1910 in Browne & Seltman plate 57. The date of 1891 was obtained by comparing the list of residents painted on the board visible outside E staircase with the college rent ledger, getting a match for the academic year 1890/91.