Erasmus’s Corkscrew

From the 19th to the 20th centuries, there were references to Erasmus’s Corkscrew in the literature about Queens’.

Enough people saw and wrote about the artefact for us to be reasonably sure that a large corkscrew once existed in college. Any connection between said corkscrew and Erasmus must have been highly suspect, in the sense that anything old in college could get labelled as Erasmus’s: see, for example, Erasmus’s Chair.

Dr Claudius Buchanan [Q 1791-6], while staying at Queens’ for a short period, wrote in a letter dated 1814 January 7th [either to Colonel Colin Macaulay, or to his brother Zachary Macaulay: it is not clear which]:

I inhabit Erasmus’s rooms. They are chiefly remarkable for an immense corkscrew, about a third of a yard long, which tradition assigns to that eminent scholar. [Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Claudius Buchanan, by Hugh Pearson, 1817, p. 343]

Mary Milner, in her biography of her uncle Isaac Milner, President of Queens’, quoted a letter to herself from Thomas Babington Macaulay (son of Zachary, above) recounting a visit by the 13-year old Macaulay to her father at Easter 1814, and reporting that Milner had said of Erasmus:

We have no relique of him at Queen’s except a huge cork-screw, and I am afraid that there was nothing in his principles to keep him from making very assiduous use of it. [The Life of Isaac Milner, by Mary Milner, 1842, p. 596]

It is strange that both of the earliest known accounts of the corkscrew date from 1814 and involve members of the Macaulay family. Another reference published later in 1814 (but maybe written earlier) comes from George Dyer, poet:

Every thing that calls to mind the memory of an eminent man, is apt to take the attention of the curious; and accordingly some might find pleasure in visiting the chambers of Erasmus — reported to be the garret chambers, near the screens — in which was formerly an immense corkscrew, said to belong to that great man. But though Erasmus loved a glass of wine, being an invalid, much wasted by intense study, he was no hard drinker, so we dismiss the corkscrew as an idle conceit. [History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, by George Dyer, 1814, Vol. 2; p. 161] 

Dyer published a correction in 1824:

The Corkscrew, so far at least as Erasmus is concerned, is, I understand, and as I supposed at the time, a mere hoax. [Supplement to the History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge, by George Dyer, p. 50, in The Privileges of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 2, 1824] 

However, this legend continued to thrive, for on 1908 July 2nd, Percy Stafford Allen (editor of Erasmus’s letters) wrote in a letter:

Thence to Queens’, where our great hero dwelt for several years. The most grotesque traditions were afloat, even among the servitors. The butler showed us Erasmus’ corkscrew, and the scout who let us into the rooms he is said to have occupied told how ‘in one of his letters he mentions having seen 2 rivers from his windows, i.e. the Granta and the Cam, which were in view before that mill was built’. The letter is a figment, but where can the story have come from? Ascham in 1544 gathered oral tradition about Erasmus and his horse: but can tradition of this sort have lasted orally nearly 400 years? [Letters of P.S. Allen, by H.M. Allen, 1939, p. 77] 

The corkscrew can no longer be found, and it is not known what became of it.