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Prince William opens St John’s College Archive Centre

His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge has returned to St John’s College at the University of Cambridge to open a new, state-of-the-art facility for some of its most historically important and precious archives.

The visit, earlier today (Thursday, October 15, 2015), marked the formal opening of the College’s new, award-winning Archive Centre, which is housed in one of Cambridge’s oldest buildings, known for centuries as the School of Pythagoras. It represented a return to St John’s for The Duke, who was affiliated with the College while undertaking a University-run course in 2014. 

The Master of St John’s, Professor Christopher Dobson, accompanied by the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations, Professor Eilís Ferran, escorted The Duke on a tour of the Archives, which contain numerous deeds and charters from the reign of King John onwards, as well as other historically important documents.

These include a rare 14th-Century copy of Magna Carta, a framed excerpt from which was presented to The Duke after he unveiled a plaque to mark the occasion.

The Duke also met various donors who supported the extensive restoration project that enabled the Centre to be built, as well as current staff, students and academics, who will be some of the first people to benefit from the facility.

The Duke of Cambridge was affiliated to St John’s last year, while studying on a ten-week executive education course in agricultural management, run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (now the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership).

Professor Dobson said: “St John’s is fortunate to have one of the finest archives in Cambridge as well as a purpose-built space in which to store these priceless materials; this new facility will make them accessible to a far wider audience than was previously possible. We are very pleased and honoured that The Duke of Cambridge was able to join us for the official opening of the Archive Centre.”

The School of Pythagoras is most probably the oldest surviving house in Cambridgeshire, and one of the oldest buildings in the University city. Located on a site where people have lived and worked for thousands of years, it is thought to have been built at around the end of the 12th Century, pre-dating the College itself, which was founded in 1511. Its rather odd name is thought to have been in use by the sixteenth century, when it was sometimes fancifully imagined that the University had ancient Classical origins!

The School was originally built as a high-status house for a local family, but over the centuries has had a variety of uses. Rather ironically, it was owned for hundreds of years by Merton College at the University of Oxford, even as the University of Cambridge emerged and grew on all sides.

Its mixed history saw it serve as a farmyard barn, a house for a group of women scholars in the 19th century (early in the history of Cambridge’s Newnham College), and as home to some wealthy tenants before the Second World War. Finally, in 1959, it was sold by Merton College to St John’s, and is still fondly remembered by some alumni of the College as a theatre and venue for social events and exhibitions.

Following the development of new student facilities, however, the decision was taken by the College to transform the School into a new, first-class home for its historically important archives.

These contain records generated by the College since it was founded, as well as numerous medieval deeds and other materials dating back to the 12th century. Some of these were inherited from the Hospital of St John – an Augustinian monastic house which pre-dated the College on the same site. Other documents relate to the estate of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, who founded the College itself.

As well as a copy of Magna Carta, the collection includes the household accounts of Lady Margaret, the College’s Foundation Charter, a licence bearing the Great Seal of Richard II, signet letters of Elizabeth I, a printed petition to (and endorsed by) Oliver Cromwell, and numerous records of estates owned by the College and student life over the centuries – among them tutors’ files and records of College clubs and societies. New material is constantly added to the archive, with hundreds of documents, some in electronic form, incorporated every year.

More than half of the funding needed to transform the medieval School of Pythagoras into a modern facility in which these materials can be properly conserved was provided by philanthropic donations, mostly from College alumni. The redevelopment itself was an extremely delicate process, involving, as it did, the conversion of a Grade I listed building, and was led by the architect and consultant Oliver Caroe, of Caroe Architecture Limited.

The result is a completely state-of-the-art facility housed within one of the county’s oldest surviving buildings. The many fragile and priceless items in the archives are now held in secure, climate-controlled storage, and there is also a reading room for researchers and an exhibition space for visiting groups. The redevelopment work has already won an award for architectural excellence at the Cambridge Design and Construction Awards.

As well as members of St John’s itself, the new Archive Centre can be used by researchers and visited by members of the public and school groups by prior arrangement. Further information about the building, its holdings and visiting the Archives can be found at: http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/archives