Before the Wren Library

This is the first in a series of blogs which will focus on aspects of the architecture, decoration and furnishing of the Wren Library but to begin we will take a look at the Old Library.

The north-west corner of Great Court. The Old Library was on the upper floor of this range to the left of the Clock Tower.

Trinity College was founded 1546 by an amalgamation of the fourteenth-century colleges of King’s Hall and Michaelhouse. Both of these colleges had library buildings. A catalogue and borrowers’ register from King’s Hall reveals that it owned around 100 volumes by the end of the 14th century: a few volumes were kept chained in the library for reference, but most could be borrowed by Fellows. Over half of the volumes were on civil law. The collection was added to by Henry VI in 1435 and it is likely that there were around 200-300 volumes by the early 16th century. Many manuscripts were dispersed in the early 16th century or may have been used for binding fragments. None of these volumes remain in Trinity College Library (though there are two manuscripts in the British Library).

King’s Hall Library was probably located on the first floor of a range behind the present College Chapel. Likewise Michaelhouse Library (about which much less is known) was probably also on an upper floor. It is likely to have been located somewhere close to the site of the current Hall. There are two early printed books in the Wren Library which are known to have been at Michaelhouse: one is the Historia scholastica by Petrus Comestor (C.15.2) and the other was returned to Cambridge in 1943 and forms part of the Newton Collection (NQ.11.32). William Filey, whose name is recorded in both books, was a member of Michaelhouse.

Fore-edge of C.15.2

At first the former King’s Hall library building served the new foundation of Trinity College, but this changed in the 1590s with the remodelling of Great Court by Thomas Nevile. The Clock Tower was moved to its present position to the west of the Chapel and a new three-storey range was built joining the tower to the Master’s Lodge. A new library was established on the upper floor. In 1608, Sir Edward Stanhope bequeathed funds to establish a Librarianship and Sub-Librarianship (posts which still exist today). He also laid down rules for borrowing and an annual inspection of the collection. Bursar’s Accounts reveal that the library floor was covered with matting and shelf space was probably provided in bays formed from bookcases which projected into the room. Volumes were marked in ink on the fore-edge which were then shelved with the classmark facing outwards.

The Library created in 1598 was not a large space, but the collection of books was still quite small: an estimate for the year 1600 suggests around 500 or 600 volumes only two of which were manuscripts. However, the seventeenth century saw a great increase in donations of manuscripts and printed material so that by mid-sixteenth century the library had been enlarged by 500 manuscripts and around 1500 printed books. A fire destroyed the Library roof in 1665-6 and an inventory of the books (which all survived the fire) the following year in 1667 recorded a total of 2,705 volumes contained within 22 classes including theology, moral philosophy, geography and astronomy.

Page from the Catalogue of 1667 (

Fears that the building was structurally too weak to support the volume of books grew and this problem became more urgent following Bishop Hacket’s bequest of his personal library in 1670. The impetus to build a new library had begun.

Reference: Gaskell, P. and Robson, R., The Library of Trinity College, Cambridge: a short history (Cambridge, 1971)

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