Wordsworths in Cambridge

Next week (April 7th) is the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Wordsworth who was a student at St John’s College, Cambridge from 1787 to 1791. Lines from his autobiographical poem of 1850 – The Prelude – recall the chiming of the clock in Trinity’s Great Court:

“Near me hung Trinity’s loquacious clock,
Who never let the quarters, night or day,
Slip by him unproclaimed, and told the hours
Twice over with a male and female voice.
Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.”

Less well known perhaps is William’s younger brother, Christopher Wordsworth, who became Master of Trinity College in 1820. There were three other siblings: Dorothy, a poet and diarist; Richard, a lawyer and John, a sailor.

Christopher Wordsworth (1774-1846) © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Christopher Wordsworth (1774-1846) was born in Cockermouth. He was educated at Trinity College and became a Fellow in 1799. While an undergraduate he kept a diary (published by his grandson in 1874) in which he refers several times to ‘lounging in the Library’! The diary includes many insights into his reading habits and the workings of the Library including the following entry for 1801:

Friday, Jan 20: Fast-day … hurried through the first volume of a novel, Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, the first book which has yet come round to me in our newly established College Fellows’ Circulating Library.

Monday, Feb 2: Procured the second volume of Lyrical Ballads.

Lyrical Ballads was, of course, the volume written by William Wordsworth with Samuel Taylor Coleridge which is generally acknowledged to mark the beginning of the Romantic movement in English literature. It was first published in 1798 and the second volume followed 2 years later.

Christopher Wordsworth became a clergyman with benefices in Norfolk and Kent. His preferments owed much to the patronage of Charles Manners-Sutton, bishop of Norwich and later Archbishop of Canterbury. While at Trinity Christopher Wordsworth had been a private tutor to Manners-Sutton’s son (also called Charles). Christopher Wordsworth became chaplain to the Archbishop on his appointment in 1805 and when the younger Charles Manners-Sutton (later Viscount Canterbury) became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1817, Christopher Wordsworth became his chaplain.

On the recommendation of Archbishop Manners-Sutton, Christopher Wordsworth was appointed Master of Trinity in 1820. He also served as Vice-Chancellor of the University in 1820–21 and again in 1826–7.

As Master he instigated the building of New Court to provide more accommodation for over 200 undergraduates; he instituted personal prizes for Latin verse composition and he established a permanent fund to increase the value of poorer College livings. More widely he is credited with initiatives which established the Classical tripos in 1822.

Christopher Wordsworth (1774-1846) by George Fennel Robson © The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Christopher Wordsworth’s published works included sermons (1814); a six volume Ecclesiastical Biography illustrating the history of the Church of England (1818); and The Leaven to Leaven the Whole Lump, or, Duties Individual and National’ (1845) which outlined his life-time commitment to state-funded religious provision.

After a 21-year tenure as Master, Christopher Wordsworth resigned in 1841 and was succeeded by William Whewell. He retired to his benefice of Buxted in Sussex and died there in 1846.

Christopher Wordsworth had three sons: John, Charles and Christopher. The eldest, John (1805–1839) was an eminent classical scholar who became a Fellow of Trinity College in 1830. He is buried in the Chapel. Charles, also a classical scholar, became Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane and Christopher, also a Fellow of Trinity, became Bishop of Lincoln.



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