Today is the 700th anniversary of the establishment of the King’s Scholars in Cambridge, an event which marks the very beginning of Trinity’s story. On 7 July 1317 an official letter, or writ, was sent on behalf of King Edward II to the sheriff of Cambridgeshire, telling him that the king had sent twelve children from his household in the care of a man named John de Baggeshote (their master) to study at Cambridge. The children were all boys (girls were not admitted to universities till the nineteenth century). These Scholars, who were probably aged about fourteen, lived in rented accommodation. The sheriff was ordered to pay their expenses out of the money he collected on the king’s behalf, and to obtain a receipt for the money he gave them. This writ is believed to mark the very first establishment of the King’s Scholars. It was followed by others, ordering payments and gradually increasing the size of the community.
It seems unlikely that the king would have sent the boys to study at Cambridge without making arrangements with the sheriff for their maintenance, and this was evidently the first time that they were mentioned to him. Later writs are less detailed and they all refer back to arrangements already made, while the earliest surviving receipt for money paid to the Scholars covers a period beginning two days after this document. This has been assumed, quite reasonably, to be the day on which John de Baggeshote and the boys arrived in Cambridge. When the sheriff went to the Exchequer in Westminster to make his account he handed in this letter, together with the receipt for the money he had paid to King’s Scholars, and the clerks credited his account accordingly.
Letter from the king to the sheriff of Cambridge, 7 July 1317
Translation: Edward by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine, to the sheriff of Cambridge, greeting. Whereas we have sent our beloved clerks John de Baggeshote and twelve others, children of our chapel, to the university of Cambridge to live there in study at our expense, in order to profit […], we order that from the issues of your bailiwick you cause to be paid to the said John every week for his commons [… twenty-]one pence, and for each of the said twelve children per week for their commons [fourteen pence, and] for the cost of their hostel and their other necessities between now and next Michaelmas […] forty shillings; making an indenture between yourself and the said John for what you have thus paid him, by the testimony of whom and of which we will cause a tally for the amount to be raised at our Exchequer, by which you will have due allowance on your account. Given under our privy seal at Bockeby [Long Buckby, in Northamptonshire] on the seventh day of July at the end of the tenth year of our reign.
In the middle ages the king constantly travelled about the country with his household. His main secretarial staff stayed in Westminster, using the Great Seal to authenticate important official documents. But a smaller group of officials accompanied him with the Privy Seal, which could be used to issue letters, or ‘writs’, under his direct instruction, like this one. These ‘writs of privy seal’ were written in French, still at this time the usual spoken language of the court. The seal would have been attached to a small strip of parchment at the bottom, but this has been torn away. The document has also been damaged by damp, leaving a hole in the middle.
What do we know about the Scholars?
In the fourteenth century most Cambridge students lived in rented hostels under the care of a master, and this was the arrangement adopted for the King’s Scholars. The earliest writ provides for the payment of forty shillings to cover the cost of their hostel and other necessities for about twelve weeks. We do not know, however, exactly where they lived.
The Scholars were expected to sleep at least two to a bed, as was usual in the middle ages. When two new boys, John de Kingston and John de Kelsey, were sent to Cambridge in September 1317 it was specifically ordered that a bed should be bought for them, and the sheriff’s next receipt duly recorded the purchase of ‘a coverlet, a blanket, two linen sheets, and a piece of canvas’, together costing twenty shillings. Note that there is no mention of a bedstead: the boys would have slept on the floor on a straw mattress, probably made from the canvas. The bedding could then be rolled out of the way in the daytime.
Food and Drink
The Master and Scholars received weekly allowances of 21d. and 14d. respectively for their ‘commons’, that is, the food and drink they ate and drank together. We have no specific information about the arrangements made for meals. The community probably employed servants to help buy and prepare food and drink. It is unlikely that much can have been produced in the household itself: some durable items may have been stored, but it would have been necessary for someone to go to the market every day to buy fresh provisions.
Grants were made to the Master and Scholars from time to time to cover the cost of rent and other necessities, including clothing. But sometimes specific grants were made for the purchase of gowns and hoods, usually at Christmas or Easter. In 1319, for instance, the Master and Scholars were instructed to join the king’s household at York to celebrate Christmas. In preparation for this visit red cloth for gowns and fur for hoods was purchased from merchants at Bury St Edmunds. These were expensive items: the cloth cost over £21, the skins nearly £4.
Accounts for the purchase of gowns are one of the main sources for the names of the Scholars and their dates of admission and departure.
Some of the Scholars may have been at Cambridge for only a short time, but many stayed for several years. Of the sixteen in residence in 1325 twelve had been there since at least 1319, and one of them went on to be a member of the King’s Hall.
In most cases the students’ studies would have been confined to the Arts course, which was based on grammar, logic, and rhetoric — in other words language (Latin), reasoning, and persuasive speaking. Some instruction may also have been given in arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. After completing the arts course, the most advanced students proceeded to the higher faculties of Law, Medicine, and Theology.
The King’s Scholars would mainly have attended the general lectures given in the university by recent graduates, but they probably also received some teaching in their own household.
The first master, or warden, John de Baggeshote, was replaced some time between 1321 and 1325 by Simon de Bury, who died in office on 3 October 1331. His successor John de Langtoft took over a rather disorderly community, and a royal commission was sent to Cambridge to help him examine the Scholars’ progress and behaviour, improve discipline, and remove those who were no longer benefiting from their studies.
Langtoft, who had apparently only been appointed master while he waited for a position in the church to become available, stayed for less than two years. Thomas Powys, on the other hand, who took his place, had a very long connection with the community. At the time of his appointment he had already been a Scholar for at least eight years, and in 1337 he became the first warden of the King’s Hall, a position he kept till his death in 1360.
The later careers of only a few Scholars are known, though it is likely that many, like the later members of the King’s Hall, went into the royal service.
Robert de Imworth, for instance, a Scholar from 1318 to 1329, was appointed a purveyor, or purchaser, to the household of Queen Philippa (Edward III’s consort) in 1330 and was sent on royal business to Ireland in 1346. He married a woman named Sara, and the Robert de Imworth who was a member of the King’s Hall in the 1340s may have been their son. Their social status is indicated by the fact that their mansion at Egham was permitted to have its own chapel.
Hugh de Sutton left the community in 1321 to become a Franciscan friar, and several of those who went on to become members of the King’s Hall eventually obtained preferments in the church.
Richard de Wymondewold, a Scholar from 1329 to 1337, obtained a doctorate in Civil Law, married a woman named Syfrida, and became an advocate in the papal court at Rome.
Twenty years later Edward’s son, Edward III, transformed this community into a college of thirty-two scholars, who were to live together in a house he had recently purchased next to St John’s Hospital (later converted into St John’s College). The house was to be known as the Hall of the King’s Scholars of Cambridge (aula scolarium regis Cantebrigie), and Thomas Powys was nominated the college’s first warden. King’s Hall remained in existence till 1546, when it was dissolved as part of the arrangements for founding Trinity. All its buildings and property, and some of its personnel, were transferred to the new college. Parts of the older college still exist, including the Great Gate and the Clock Tower.
An exhibition focusing on the period from 1317 to 1337, before the King’s Scholars had a permanent home in Cambridge is currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.