A University for Suffolk

The gateway of Wolsey’s Cardinal College of St Mary of Ipswich (1528)

Today Ipswich’s University College Suffolk officially becomes the University of Suffolk, having received a royal charter that permits it to award degrees in its own right (the previous UCS was a collaboration between the University of Essex and Anglia Ruskin University). To mark the occasion, the Ipswich Star newspaper has published a feature on the history of higher education in Suffolk and Ipswich to which I contributed. Suffolk was, until today, one of the very few counties in England not to have a university, but the county nevertheless has a long history of providing higher education.

Undoubtedly, the county’s greatest educational institution in the Middle Ages was the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. In the era before the establishment of universities (Oxford did not begin until 1167, Cambridge not until 1209) the schools attached to cathedrals and abbeys were the country’s only source of higher education. Bury was especially distinguished because it did not just teach theology but also the ‘secular’ discipline of medicine, thanks to the influence of the great monk-physician Abbot Baldwin (reigned 1065-97). Throughout the twelfth century, Bury continued to feature some sort of medical school. Indeed, by the end of the Middle Ages the library at Bury St Edmunds was the second largest in the country after that of Oxford University – dwarfing the nascent Cambridge University Library and the libraries of individual colleges. It is no accident that individuals in England interested in the Reformation travelled to Bury in order to use the Abbey’s books in the 1520s. However, the Abbey’s major contribution to higher education was its patronage of the Benedictine house of studies at Oxford, Gloucester Hall – now Worcester College. In the fifteenth century Abbot William Curteys built a handsome new library for Gloucester Hall, and young monks regularly borrowed books from the Abbey’s library and took them to Oxford – much to Curteys’ displeasure. Oddly enough, the Abbey never developed a relationship with nearby Cambridge.

The first grammar school founded in Suffolk was Abbot Samson’s, attached to the Abbey, in 1185, and many more foundations followed during the Middle Ages. The purpose of these schools was to educate boys in Latin grammar so that they could (in theory) go on to Oxford or Cambridge. However, in 1528 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was famously the son of an Ipswich butcher, came up with a more ambitious plan for his home town. In that year he founded Cardinal College of St Mary of Ipswich, which included a grammar school but was also rather more than this. Rather than the usual six forms, Cardinal College had eight, and the college may have been intended for the training of priests (rather like the seminaries that emerged later in the sixteenth century, with grammar schools or ‘minor seminaries’ attached). However, because Wolsey died before he had a chance to draw up the College’s statutes and the College itself was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1530, we have a limited idea of what Wolsey’s ultimate vision of Cardinal College may have been.

In 1535 Abbot John Reeve of Bury St Edmunds, sensing the danger of dissolution, began a fire sale of the Abbey’s books, some of which fell into the hands of Suffolk burgesses and found their way into local grammar schools. However, even after the dissolution Bury continued to give Oxford and Cambridge a run for their money as a centre of learning. The churches of St Mary and St James eagerly embraced the Reformation – more eagerly, in fact, than the established church of Elizabeth I – and in the 1570s the churches were the scene of ‘prophesyings’, learned discussions of Scripture in which laypeople participated. The Elizabethan church was concerned that ‘prophesyings’ gave a forum to unlicensed laypeople to effectively preach, undermining Elizabeth’s determination to limit preaching licences to those whose loyalty could be relied upon. The prophesyings were banned, but as a consequence of them, St James’ Church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral) accumulated an impressive parish library that would have rivalled many college libraries of the time. When learned divines such as the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Bancroft, descended on Bury to enforce conformity, the existence of the parish library meant that the locals were able to give as good as they got. The old parish library of St James still survives, and is located above the west porch of the Cathedral.

Catholic education after the Reformation in Suffolk should also be mentioned. In 1589-91 the Jesuit John Gerard stayed at Lawshall and Coldham Halls, receiving visits from many scholars from Cambridge curious about the Catholic faith; many of them were converted and travelled to the English College at Douai, where they became Catholic priests. In 1685 the Jesuit College of the Holy Apostles, founded in 1633 to evangelise East Anglia and Essex, found a permanent home in the Old Abbot’s Palace in Bury St Edmunds and established a grammar school. The College’s chapel was burnt down in the Revolution of 1688 but the library seems to have survived, since the Jesuits were still looking for books in Bury as late as 1728. It is likely, as I recently argued, that at least some of the books from the College’s library found their way into the library of the Rookwood family at Coldham Hall. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Jesuit Provincial, James Dennett, was chaplain at Coldham Hall, where he was responsible for the education of Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), the greatest English female dramatist of the eighteenth century. Inchbald immortalised this pioneer of women’s education in her novel A Simple Story (1791) as the severe but wise Jesuit Mr Sandford. The fact that Dennett privately educated Inchbald might seem strange, but at this time all Catholics (both male and female) were prevented from attending Oxford and Cambridge, and therefore unless they travelled abroad to study (which was also technically illegal), education at home by priests was the only option for Catholics who wanted a higher education. Dennett educated two generations of the Rookwood family, and this domestic atmosphere may have contributed to his more egalitarian approach.

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