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Image for the news item 'A December Feast at Emmanuel' on 10 Dec 2020
: left: Sir Walter Mildmay,1588; right: Sir Walter’s signature in the college statutes, 1587. The decorative flourish contains a monogram of his initials, followed by the letter ‘C’ for Chancellor

Emmanuel College, founded by Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer, admitted its first students in November 1584, but it was not until December 1587 that all the necessary building works had been completed and the college could hold a formal dedication ceremony. The Founder was to be present, and as this was akin to a royal visit, there was a flurry - one might almost say frenzy - of activity to get the place looking its best. In the weeks leading up to the celebrations, the college accounts contain numerous payments for paving, glazing, carpentry, painting, cleaning and general fitting-up; a clock was acquired and housed, a new privy was built, and there was a payment for ‘dressing all rooms against our founders coming’, while the ‘founders chamber’ where Sir Walter was to sleep was whitewashed and furnished with a door. The external appearance of the college must also have been thought to require beautifying, for the street outside the college was paved and ‘clensed’, and the ‘great gates’ at the entrance were taken down and set up in a new position. The inner court of the college was weeded, and ‘quickset’ hedges were planted in the gardens.

The dedication ceremonials included a service in the new chapel, for which two desks had been purchased ‘to lay the bible on’, and a feast in the Hall. This banquet must have been a glittering affair, literally, for a large consignment of new pewter tableware had been sent up from London. Packed in straw, inside baskets secured with cords, were platters, dishes, ‘sawcers’, porringers, salts, candlesticks, trays, pans, pots and kitchen utensils. The food served at the feast was also worthy of the occasion, for the highlights were two does, sourced from nearby Somersham Park, and a ‘cragg of sturgeon’ delivered to the college by the Cambridge carrier Thomas Hobson (of ‘Hobson’s Choice’ fame). As it was winter, the college laid out thirteen shillings ‘on coals at the dedication’.

During the Founder’s visit a new chapter was added to the college’s copy of the foundation statutes, recording Sir Walter’s desire that a particular chamber (now D3) should be reserved in perpetuity for the use of any of his kin who wished to reside at Emmanuel ‘for the purpose of study’.  If no Founder’s kin required the room, the Master was permitted to assign it to a student of his choosing, ‘having regard to equity as well as to the dignity and deserts of the person’, but if any kin subsequently claimed the room, the occupant was to vacate it ‘forthwith’. Sir Walter signed off the new chapter with an elaborate flourish and either he, or the chirographer, added the date ‘December 1587’ in the margin.

The Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University was an honoured guest at the dedication feast, and he penned a fulsome thank-you letter that Uriah Heep might have admired:

To the Right Honourable Sir Walter Mildmay Knight one of her Majesties most Honourable Privy Councill. What joy and comfort we received at the late dedication of Emanuel College founded by your honour, and brought to perfection in so short a space, I may not seek to express sufficiently by these my letters. As then we joined together in humble prayers that God might bless the same to his honour, and the benefit of his Church and the Common Wealth, so we rejoice not a little that by the insertion of the College, such a beauty and ornament also, is added to the University. Wherefore I thought it my humble duty…not only to give my humble thanks to your Honour for the same, but also to shew our thankfulness in accepting it: and to declare how willing I shall be to show such our favours to the said College as shall lie in my power. I may not trouble your Honour with many words, wherefore humbly taking my leave, I beseech God to continue your Honour to the great benefit, as of the whole realm so of this her Majesty’s University. Your Honours humble to be commanded, Thomas Legge Procon. Cambridge 20 December 1587.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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