4 May 2022

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Almost every account of Emmanuel’s early history relates the celebrated conversation between our college’s Founder, Sir Walter Mildmay, and Queen Elizabeth I, that supposedly went as follows:

Coming to court after he had founded his Colledge, the Queen told him, Sir Walter, I hear you have erected a Puritan Foundation. No, Madam, saith he, farre be it from me to countenance any thing contrary to your established Lawes, but I have set an Acorn, which when it becomes an Oake, God alone knows what will be the fruit thereof.

The exchange was first recorded in Thomas Fuller’s History of Cambridge University, published in 1655. The most recent history of the college calls the story a ‘pleasant little fiction’, and there are good reasons to regard it as apocryphal. For one thing, it implies that the ethos and perhaps even the existence of Emmanuel had come as a disagreeable surprise to the queen, whereas she had given permission for its establishment. Sir Walter’s religious leanings were no secret, either. Yet the story should not be dismissed out of hand.

Thomas Fuller, a Cambridge graduate, was a prolific and popular author, with a penchant for colourful anecdotes. His sources for the history of Emmanuel are thought to have included several of the college’s senior members, and he may even have met Laurence Chaderton, the first Master, who lived until 1640. He was also familiar with Thomas Ball’s Life of the Renowned Doctor Preston, published 1628, which he thought ‘well written’. John Preston had been appointed Master of Emma in 1622, dying six years later. His biographer, Ball, who was a Fellow of the college, wrote that ‘Sir Walter Mildemay…was wont to say unto his friends that he had set an acorne that might perhaps in tyme become an oake. And, blessed be God, our eyes have seene it not only growne & flourishing, but fruitfull’.

This passage was echoed closely by William Dillingham, Master of Emmanuel during the Protectorate, in his memoir of Chaderton, whom he had known in old age. In this short biography, published posthumously in 1700, Dillingham ends his account of the founding of Emmanuel with the words: ‘Thus was planted that ‘acorn’ by Mildmay (as he used to say himself) which was destined eventually to grow into an oak; by whose shade God’s Church was afterwards refreshed.Although Dillingham had certainly read Ball’s Life he is unlikely to have repeated the acorn anecdote unless he had also heard it from a more reliable source, as (unlike Fuller) he had a low opinion of Ball, considering him to be a ‘vulgar English writer’ who employed ‘invention or imagination’.

Confirmation of Sir Walter’s fondness for acorn imagery is afforded by two original copies of the 1585 College Statutes: not their wording, but their binding. Emmanuel’s copy, although later re–covered, retains the original ornate clasps (Above L). It is surely significant that they are engraved, presumably at the Founder’s behest, with tiny acorn motifs. The Founder’s personal copy of the statutes, also now held in the college archives, still has its original vellum binding, each corner bearing a gilt–stamped acorn (R).

That Sir Walter Mildmay did indeed regard, and speak of, his college as a metaphorical acorn, seems beyond doubt. But what of his fabled encounter with Queen Elizabeth? It would have been entirely in keeping with the queen’s character for her to have indulged in a spot of sardonic banter with a senior and—one suspects—rather stuffy courtier. It is equally possible that Thomas Fuller could not resist embellishing the authentic acorn story. All that really matters, though, is that Sir Walter’s ‘oake’ has continued to flourish, scattering some 25,000 acorns of its own in the four and a half centuries since its planting.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist


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