1 June 2022

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In this Platinum Jubilee year, it is interesting to look back at the two visits made by HM Queen Elizabeth II to our College. On both occasions, she was accompanied by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge between 1976 and 2011.

The Royal Party passing through Front Court in 1984

The Queen and Prince Philip first came to Emma on 16 May 1984, their visit being the grandest of the various jamborees put on in 1983–84, to celebrate the quatercentenary of the College’s founding by Sir Walter Mildmay.  The itinerary opened with a tour of the Gallery, followed by lunch in Hall, where only the Fellows and Scholars could be accommodated—the rest of the students were billeted on other colleges. The light but appetising menu comprised melon, sole, and champagne sorbet. Afterwards, the party visited the Chapel and the Library, where some of the treasures from the books, manuscripts and archive collections were on display. While there, the Queen and the Duke signed a large formal photograph of themselves. Everyone then moved to a marquee, where students and staff had an opportunity to meet the royal couple.

The visit concluded in the Fellows’ Garden, where the Queen planted an English Oak not far from the wicket gate. Prince Philip planted a Smoke Tree nearby. The Master, Derek Brewer, reported in the annual College Magazine that the royal visit had been ‘marked by its gracious informality and the warmth of feeling it aroused’. Well, informal up to a point, perhaps, but the visit had involved weeks of meticulous planning. It is not surprising that the commemorative photo album shows a certain amount of strain visible, at times, on the faces of those responsible for the day’s smooth running. The Queen’s Private Secretary congratulated the College on the ‘excellent’ day, which the entire royal party had enjoyed ‘enormously’.

When the Queen and the Duke returned to Emmanuel on the afternoon of 19 April 1995, the atmosphere was perceptibly more relaxed. This was due largely to the fact that the Master—Lord St John of Fawsley—was at ease with royalty, and relished being Master of Ceremonies. Some months earlier, the sovereign had accepted the Master’s invitation to open the innovative and prestigious building that was being erected near the Master’s Lodge, concurrently agreeing that it could be named ‘the Queen’s Building’. This exciting news had to be kept secret for a time, even from the College’s Governing Body, and in the face of mounting speculation.

On arrival at Emma, the royal party proceeded to the Queen’s Building, where the opening ceremony took place. A tour of the Fellows’ Garden followed, allowing the Queen and Prince Philip to inspect the growth put on by the trees they had planted in 1984. This was followed by a short concert in the Chapel, after which everyone had a chance to meet the royal couple. The visit ended in the Parlour, where the Queen signed the visitors’ book and the inevitable formal photo. The Master then presented Her Majesty with a silver salver, designed to hold Post–Its, with a starter pack of notes! 

(Above: Lord St John with the Queen & Prince Philip, 1995)

The speech given by the Queen on this visit concluded with these words: ‘In founding this College, Sir Walter claimed to Queen Elizabeth that he was planting an oak tree. In 1984, on the 400th anniversary of the College, I actually did plant a real oak tree in the Fellows’ Garden. Today, I am unveiling the two plaques to mark the occasion of the opening of this fine new building. In doing so, I feel that I have planted an acorn from Sir Walter’s tree.’

The Queen’s ‘real’ oak has already grown to a most impressive height. May it long continue to flourish, as a memorial of our sovereign’s visits, and a representation of the Founder’s vision.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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