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Wife of Henry VIII ‘did not decide Trinity College’s fate’



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A famous story that Henry VIII was persuaded to found Trinity College by his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, has been disputed.

Research by Richard Rex, professor of reformation history at the University of Cambridge, now shows that this much-loved and repeated tale is misleading. Prof Rex’s study, published in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, reveals that numerous powerful people at court helped to defend the university from the potential threat posed by the king in his final few years, and that Henry had already decided to establish Trinity before the university lobbied Katherine Parr.

Tourists queueing under the Great Gate in order to visit Trinity College in Cambridge University. The gate features a statue of King Henry VIII who founded Trinity College in 1546. "
Tourists queueing under the Great Gate in order to visit Trinity College in Cambridge University. The gate features a statue of King Henry VIII who founded Trinity College in 1546. "

The university’s fears centred on the Chantries Act of 1545, which empowered the king to take over, at will, any of the ‘colleges, free chapels, chantries, hospitals’ or other religious foundations with which his kingdom abounded.

But as Prof Rex explains: “While the Chantries Act did indeed give Henry the power to suppress any college or church foundation he chose, it’s clear that the university’s friends at court did all they could, from the start, to ensure that this new power would not be used against Cambridge or Oxford.”

He added: “When I started this work, I simply wanted to nail down the traditional story by checking the sources and footnotes. It had been retold so often by so many good historians that I had no reason to doubt it was true. But I found that the whole thing was a mess, the chronology didn’t make any sense. So I set about trying to put the record straight.

“The fact that Cambridge and Oxford were, from the start, set apart from the rest of the country in the implementation of the Chantries Act is just one among several indications that Henry VIII already had something special in mind for them.

“Henry’s plan to establish lasting memorials to himself in both universities had probably been in his mind since mid-1545 at the latest. The ‘Cambridge version’ of events appears to have been an academic flight of fancy. Our lobbying efforts weren’t quite as influential as we once liked to imagine.”

“Strangely, a fashion has grown up of attributing too much of what Henry VIII did to the influence of those closest to him – Wolsey, Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, or Katherine Parr. Like anyone, Henry was liable to be influenced by those around him. But the big decisions – and the founding of Christ Church and Trinity were big decisions – were his.”


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