In the summer of 1564 Elizabeth I made her one and only visit to Cambridge. In honour of the occasion, despite the fact that it was the summer vacation, all the members of the University were recalled to Cambridge. They lined the streets and cheered “Vivat Regina!” as she and her retinue rode into town. The Queen stayed at the Provost’s Lodge of King’s College from 5-10 August, but many of her retinue were put up at other colleges. Crawley tells us that the Lord Chamberlain and Lord Clinton were lodged at Trinity Hall and that the Queen was welcomed to College with a speech by John Hammond (fellow 1557-74).
The University and town organised a full programme of events, including orations, debates, services and, best of all, plays which were put on most evenings for her entertainment. On Sunday 6 August, after Evensong, Elizabeth saw Plautus’s “Aulularia” which was performed in Latin on a ‘great stage’ built in King’s ante-chapel. The players were drawn from all the Cambridge colleges, with the exception of King’s. The reason for this was that men from King’s were busy preparing for performances due to take place on the two following evenings. On Monday evening they formed the cast of “Dido” written in Latin by Edward Halliwell and on the subsequent evening, Tuesday 8 August, they performed Mr Udall’s “Ezechias”.
A certain King’s fellow (who subsequently became Master of Trinity Hall) caught the eye of the Sovereign in the play of “Dido”. She was very favourably impressed by Thomas Preston (for that was his name), “putting forth her hand for him to kiss, her Highness … dubbed him ‘her scholar’ … and therewithal she gave him eight angels”. An angel was a gold coin worth 10 shillings and in addition the Queen promised Preston a handsome pension of £20 a year! It was Thomas Preston who made the final oration, again in Latin, on the occasion of the Queen’s departure on 10 August. All in all the visit has been a resounding success and his meeting with the Queen was an episode that Preston was never to forget. His brass in the ante-chapel of Trinity Hall bears a Latin inscription recalling the day when Elizabeth I called him “her scholar”.
The meeting was also to have repercussions for College. Twenty one years later, just before the death of Henry Harvey (Master 1559-1585) a royal mandate was sent to Trinity Hall staying the election of a new Master. This was followed by another royal mandate directing the fellows to elect Thomas Preston. Elizabeth I and Burghley had chosen “her scholar” for the job! Preston was Master of Trinity Hall from 1585 until his death in 1598, and he also served as Vice Chancellor of the University from 1589-90. According to Crawley, Preston wrote to Burghley that Trinity Hall was labouring under a “store of abuses” and that its debts were “desperate to be remedied”. Nonetheless, it was during his tenure that College undertook the expense of building a new library, the “Old Library” as we know it today.
It is fitting that the Old Library houses two precious documents from Queen Elizabeth I. The first document is the charter reconfirming the original foundation of Trinity Hall in 1350 which was granted to College in 1559, the first year of Elizabeth’s reign. It represents the return of academic life to something approaching normality after the upheavals of the Reformation and the reign of Queen Mary, when Colleges had been closed and amalgamated and new Colleges founded. Queen Elizabeth can be seen enthroned in the large capital “E”.
The second document is a letter to the College, dated 2nd September 1587, requesting the leasing of two manors to one of Elizabeth’s courtiers, Raffe Bowes. The letter bears the impressive signature of Queen Elizabeth I. On the reverse, it is addressed to the Queen’s “trustie and welbeloved the MS [Master] and fellowes of Trinitie Hall in Cambridge”. Of course, the Master at that time was the Queen’s “scholar” Thomas Preston.
Thomas Preston was well-known to contemporaries as the author of the play “Cambyses King of Persia”, originally published in 1584, the year before he became Master. Shakespeare poked fun at the play’s bombast through the mouth of Falstaff, who says “Give me a cup of sack to make mine eyes look red, that it may be thought I have wept; for I must speak in passion, and I will do it in King Cambyse’s vein.” (Henry IV Part I, Act II, Scene 4). Today his name lives on in Trinity Hall’s drama society, the Preston Society, which puts on College musicals, pantos and plays.
But undoubtedly Thomas Preston’s outstanding legacy is that his Mastership presided over the building of the “jewel in the crown” of Trinity Hall – a wonderful Elizabethan library, still virtually unchanged today.
Most of the information about Elizabeth I’s visit to Cambridge in 1564 is taken from Marion Colthorpe’s Royal Cambridge: royal visitors to Cambridge, Queen Elizabeth I – Queen Elizabeth II, Cambridge, 1977.
Trinity Hall: the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975 / Charles Crawley. Cambridge, 1976.
Warren’s book / edited by A.W.W. Dale. Cambridge, 1911.
Wikipedia: article on Thomas Preston