In this post we take a look at the Trinity Hall manuscripts which were described in the second part of Professor Nigel Morgan’s talk to the Supporters of the Old Library on 18 April. These two manuscripts are linked, not through place of production or former ownership, but through their subject: Lollardy. In 1395 a group of Lollards petitioned Parliament by posting the “Twelve conclusions of the Lollards” on the door of Westminster Hall.

MS17, Trinity Hall Cambridge

MS 17, Trinity Hall Cambridge. King Richard II can be seen in the historiated inital “O”

MS 17 Roger Dymmok Against the twelve heresies of the Lollards

This manuscript dates from 1394/95 and is by the Dominican friar, Roger Dymmok. It was a presentation copy to King Richard II and is the most lavish copy in existence of this treatise. The Lollards were unorthodox and had heretical views regarding the priesthood and sacraments. They were proto-Protestants and were persecuted primarily for these views, rather than for translating the Bible into English (although their translation was regarded as very suspect because of their theological errors). Many among the higher echelons of English society supported the views of the Lollards, including John of Gaunt, but the king was expected to be the upholder of orthodoxy.

Detail of MS 17 showing the illuminated foliate border

Detail of MS 17 showing the illuminated foliate border

The manuscript has very distinctive foliate decoration in the borders of the pages which links it to other manuscripts, probably all made in London. It is an irony that the illuminator of this manuscript is very close in style to the illuminator of the luxury Wycliffite Bible belonging to Thomas of Woodstock, the uncle of King Richard II.

MS 3 Trinity Hall Cambridge. Thomas netter kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and child

MS 3 Trinity Hall Cambridge. Illumination of Thomas Netter in adoration of the Virgin and child

MS 3 Thomas Netter Doctrinale ecclesie contra blasfemias Wiclef

The Carmelite friar, Thomas Netter, wrote the Doctrinale in the 1420s and presented it to Pope Martin V. The friars were the main opponents of Lollardy and Netter’s Doctrinale contained a major section against the heresies of Wycliffe. The Trinity Hall manuscript was produced in Flanders and records that it was finished in Ghent in the year 1500. It has one illumination of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus, with Netter kneeling at Mary’s feet.

Detail of MS3 showing the Marian

Detail of MS 3 showing the Marian “M” initial

The lovely border is flower strewn, with the Marian “M” at the foot of the page. This is an important manuscript because there are not many copies of this treatise in existence.

Techniques of Manuscript Illumination

During the talk we learnt the difference between illuminated (using luminous colours with gold or silver) and decorated initials (less intense colours with gold or silver absent);

Inhabited initial, detail from MS 4

Inhabited decorated initial, detail from MS 4

between historiated (containing human figures) and inhabited initials (containing human figures and/or animals in foliate coils;

Zoomorphic initial, detail from MS 2

Zoomorphic illuminated initial, detail from MS 2

and between anthropomorphic (the human figure forms part of the stem of the initial), zoomorphic (animals form part of the stem of the initial), and arabesque initials (fine, linear foliate designs in curvilinear patterns).

Arabesque initial, detail from MS 4

Arabesque decorated initial, detail from MS 4

We also heard about the preparation of pigment by suspension in glair (beaten egg white) and gum Arabic; about the division of labour between the scribe, the person doing the under-drawing, the illuminator and gilder; and about the importance of digitisation as an additional aid to the scholar. Professor Morgan added the caveat that, wherever possible, digitised images should be used in conjunction with (rather than instead of) the examination of the physical copy of the book.

The talk was an intellectual and visual treat and was delivered to a very appreciative audience of over 50 people. It was followed by a visit to the Old Library to see an exhibition of our medieval manuscripts, some of which are rarely displayed.

Exhibition of Medieval Manuscripts in the Chetwode Room

Exhibition of Medieval Manuscripts in the Chetwode Room


Dominicans http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominican_Order

Lollards http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lollardy

Wycliffite Bible http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wycliffe%27s_Bible

Pope Martin V http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Martin_V

Thomas Netter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Netter

Professor Nigel Morgan

Professor Nigel Morgan

On Saturday 18 April the Supporters of the Old Library enjoyed a fascinating talk on “The illuminated medieval manuscripts of Trinity Hall”. We were exceptionally fortunate to have such an eminent speaker in Professor Nigel Morgan, Emeritus Honorary Professor of the History of Art at the University of Cambridge and formerly Head of Research of the Parker-on-the-Web Project on the medieval manuscripts of Corpus Christi College.

Professor Morgan selected five of our most significant illuminated medieval manuscripts, gave an introductory description and then looked at each one in greater detail with regard to production, artistic methods and provenance. Here we will take a look at the first three manuscripts.

Josephus Historia MS.4

Josephus Historia, Trinity Hall MS 4

MS 4 Flavius Josephus’s Historia Antiquitatis Iudaice

Josephus was born in Jerusalem and was a first-century historian. His History of the Jews is based on the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve. The inscription at the front of this wonderful 12th-century manuscript tells us that it belonged to Brother William of Monkland in Herefordshire, which was a cell of the Benedictine Abbey of Conches in France. Professor Morgan compared our manuscript to other manuscripts from Herefordshire and revealed stylistic similarities in the decoration (including the decorative use of small circles) which is typical of Herefordshire production in the second quarter of the 12th century.

MS 2

Historiated initial, illuminated by the “Simon Master”. Trinity Hall, MS 2

MS 2 Ralph of Flavigny’s Commentary on Leviticus

The instructions of Leviticus contained, amongst other things, moral teachings on marriage and divorce. The fact that Henry VIII had no less than three copies is hardly surprising considering his need to find moral justification for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn! This manuscript dates from the second half of the 12th century and was made for Simon, Abbot of St Albans (1167-1183). The illumination of this manuscript is very distinctive and can be linked stylistically to other work by the artist known as the “Simon Master”, identifiable through the style of the figures and facial types in his historiated initials and his use of green outline for the initial frames. The “Simon Master” was probably a professional, lay illuminator who travelled as a team with a scribe as far as France and perhaps even Denmark to produce manuscripts on commission. There are four manuscripts by the “Simon Master” in Cambridge libraries, including ours.

The east end of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. Trinity Hall, MS 1

The east end of St Augustine’s Abbey. Trinity Hall, MS 1

MS1 Thomas of Elmham’s Speculum Augustinianum

This manuscript, which is a history of the Abbey of St Augustine’s in Canterbury written by Thomas of Elmham, dates to about 1410. There are two full-page images. The map of the Isle of Thanet shows the lands belonging to the Abbey and depicts the legend of the pet deer of Queen Domne Eafe which traced out the boundary of the lands of the Abbey’s manors. The map has the East at the top (instead of the North) and has recognisable place names, including Margate and Broadstairs.

Detail showing the white hart of Queen Domne Eafe. Trinity Hall MS 1

Detail showing the white hart of Queen Domne Eafe. Trinity Hall MS 1

The plan of the East end of St Augustine’s Abbey is a remarkable record of an important place of pilgrimage. It shows the High Altar with two doorways leading to the chapels behind which contain the gold and silver shrines of saints associated with the Abbey, including St Augustine of Canterbury himself. On a ledge above the high altar we can see the relics of saints and six books in the centre. The Latin inscription above tells us that these were “Books sent by Gregory to St Augustine”.

Books above the high altar. Trinity Hall MS 1

Books above the high altar. Trinity Hall MS 1

It is almost certain that one of these books was the Abbey’s great treasure, the Gospels of St Augustine (now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi Cambridge). This manuscript therefore has the earliest known depiction of St Augustine’s Gospels!

The Gospels of St Augustine, Parker on the Web

The Gospels of St Augustine. Parker on the Web

In Part 2 we will look at our other manuscript treasures which featured in the talk.


Supporters of the Old Library Trinity Hall on Facebook and on the Trinity Hall website

Wikipedia for Josephus, the Book of Leviticus, the Benedictines, St Augustine of Canterbury, Thomas Elmham, and Domne Eafe.

Parker on the Web http://parkerweb.stanford.edu/parker/actions/page.do?forward=home

What has the Yellow Earl, who left Eton at the age of 12 and devoted his youth to playing sport, to do with Trinity Hall, a premier academic institution? The link is tenuous, as you will discover if you read on, but nonetheless tangible, as will be immediately apparent: in our special collections we have a set of books that came from the earl’s library at Lowther Castle!

Trinity Hall's set of books from the library of Lowther Castle

Trinity Hall’s set of books from the library of Lowther Castle

The Yellow Earl was the second son of the Third Earl Lonsdale and little importance was given to his education (hence his misspent youth on the sports field). His elder brother duly inherited the title and the management of the estate at the young age of 23. However, St George (the Fourth Earl had a most unusual name!) unfortunately died three years later in 1882 after a short illness. It was now the turn of poorly prepared Hugh Cecil Lowther, the Yellow Earl, to take up the title and he made a spectacularly bad job of it.

The Yellow Earl set about spending his fortune, and he spent in a big way! According to Wikipedia “He bought chestnut horses, carriages and many other extravagances. He had yellow-liveried footmen, a groom of the bedchamber, a chamberlain and a master of music to supervise the 24 musicians who travelled from house to house. His household travelled in a special train.” He loved horses (he became Senior Steward of the Jockey Club), he loved cars (he was first President Automobile Association) and he loved yellow. Indeed it was his passion for yellow – the Lowther family’s traditional racing colour – which gave rise to his nickname the Yellow Earl.

Portrait of the Yellow Earl outside Lowther Castle (BBC's Antiques Roadshow)

Portrait of the Yellow Earl in the grounds of  Lowther Castle (BBC’s Antiques Roadshow)

It took a while, but by 1935 the Yellow Earl was spent up. He was forced to move out of Lowther Castle because he could no longer afford its upkeep. When he died in 1944 the title passed to his younger brother Lancelot Edward Lowther, who was an alumnus of Magdalene College Cambridge. To raise money, the Sixth Earl held a large auction of the contents of Lowther Castle, including its library (and our set of books), in 1947.

Detail of the title page of

Detail of the title page of our set of books

After an interval of five years the books found a new home. Here another big spender (on a less spectacular scale) enters the story! This man was George Edward Larman, an alumnus of Trinity Hall and a bibliophile. Larman was a very different kind of man – he was not a spendthrift, instead he used his wealth to build up his own personal library. In 1952 he bought a handsome set of books “An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk” to add to his collection. The books, which are by Francis Blomfield and were published between 1739 and 1775, came from the library of Lowther Castle. They are handsomely bound in gauffered leather, with a gilt centrepiece of a wreath of oak leaves surrounding the family name “Lowther” and surmounted by a coronet.

The gilt-stamped centrepiece on the Lowther bindings

The gilt-stamped centrepiece of the binding

It is doubtful if the Yellow Earl ever looked at these books when they were in his library (he was too busy living it large) but we can be sure that Larman did! He proudly inscribed his name and the date of his acquisition in the front of volume 5. Larman was fascinated by Tudor and Stuart history, heraldry, the history of British Catholics and local history. He read widely and his library was immensely important to him. He bequeathed his extensive library to Trinity Hall and we continue to make fascinating discoveries in the process of completing the project to catalogue his collection.

Larman's inscription recording the acquisition of the volumes in 1952

Larman’s inscription recording the acquisition of the volumes in 1952


Lowther Castle is now a magnificent ruin and is open to the public. You can find out more about the Yellow Earl in the two latest episodes of the Antiques Roadshow from Lowther Castle. The first episode was transmitted on Sunday 19 April and the next episode will be aired on Sunday 16 April. People in the UK can watch the programmes on iPlayer for 28 days after the original transmission date.


Biography of Hugh Cecil Lowther Wikipedia

Lowther Castle http://www.lowthercastle.org/

BBC Antiques Roadshow

Forthcoming Supporters of the Old Library Event

Professor Nigel Morgan will give a talk to Supporters of the Old Library on “The Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity Hall” in the Graham Storey Room, Trinity Hall,  at 2:30pm on Saturday 18 April 2015.

After the talk there will be an opportunity to visit of the Old Library to see its treasures. There will also be an exhibition of the “Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity Hall” in the Chetwode Room, featuring some of our rarely seen manuscripts.


Trinity Hall Cambridge MS.3

This manuscript “The doctrines of the Church against the blasphemy of Wycliffe” by Thomas Netter (Trinity Hall MS.3) contains a lovely illuminated initial showing the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Mary’s mantle is held up by an angel and kneeling on the left is the author, Thomas Netter, who is depicted as a Carmelite in white and black robes. This fifteenth-century manuscript was written in Ghent and is among the manuscripts which will be described in Professor Morgan’s talk.

The talk is free, however spaces are limited. If you are interested in attending the talk and would like to book a place, please contact Emma Bennett

In celebration of the birthday of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys on 23 February we take a look at his connection with Trinity Hall. Surely some mistake? Everyone knows that Samuel Pepys went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, which has the world renowned Pepys Library. Well, on 21 June 1650, Samuel Pepys was admitted to Trinity Hall!

Entry in Venn for Samuel Pepys recording his matriculation at Trinity Hall (extract)

Entry in Venn for Samuel Pepys recording his admission to Trinity Hall (extract)

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was the son of a London tailor and the family lived above the shop in Salisbury Court, just off Fleet Street. They had important relations in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire and in 1643 Samuel was sent to his uncle, Robert Pepys, in order to attend the “Free Grammar School” of Huntingdon. Three years later Samuel returned to London to finish his education at St Paul’s School and to apply to Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Why Trinity Hall? Well, Trinity Hall was the college of Samuel’s great-uncle, Talbot Pepys. As Recorder of Cambridge (1624-1660) and M.P. for Cambridge from 1625, Talbot Pepys was a man of considerable power and influence. He had a large manor house at Impington and was a leading figure in raising taxes to fund Cromwell’s armies. Perhaps, then, it was natural for Samuel Pepys to choose Trinity Hall.

Trinity Hall in the time of Samuel Pepys

Trinity Hall in the seventeenth century

But Samuel never actually attended Trinity Hall! Sadly, we don’t know the reason why. Trinity Hall was a law college and Claire Tomalin, in her life of Pepys, speculates that perhaps Samuel was not keen on the idea of a career in law, adding “or it may have been too expensive to pursue”. Instead Samuel migrated to Magdalene and matriculated there in 1651.

The choice of Magdalene may have been influenced by the fact that the new Master of Magdalene, John Sadler, was a London neighbour at Salisbury Court. Moreover, Samuel had even more influential relative in Edward Montagu, the Parliamentarian soldier, whose mother was Samuel’s great-aunt. Tomalin tells us, “Montagu’s patronage probably came into it too; his chaplain had a Magdalene connection, and Samuel Morland, who claimed his friendship, had just been appointed to a fellowship there and became Pepys’s tutor.” So it was that Samuel Pepys studied at Magdalene for his Cambridge degree.

Trinity Hall and the Civil War

The Master of Trinity Hall in 1642 was Thomas Eden, who was also the M.P. for Cambridge University. Crawley tells us that Eden was “known by 1642 as one of the rare civilians [i.e. civil lawyers] who leaned towards the Parliamentarian cause”. Eden seems to have been skilful in navigating difficult times and, according to Crawley, “he may have had some influence in saving in saving the College silver from requisition either by the king or by Cromwell”.

Founders cup, circa 1350

Founders cup, circa 1350, a remarkable survival

In 1644 Edward Montagu (a relative of Samuel Pepys’s) and the Earl of Manchester came to Cambridge to purge the university of senior members with Royalist sympathies. Crawley tells us that twelve of the sixteen Heads of Houses were turned out and replaced with Puritan scholars – but Thomas Eden was not one of them! In February 1644 Eden had signed the Solemn League and Covenant and in 1645, a few months before his death, he was appointed to serve on a Parliamentary Committee for Admiralty affairs. Parliament took an interest in (or interferred in!) the appointment of Eden’s successor and it was not until 1546 that a mutually acceptable candidate was found at last. John Bond, who had strong Puritan credentials, was appointed Master. He served as Vice-Chancellor in 1658 and retired at the Restoration in 1660.

During the Commonwealth the discipline of the ecclesiastical courts was abolished. This had a direct impact on our civil lawyers. However, civilians still had probate and Admiralty business. College’s links with Admiralty law may account for a charming manuscript in the Old Library dating from about 1660-1690 called “Sea terms and geography”. It contains a glossary of nautical terms, the names of the winds and geographical descriptions of the world.

Trinity Hall manuscript of "Sea Terms" (MS.32). Pepys would have learnt similar terms on board ship with Montagu

Trinity Hall manuscript of “Sea Terms” (MS.32). Pepys would have studied similar terms aboard the “Swiftsure”

Samuel joins the Admiralty

After obtaining his degree, Samuel Pepys returned to London and worked as a clerk for his patron Edward Montagu, who had risen through the army to become Cromwell’s General-at-Sea. The navy flourished under Cromwell, it was well run and gained enormous respect among the European powers. After the Cromwell’s death the Commonwealth began to fall apart under his son Richard. In the interests of stability, a number of the ruling elite, including Montagu, began to think the un-thinkable and work covertly for the restoration of the monarchy.

Samuel Pepys by ClaireTomalin

Life of Samuel Pepys  by Claire Tomalin

At such a time Montagu needed a man he could trust and he chose Samuel Pepys as his secretary. Thus at the age of 27 Pepys joined the Admiralty. On 23 March 1660 Pepys set sail with Montagu aboard the “Swiftsure”. According to Tomalin “Pepys enjoyed his snug cabin, set out to learn sea terms, walked on the deck to keep sickness at bay as they put to sea.” From the “Swiftsure” the party transferred to the “Naseby” (soon to be renamed the “Royal Charles”) which sailed to the Netherlands to bring Charles II and his brother James back to England.

Montagu had royal favour for the part he played in the Restoration and through his influence Samuel was appointed clerk of the acts at the Navy Board, at a salary of £350 a year! Pepys turned out to be an admirable civil servant: a hard worker and loyal to his royal master James Duke of York. He was also a canny businessman. Dealing with naval supplies, he managed to amass a considerable fortune and a wonderful library!

Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge

Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge


Two members of the Pepys family attended Trinity Hall: Talbot Pepys, Samuel’s great-uncle and John Pepys, Talbot’s second son (and Samuel’s cousin).

Talbot Pepys matriculated as a pensioner at King’s in about 1595 and became a scholar of Trinity Hall in 1601. He was Recorder of Cambridge and M.P. During the 1640s and 1650s Talbot Pepys sided with Parliament, being appointed to numerous parliamentary commissions and serving on the committee of the Eastern Association. Shortly before the Restoration, aged 77 and with failing eyesight, he resigned the recordership in favour of his eldest son, Roger, who also became M.P. for Cambridge

John Pepys was admitted as pensioner at Christ’s in 1636 and was admitted to Middle Temple in 1640. In 1641 he obtained an LLB from Trinity Hall and was appointed a fellow. In 1647 he was called to the Bar and obtained an LLD from Trinity Hall.


Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self” by Claire Tomalin. London: Penguin Books, 2002

Trinity Hall: the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975” by Charles Crawley. Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1976

Alumni Cantabrigienses: part 1, From earliest times to 1751” compiled by John Venn and J. A. Venn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924

The Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, opening times

The Master of Trinity Hall is a major player in the new BBC2 series “Wolf Hall”! The “Sherlock” actor Mark Gatiss plays Stephen Gardiner (Master of Trinity Hall from 1525-51 and 1553-55) in the TV drama based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about career of Thomas Cromwell.

The first volume of Hilary Mantel's trilogy on Thomas Cromwell

The first volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell

Stephen Gardiner came up to Cambridge at the age of 14 (which was not unusual in those days). He obtained his Bachelor degree from Trinity Hall in 1518 and became Doctor of Civil Law in 1521 and Doctor of Canon Law in 1522. Crawley tells us that Gardiner “was in residence at Trinity Hall, and almost certainly a fellow, in the early 1520s, and was not at that time reputed to be a rigid or intolerant man”. He lectured in civil and canon law during the years 1521-24 and was appointed in 1523/4 to examine in both subjects for four years.

In 1523 he was engaged by the University on business with Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal was so impressed by Gardiner that he took him into his employ in 1524. It was probably through Wolsey’s influence that Gardiner was elected Master of Trinity Hall in 1525. Gardiner was an absentee Master. However, he clung to his Mastership until his death, despite the fact that he held other more important offices.

Trinity Hall's portrait of Stephen Gardiner

Trinity Hall’s portrait of Stephen Gardiner. For a colour version go to BBC’s “Your Paintings”

Gardiner was to rise to become Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1540-47 and 1553-56) and eventually Lord Chancellor. He seems to have valued Trinity Hall as a potential bolt-hole if things went wrong in his public life and Crawley quotes a report that “if all his [Gardiner’s] palaces were blown down by iniquity, he would creep honestly into that shell”.

However, when Gardiner’s fortunes WERE reversed, during the reign of Edward VI, he did not have a chance to retreat to Trinity Hall! Instead he was imprisoned in the Tower and put on trial. In February 1551 he was deprived of his bishopric and sometime later that year he was deprived of the Mastership of Trinity Hall (to be replaced by Walter Haddon in 1552). During the turmoil after the death of Edward VI, Crawley tells us that Gardiner “cautiously chose to stay in the Tower until Queen Mary came in person to release him and reinstate him.”

Gardiner's dedication to Mary Tudor in his book against the marriage of priests.

Gardiner’s dedication to Mary Tudor in his book against the marriage of priests (1554)

His time in the wilderness was over! Gardiner was once again Bishop of Winchester, Privy Councillor, Master of Trinity Hall, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and, from August 1553, Lord Chancellor of England.

You can follow Stephen Gardiner’s career at the centre of Tudor power in BBC Two’s series “Wolf Hall” broadcast on Wednesday evenings.


Trinity Hall has a portrait of Stephen Gardiner by the school of Hans Holbein the younger. In the library’s Trinity Hall Collection, we have three books by Gardiner: ‘A detection of the devil’s sophistrie’ (1546), ‘De vera obedientia’ (1553) and ‘A traictise declaryng … that the pretensed marriage of priestes … is no mariage’ (1554).

The heavilly annotated titel page of "A detection of the devil's sophistrie"

Annotated title page of Trinity hall’s copy of “A detection of the devil’s sophistrie”

For an insight into the religious controversies of the time, take a look at an earlier blog post “Thomas Morgan of Minety”. In the post Dunstan Roberts, our guest blogger and graduate of Trinity Hall, looks at the extensive contemporary annotations to our copy of ‘A detection of the devil’s sophistrie’.References

Trinity Hall : the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975  / Charles Crawley. Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1992

Wolf Hall / by Hilary Mantel. London: Fourth Estate, 2009

Bring up the bodies / by Hilary Mantel. London: Fourth Estate, 2012

BBC Two Wolf Hall (first episode on iplayer)

BBC’s Your Paintings: Stephen Gardiner

Radio Times Wolf Hall in pictures

“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.” These were the sentiments of Charles Dickens in 1835.

The making of the Victorian Christmas began as early as 1800 when Queen Charlotte set up a decorated Christmas tree in the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor for the delight of her young guests at a children’s party. During the 1820s and 1830s there was a strong revival of interest in Christmas traditions, with emphasis on feasting and conviviality – a trend that was reflected by Charles Dickens in his first Christmas piece “Christmas festivities” published in 1835. “Punch” had its first Christmas issue in 1841 and the first Christmas cards were sent in 1843, three years after the introduction of the penny post. However, it was the huge success of Charles Dickens’s tale, “A Christmas Carol”, with its message of loving kindness to the poor and the themes of the home and family love which defined Christmas as we know it today.

The superb Christmas Tree in Hall!

This year’s superb Christmas Tree in the newly refurbished Dining Hall!

But how did the great author himself celebrate Christmas? His son Henry Fielding Charles Dickens (Harry) had vivid recollections of Christmas at Dickens’s beloved home Gad’s Hill. Christmas was a time not only for the family but also for friends of the family. Gad’s Hill was often “full to overflowing and rooms had to be taken in the outlying cottages for some of the guests”.

Harry tells us that Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on.” These were not soporific Christmases with people dozing by the fire. Instead they were packed with entertainments and activity, including round games, songs, country walks and energetic dances all driven by Dickens’s prodigious energy. According to Harry “On one occasion, I remember, we had a country dance … – down the middle and up again! There was no stopping him! His energy, his light-heartedness, his buoyancy, were simply immense.”

The culmination of Christmas excitement came in 1866 when Dickens put on a sports day in a large field at the back of Gad’s Hill. It was a public event with “an immense crowd” of over 2,000 people! Charles Dickens himself describes the day in a letter to one of his best friends, John Forster, “The great mass of the crowd were labouring men of all kinds, soldiers, sailors and navvies… I made them a little speech from the lawn, at the end of the games.” The sports day was a huge success and, according to Dickens, “the road between this and Chatham was like a fair all day.”

Door to the Master's Lodge, Trinity Hall 2010

The door to the Master’s Lodge, Trinity Hall, Christmas 2010

Harry was admitted to Trinity Hall in 1868 (just a couple of years after this Christmas sports day) to read Mathematics. He worked hard and obtained a scholarship at the end of his first year in 1869 to the great delight of his father. Unfortunately, 1869 was to be the last Christmas for Charles Dickens and Harry, in his memoirs, recounts a very different Christmas at Gad’s Hill that year:

“It was on Christmas night, the Christmas before his death. My father had been ailing and had been troubled with his leg which had been giving him considerable pain, and he was lying on the sofa when we started this Memory Game… After successfully repeating a string of words the time came for him to add his own contribution.” Dickens suddenly came out with “Warrens’ Blacking, 30 Strand.” Harry remarks, “What a contrast that Christmas night… On the one hand a great name, admitted and respected throughout the world; while on the other, his mind had reverted to the tragic tale of his childhood.” That Christmas Dickens was looking back to his traumatic time as a boy when he was sent to work in a blacking factory to earn six shillings a week after his own father’s bankruptcy. Charles Dickens was to die just six months later on 9 June 1870.

The Old Library Trinity Hall in winter, complete with snowman!

The Old Library Trinity Hall in winter, complete with snowman!

Harry continued his studies at Trinity Hall and graduated in 1872 as 29th wrangler. He chose a legal career and was called to the Bar in 1873. He had a successful career, being appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1892, a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1899 and Common Serjeant in 1917.

Throughout his life Harry continued to keep the memory of his father alive. During the 1914-18 war he gave recitals of his father’s works to raise money for the Red Cross. In “An open book” Monica Dickens tells us that at family Christmas gatherings at his home in Mulberry Walk, Harry performed imitations of his father giving his famous “Readings”, during which he would wear a geranium, his father’s favourite flower, and lean on the same velvet-covered reading stand used by Dickens during his reading tours. Moreover, to celebrate his 80th birthday in 1929, Harry went through the whole of “A Christmas Carol” without a hitch, his false teeth loosening at the melodramatic section, “I know him – Marley’s ghost!”

“A Christmas Carol” was first published on 17 December 1843 and by Christmas Eve it had already sold over 5,000 copies! The book was immensely popular and is still in print today.

The Hall with a dusting of snow

The Hall with a dusting of snow


“Christmas festivities” by Charles Dickens which appeared in Bell’s Life in London on 27 December 1835.

The recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. by Henry Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1934

A Christmas Carol and other Christmas writings by Charles Dickens; introduction by Michael Slater. London: Penguin Classics, 2010 (ISBN 9780141195858)

Wikipedia: Henry Fielding Dickens

An open book by Monica Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1978

The first Christmas tree” by Alison Barnes, article in History Today, vol.56, issue 12, 2006