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The Peculiars of the University of Cambridge

  • Burkhard Steinberg

Are the University of Cambridge and its colleges peculiars? The university has always claimed independence from episcopal authority for itself and its colleges. A struggle was resolved in 1434 by a tribunal set up by the Pope, in which the Prior of the monastery of Barnwell heard both sides and decided that the University and its colleges were to be exempt from the supervision of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Bishop of Ely, in whose diocese the University was situated. This became known as the Barnwell Process. It established the University and it colleges as peculiars defined as having an Ordinary other than the diocesan bishop. Colleges founded later but before the Reformation claimed the same privileges. At the Reformation, the authority of the Pope was replaced by that of the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the privileges that the University and its colleges enjoyed continued to apply. Post-Reformation foundations of colleges tended to claim the same exemptions from episcopal jurisdiction, but without documented evidence. This article argues that the continued acceptance by the Bishop of Ely of the University and its colleges as extra-diocesan confirms them to be peculiars within the legal definition.

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1 Burn, R, The Ecclesiastical Law (eighth edition, London, 1824), vol 3, p 72.

2 Ibid, p 23.

3 Halsbury's Laws of England, vol 34 (London, 2011), para 212.

4 Hill, M, Ecclesiastical Law (third edition, Oxford, 2007), p 134.

5 Barber, P, ‘What is a peculiar?’ (1995) 3 Ecc LJ 299312.

6 Knowles, D, ‘Monastic peculiars’, in The Monastic Orders of England (Cambridge, 1949), p 600.

7 This whole section is derived from Cobban, A, The King's Hall within the University of Cambridge in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1969), pp 86103.

8 Little St Mary's Church pamphlet (Cambridge, 1980).

9 Clark, J Willis, The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton (Cambridge, 1988), vol 1, p 34.

10 Attwater, A, Pembroke College Cambridge: a short history (Cambridge, 1936), p 8.

11 Venn, J, Caius College (London, 1901), p 11.

12 Heywood, J, Early Cambridge University and College Statutes in the English Language (London, 1855), pp 197198, 208.

13 Cobban, A, The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to c.1500 (Berkeley, 1988), pp 135, 294–297.

14 Saltmarsh, J, King's College (Cambridge, 1961), pp 3, 21.

15 Heywood, J and Wright, T, The Ancient Laws of the Fifteenth Century for King's College Cambridge (London, 1850), p 160.

16 Knowles, Monastic Orders, pp 580–585.

17 Brittain, F, A Short History of Jesus College Cambridge (Cambridge, 1940), pp 19, 25–26.

18 The Revd Dr John Hughes, Dean of Chapel, Jesus College, e-mail to the author, 7 November 2011.

19 Rackham, H, Early Statutes of Christ's College (Cambridge, 1927), p 115. It continues with ‘Of the manner of Visiting’. The Bishop of Rochester referred to is John Fisher. The chancellors referred to are Chancellors of the University of Cambridge. The Chancellor remains Visitor of Christ's College to this day.

20 The Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533 and the Oxford and Cambridge Act 1571.

21 The Revd Dr Maggi Dawn, Chaplain of Robinson College, e-mail to the author, May 2010. The current chaplain is a Baptist minister.

22 Dr Bridget Nichols, Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely, e-mail to the author, August 2010.

23 Fuller, T, The History of the University of Cambridge Since the Conquest (London, 1655).

24 Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, vol III, p 89.

25 Brooke, C, A History of the University of Cambridge. Vol IV 1870–1990 (Cambridge, 1993), p 94.

26 The Revd Dr James Gardom, Dean of Pembroke College, e-mail to the author, January 2010.

27 Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, vol III, p 72.

28 Paul Barber, letter to the author, 20 July 2012.

29 Barber, ‘What is a peculiar?’, p 311.

30 Phillimore, R, The Ecclesiastical Law of the Church of England (second edition, London, 1895), vol 2, p 1609.

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Ecclesiastical Law Journal
  • ISSN: 0956-618X
  • EISSN: 1751-8539
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