Candlemas, the guild and the college

Today is Candlemas which serves as the secondary feast-day of Corpus Christi College. The primary feast-day is of course Corpus Christi, generally in June. The Candlemas connection comes about because the college was founded in 1352 by a united guild of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary was founded about a century before the college and celebrated its feast on Candlemas day.

To celebrate the feast, two of the items currently on exhibition relate to the guild. The first is a charter dated 1306 issued by Edward I confirming a grant of land in central Cambridge given to the guild by one of its members, Adam Elyot.

Charter of Edward I
Charter of Edward I (XXVII.16,1-2)

The charter still has its copy of Edward’s Great Seal.

Great Seal of Edward I
Great Seal of Edward I

In 1350, the guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary was taken over by the new guild of Corpus Christi which had been set up by Cambridge townspeople with the express purpose of founding a new college. To understand why that might have happened, take a look at the other document on show:

Bede roll of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Bede roll of the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary

This is an extract of the bede roll of the guild, listing all the members of the guild who had died and were to be remembered in the prayers of the brethren. Names were added over the years but then, at the end of the roll are squeezed in the names of 92 members who died of the plague in 1349-50. At least one-third of the population of Cambridge died in the space of nine months and the guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary had very few members left to pray for their predecessors – but valuable land holdings in central Cambridge. This seems to be the reason behind the merger of the two guilds.

Within two years, the united guild had succeeded in founding a college and dissolved itself, handing over all its assets, including property and archives, to the college. The college also took on and has maintained the guild’s responsibility to pray for its proto-benefactors – including Adam Elyot, whose name can be seen on the bede roll between the splendidly named Argent Wolleward and Willelmus le spicer and his wife Elena.

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