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Sidney Sussex College : Building Accounts

Sidney Sussex College

<p style='text-align: justify;'>This document, unknown to Willis and Clark, provides the means to trace in detail the construction history of Sidney Sussex College. Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (d. 1589), left £5000 together with her goods not otherwise bequeathed to found a new college in Cambridge, should her executors, Sir John Harington and Henry Grey, Earl of Kent, think it possible. Thomas Fuller observed of this: ‘Alas what is 5000 l. to buy the scite, build and endow a Colledge therewith?’ Having decided to carry out Lady Frances’s intention, rather than pursue the alternative course of giving the money to Clare Hall, Kent and Harington appointed as Master the Foundress’s great-nephew James Montagu. The accounts show how closely he supervised the building of the college. Work began with the laying of the foundation stone on 20 May 1595, before the formal foundation of the college on 14 February 1596 and even before the conveyance of the site from Trinity to Lady Frances’s executors on 10 September 1595.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>As architect, the mason Ralph Simons was selected. He had already worked at Emmanuel, and was later responsible for the Second Court at St John’s and the Hall of Trinity College. Sidney once possessed a portrait of him, possibly the one recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery. His name, in somewhat ill-formed Roman Capitals, occurs acknowledging receipt of payments. Most other craftsmen sign their receipts with marks. Many of those involved in the building of Sidney can be found working with Simons elsewhere in Cambridge, such as the mason Gilbert Wigge, the joiner Andrew Chapman and the carver John Thorpe. The accounts also reveal the name of Sidney’s first gardener, John Simon, who began work in 1599. Wyatt notes that the accounts serve as the basis for ‘a short directory of the men active in the thriving building trade in Cambridge’. For an economic historian the accounts provide useful details of wages and the cost and origin of materials. Of particular interest is the use of freestone supplied by George Wirte of Yaxley from ‘the abbey’, presumably either Ramsey or Sawtry.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Nicholas Rogers FSA, Archivist, Sidney Sussex College.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Digitisation and description generously funded by John Osborn.</p>

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