Cambridge may not be the “city of dreaming spires” as Matthew Arnold dubbed Oxford (Oxford, in Cambridge, is known as “the other place”), but it does have its spires and among the highest are the four spires on Kings College Chapel pictured above. The four corner spires soar to a height of 151′.
The Chapel itself is a marvelous example of late Gothic Perpendicular architecture and boasts the largest fan vault in the world. Construction was commenced in 1447 under the reign of Henry VI and completed, more or less, in 1547 shortly after the death of Henry VIII. It is, perhaps, the most iconic symbol of the City of Cambridge. If you, as I, listen to NPR’s Christmas Eve broadcasts of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols you are hearing the Kings Chapel Choirs and the townspeople of Cambridge gathered in the Chapel. With its soaring stain glass windows, and the fan vault, the Chapel is a monument to the potential of the human spirit and truly a work of kings.
But does that stop your determined Cambridge student prankster from thumbing his nose at this edifice dedicated to the greater glory of God? It does not. For example, sometime turning the night of November 28, 2009, Santa hats were placed on the four spires of the Chapel.
Remember, to reach the peak of the spires one ascends 151′. It was probably the first time in the 563 year history of the Chapel, that all four spires had been climbed at the same time. University authorities were pretty sure that the prank had been perpetrated by Cambridge students and were not very happy. It took several steeplejacks with ropes and ladders a couple of days to make the ascent to remove the offending hats.
On another occasion, someone put a traffic cone on the top of one of the spires. Scaffolding was erected to get to the cone but work had not been completed before the work day came to a close. The next day when the workmen returned, they found that the traffic cone had been moved to another spire!
But wait, there’s more. In June of 1958, students somehow got a derelict Austin Seven car onto the roof of Senate House, a massive Neo-Gothic edifice constructed between 1722 and 1730. The engine and transmission had been removed from the car, but still. It took University authorities a week to get the wreck off the building.
On at least two occasions, cars have been suspended from the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College. The cars are floated down the Cam on punts, secured to the underside of the bridge with cables, and when the punts float away, Bob’s your uncle, the car is hanging from the bridge.
Now I’ve titled this post Boys Will Be Boys. I am not being sexist here you know. If these pranks were perpetrated by University of Cambridge Students, then odds are that it was boys who were the perpetrators. Although today about 40% of Cambridge University Students are women, such was not always the case.
The first women’s college at Cambridge, Girton, was not opened until 1869. Even then, the women of Girton (there were five) were located away from the site of the other colleges and instruction was given by lecturers who took a train to Girton when their spare time allowed. It’s reported that a priest, passing by the location of Girton College, referred to it as “that infidel place.” Not until 1948 were women actually awarded a degree. Previously, though they were allowed to attend lectures, and even take the exams required for graduation—upon application—the University Council declined to award degrees but allowed University Fellows of good will, and in their spare time, to read and mark exams completed by women students. The last all male college to admit women was Magdalene (pronounced maudlin) and on that occasion, in 1985, Magdalene students wore black armbands and flew the college flag at half-mast! They marched around the college carrying a coffin symbolizing the expected demise of the college. But, surprise, surprise, the rating of the college on the Tompkins Table, an annual listing of all of the colleges of the University based on the performance of their undergraduate students on that years exams, went up, and continues to rise!
Well, there’s more to the story of women at Cambridge, but they appear to be less inclined to foolish, and potentially dangerous pranks. Boys will be boys, to be sure, but Women will be Women and that’s something for which we all ought to be grateful.