“Aulae Clarae” – the Fellows’ Library of Clare College, Cambridge

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Pinakes has been commissioned by Clare College, Cambridge to research and write up the history of the Fellows’ Library and to provide advice on its development and use.

Clare is the second oldest of Cambridge’s colleges. Founded in 1326 as University Hall, its name changed to Clare Hall in 1338 in honour of its patron Elizabeth de Clare (1295-1360). Lady Clare gave books to the College, the cornerstone of its earliest library.

Clare possessed in medieval, Tudor and post-Revolution times respectively three successive library chambers. The earliest was constructed a century after the College’s foundation, built between 1420 and 1430. The College register notes that William Wymbell, Master, contributed £3 for the glass in the south window, and his successors, Gull and Wilflet, supported the Library further. Clare’s first library was amongst a group of similar rooms of the period, pioneered by the architect of New College, Oxford.

Relatively little is known of the medieval library. Contrary to popular belief, it was not destroyed in the fire of 1521. Leland saw many of its medieval books in 1535, listing 30, suggesting that it was still very much in evidence at that date. It seems most likely that the original medieval library was dispersed amongst the fellows by 1549, probably to safeguard the books from the protestant visitations of the university; the visitors had threatened to merge Clare with Trinity Hall.

Thus, the Clare library as it exists today has its genesis in the first half of the 16th century. For whatever reason, a new library funded by Magister Caumonde, Vicar of St Peter’s in Colchester was erected on the first floor of the north side, over a new chapel constructed 1528-1535.  A sketch from the mid-eighteenth century of the Tudor range suggests that the whole length of the attic storey was used as a Library, whilst Loggan’s view shows the whole ten-windowed attic designated as a ‘Bibliotheca’. Two inventories of 1557 and 1560 survive, listing the contents of the new Library, and include few medieval manuscripts, but a respectable and growing library of sixteenth-century books.

In 1627 the Library underwent ‘a Stuart metamorphosis’ the only surviving evidence of which are the Jacobean presses. A visit of the Duke of Buckingham, then Chancellor of the University (1626-1628), coincided with ‘great improvements and refittings’ of the Library, and a contemporary letter records that Dr Pask, the Master, took Buckingham to see ‘a new librarie they are building at Clare Hall, notwithstanding it was not yet furnished with books’.

The formation of the present library over the kitchen is not well recorded in the College archive. We know that its walls were built in 1689, and that, when Cole wrote his description in 1742 the room had been completed, but the old library was still in use:

“At the E. end of this [the Combination] Room is ye Library belonging to ye Coll: hauing a Way into it from ye Master’s Lodge wch is ye grand way up to it and ye common way from ye Combination. This Library also is ye most elegant of any in ye University being a very large well-proportioned room à la modern, wth ye Books rang’d all round it not in Classes as in most of ye rest of ye Libraries in other Colleges … The old Library is over ye Chapel, and had they not one so much better, wd not be reckoned a despicable one, being fitted up wth wainscote Classes on both sides, and has a great many good Books also in that which are separated from ye rest as being rather not so valuable or in worse condition, consisting chiefly of Commentators: there is also a good collection of Italian and Spanish authors there.”

It is a remarkable library, with a fascinating and largely unexplored history.