The Weird and Wonderful History of Pembroke

Eight weeks in Cambridge can feel like a lifetime, so imagine how Pembroke must feel after nearly seven centuries. I for one can’t imagine how it must feel to have gone through Week Five blues almost 2000 times. But thankfully Pembroke’s history is more than just academics, so here are a few myths and happenings from the past...

Mad, bad and dangerous to know?

It seems that the stress of Cambridge took such a toll on poet Christopher Smart that he was sent to a lunatic asylum for six years in the 1700s, with only his cat Jeoffry for company. According to Wikipedia (a trusted historical source), Jeoffry is the ‘most famous cat in the whole history of English literature,’ thanks to a poem Smart wrote about him while living in the asylum. For cat-lovers and English students alike, this is a great claim to fame. More recently, Smart was commemorated in the form of a college cat named Kit Smart, who lived in Pembroke from 1996–2012

Was it a disgruntled ex-member of the debating society? Or one of the myriad of tragically deceased alumni?

A perhaps equally unfortunate individual was Matthew Wren, a Pembroke fellow, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London for nearly two decades during the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. So desperate to be released, he promised to pay for something “holy and pious” if he were set free...which turned out to be the Pembroke College chapel. He and his nephew, Christopher Wren, built it in 1665 as Wren’s first architectural project. So In a roundabout way, Pembroke has the Civil War to thank for its chapel!

On a more Christmassy note, Pembroke celebrates its 670th birthday this Christmas eve! If only Bridgemas Eve were a thing. In 1743 the college mistakenly celebrated its 400th anniversary four years too early - even a poem was written for the occasion! Even though 670 is not a milestone per se, it seems a year worthy of a special poem too.

Is Pembroke haunted?

The myth of the ‘Ivy Court ghost’ has haunted Pembroke since it was first spotted in 1911 by two members of the Cambridge debating society. The society then gathered and wrote a report on their experiences, entitled ‘College Apparitions’, attempting to find out the identity of the ghost. Was it a disgruntled ex-member of the debating society? Or one of the myriad of tragically deceased alumni?

After all, Pembroke has had its fair share of unfortunate deaths. Master Nicholas Ridley, for example, was tragically burnt at the stake in 1555 by Catholic Queen Mary for his support of Protestant Lady Jane Grey.

On a lighter note, another potential ghost is sixteenth-century student Anthony Girlington, who is recorded to have died in college ‘from eating too many custards’. There are worse ways to go, and I’m sure many current students would agree that this particular fate could happen to any one of us.

We will probably never know the identity of the ghost, especially because it ghost has not been sighted for over 100 years - although current students might be advised to take care when walking through Ivy Court late on a Friday night...