Building and sky

About the College

Portrait of Hugo de Balsham

Peterhouse is the oldest of the Cambridge colleges, founded by Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely in 1284 and granted its charter by King Edward I. The College is a Registered Charity, no. 1137457. As a charitable institution dedicated to education and research, the College has made its own distinctive contribution to society for over 700 years, surviving the Reformation, Civil War and the upheavals of every century since. It remains the smallest college in terms of number of Fellows and students, but as the late Noel Annan put it in his 1999 survey of the universities and society, The Dons, this small College has always had "an intellectual influence … out of all proportion to [its] size".

The College's remarkable continuity is reflected in the historical benefactions that underpin its life and work today. Communal life is centred on the Hall, built with the legacy of the Founder on his death in 1286; the Chapel, the creation of Matthew Wren and John Cosin in the 1600s; and the Libraries, which have built on the benefactions of Andrew Perne in the sixteenth century and of Adolphus Ward in the early twentieth. The current, 52nd, Master lives in a Lodge built by the son of the 30th Master, Joseph Beaumont, left to the College in 1727. The Heron Bequest, established through the Clothworkers' Company, has supported a Scholar since 1580. Our Organ Scholars are still funded from the seventeenth century benefaction of Bernard Hale. Fellowships, Studentships and a building were funded and named by William Stone in the late twentieth century. We remember with gratitude these, and many others who have shaped our College, at the annual Service for the Commemoration of Benefactors.

Yet this small College, rooted in continuity, is at the same time a centre of innovation, across a spectrum of subjects from the most evidently practical to the most apparently esoteric. Throughout its history, Petreans have been at the heart of the political, social and religious controversies that have shaped society. The computer takes its inspiration from Charles Babbage. Lord Kelvin brought electric light to the College second only to the Houses of Parliament, to mark Peterhouse’s 600th anniversary in 1884. Sir Frank Whittle and Christopher Cockerill gave the world the jet engine and the hovercraft. All were Petreans. Four Petrean scientific Nobel Laureates – Sir John Kendrew, Sir Aaron Klug, Archer Martin and Max Perutz – gave a twentieth century lead in Molecular Biology. As that century neared its end, the Presidents of both the Royal Society and the British Academy were Petreans. In the new century Michael Levitt was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2013 raising the toal count of Petrean Nobel Laureates to five. Throughout, Peterhouse has remained a place where, rooted in tradition and security, new ideas, and successive generations of the brightest young people, have evolved, grown, and taken wing. It has been and is somewhere that values the bold, the characterful and the committed above the commonplace, the familiar and the mundane.