Sidney Sussex College was founded on St. Valentine’s Day in 1596 by legacy of Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex (1531–1589).
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It was from its inception an avowedly Protestant foundation; “some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge”. In her will, Lady Sussex left the sum of £5,000 together with some plate to found a new college at Cambridge University “to be called the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College”. Her executors Sir John Harington and Henry Grey, 6th Earl of Kent, supervised by Archbishop John Whitgift, founded the college seven years after her death.
Oliver Cromwell was among the first students (although he never graduated after his father became ill).
The opening up of coal mines on estates left to the College in the 18th century provided extra funds which were to be devoted to providing a new mathematical library and accommodation for Mathematical Exhibitioners. As a result, the exterior brick was covered with a layer of cement, the existing buildings were heightened slightly, and the architectural effect was also heightened, under the supervision of Sir Jeffry Wyatville.
In the late nineteenth century, the College’s finances received a further boost from the development of the resort of Cleethorpes on College land on the Lincolnshire coast that was purchased in 1616, following a bequest for the benefit of scholars and fellows by Peter Blundell, a merchant from Tiverton, Devon.
Frances Radclyffe, Countess of Sussex (1531-1589), was born Frances Sidney, the daughter of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst Place, Kent, and his wife, the former Anne Packenham. Her father was a prominent courtier during the reign of King Henry VIII and Lord Chamberlain to King Edward VI. She was a sister of Sir Henry Sidney, and the aunt of the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney and of the 1st Earl of Leicester.
She was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth I in 1555 when she married – as his second wife – Thomas Radclyffe, Viscount FitzWalter, a senior courtier and soldier. He was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1556 and succeeded his father as the 3rd Earl of Sussex in 1557.
At Elizabeth’s court, she was an adviser and patron of literature and music. In later life she lived at Bermondsey near the royal palace at Greenwich, and at the magnificent New Hall at Boreham, Essex. At Boreham, her neighbours were the Mildmay family who founded Emmanuel College, a Protestant foundation in Cambridge.
Frances and Thomas Sussex had no children, and so in her will, Lady Sussex left the then small fortune of £5,000, as well as with some plate, to establish a new college at Cambridge “to be called the Lady Frances Sidney Sussex College.”
Archbishop Whitgift had been Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, and had successively been master of Pembroke and Trinity. As a moderate Calvinist, he was a confirmed enemy of radical Puritanism, and so wanted a serious transformation of the training of English priests. Sidney Sussex College would have been an ideal opportunity to support this as an “advance guard” in the creation of the new nation.
In the fraught political atmosphere of the 1580s, Lady Frances believed others were “complotting” her ruin. A libellous pamphlet by Arthur Hall – a notorious rogue MP who tried to woo her – was burned by her nephews the Harrington family in 1588. Was it because of these accusations and plots that she adopted her motto, Dieu me garde de calomnie, which became the college motto? Was it these libels that moved her to ensure she would be remembered in grand physical monuments? Did she plan her funeral monument at Westminster Abbey and a second “goodly and godly” one at Cambridge to help repair her reputation? And what exactly were the accusations against her?
Lady Frances died in 1589 and her main executors, supervised by Archbishop Whitgift, were Sir John Harrington, her nephew, and the lawyer Henry Grey, Earl of Kent. Without these men, Sidney Sussex would never have been founded.
It would have been easier for the executors to give her money to Clare, as the will allowed. Their plans also faced stiff opposition from the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, which had been founded by Henry VIII, who gave Trinity the freehold to the site.
Why did these men persist despite the difficulties they faced between the reading of the will in 1589 and Saint Valentine’s Day 1596, when the deed was signed?
Eventually, Queen Elizabeth intervened on their behalf with the Master and Fellows of Trinity College and building work began in 1595, following the plans of the Cambridge architect, Ralph Symons. By 1598, Hall Court, including the Hall and the Master’s Lodge, was ready for occupation.