Everyone knows that 2014 is the centenary of the start of the First World War. Some Worcester residents and cathedral afficionados may know of another commemoration this year: the 300th anniversary of the founding of Worcester College in the University of Oxford in 1714. But what are the connections with this city and this cathedral?
The histories of Oxford tell us that Worcester College was founded through the generosity of a Worcester baronet, Sir Thomas Cookes (1648-1701) of Norgrove Court and Bentley Pauncefote, near Tardebigge, who left £10,000 in his will for this purpose. Sir Thomas had no children of his own, but took a strong interest in local education, granting endowments to Bromsgrove and Feckenham Schools. He died before the new college had been founded, but the cause was taken up by nephew and legatee, Thomas Winford, MP for Worcestershire from 1707 to 1710, and in 1714 the new college began its life on the site of the long-established Gloucester Hall.
And Gloucester Hall is another part of the Worcester story. It was the rather unsuccessful remnant of what had once been Gloucester College, founded in 1283 as a place of study at Oxford University for Benedictine monks throughout the province of Canterbury. The College was divided into parts reached by their own staircases where monks from different monasteries might live apart.
At this time a Benedictine Priory was attached to Worcester Cathedral, and at least 48 monks are known to have attended Oxford University between 1291 and the dissolution of the Priory in 1540, which is said to represent over ten percent of all the monks in Worcester during those years. The Cathedral Library still has a fine collection of manuscript books in Latin that were used by the monks in their studies.
Gloucester College was closed for a time after the Black Death, but in 1537 it was found to have 32 students. After the Dissolution, no more monks were sent there, and in 1542 the College was granted to the bishop of Oxford, where it was used for some time as his palace.
Renamed Gloucester Hall, it became a kind of annexe to the newly created St John’s College. After Cookes’ endowment, the principal, Benjamin Woodroffe, obtained a royal charter of incorporation of a new Oxford college and also drew up a list of statutes, but apparently Cookes was not sufficiently impressed to decide in his favour. John Baron, master of Balliol College and later Vice-chancellor of the University, also tried to secure the Cookes’ endowment. Woodroffe and Baron both negotiated with Cookes, preached sermons on charity in Feckenham church and printed their arguments in pamphlets.
Cookes died in 1701 and was buried next to his first wife in Tardebigge church. It took some time to decide how to implement his wishes, and it was not until 1712 that the Court of Chancery decreed that the money, now totalling £15,000, should go to Gloucester Hall, which was incorporated as Worcester College on 29 July 1714. Building began in 1720, and the Hall, Chapel and Library were designed in part by Hawksmoor, with later interiors by James Wyatt. The medieval cottages on the front quad survived, and can still be seen today. At the time of its foundation Worcester College was on the edge of the city with extensive grounds which have also survived in the form of gardens, sports fields and a lake.
Cookes’ will stipulated that his relatives and students from Bromsgrove and Feckenham schools should have priority. Six scholarships to Worcester College were established from Feckenham and Bromsgrove Schools. Feckenham Grammar School has long been closed, although the old building can still be seen in the village. Bromsgrove School is remains a thriving independent school which still annually commemorates Sir Thomas Cookes by laying a wreath below his portrait in the school.
And so we can conclude that Worcester College is named after the home county of Sir Thomas Cookes, founder of the College and generous benefactor of the schools which sent sons of poor families as scholars to Oxford.