Queens’ College & Mathematical Bridge

One of the top reasons given for taking a punting tour along the River Cam is the chance to see Queens’ College and its most famous structure, the Mathematical Bridge. This is one of the most famous bridges in the world, drawing tourists from near and far.

Queens’ College

Queens’ College dates back to 1448, when it was founded by Lancastrian Queen Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI. Shortly after the foundation of Queens’, the War of the Roses began. Richard of York’s son was crowned King Edward IV, and three years later he married Elizabeth Woodville, who became Queen consort. Elizabeth refounded the college “as true foundress by right of succession”.

Tourists to Cambridge are often told that the apostrophe in the old name, “Queen’s” was moved at this point to highlight the fact that there were two founders of the college, but in fact, the possessive apostrophe did not exist at that time – the contemporary spelling is recorded as “Quenes”. The change from Queen’s to Queens’ was first recorded in 1823, with Cambridge University making it official from 1831.

The full name of the college is “The Queen’s College of St Margaret and St Bernard, commonly called Queens’ College, in the University of Cambridge”.

In 1446, two years before the college was founded, rector Andrew Dokett obtained a charter from Henry VI to found a St Bernard’s College. This was on a site that now forms part of St Catherines’s College. However, the charter was revoked a year later, and a new charter was obtained by Dokett to found St Bernard’s College on the current site of Queens’ Old Court and Cloister court.

Queen Margaret offered her patronage to the new college that would thereafter be known as the Queen’s College of St Margaret and St Bernard. The foundation stone of the college was laid on the south-east corner of the chapel in 1448 by Sir John Wenlock.

Richard III, in 1477 and 1484 provided significant endowments to the college, and soon his wife, Queen Anne Neville, became the third queen to become patroness of the college. She made further endowments to the college on her own behalf.

When Henry VII won the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he confiscated the lands and property of Richard III, and removed Richard and Anne’s endowments from Queens’ College.

From this time until the early part of the 1600s, the college underwent significant improvements and new buildings were erected including the Walnut Tree Building with completion taking place in 1618. In the same period, the college was seen as a fashionable college for gentry and aristocracy.

As with many ancient landmarks, The Mathematical Bridge has a number of stories and legends linked to it. The most notorious fable claims that the bridge was designed and built by Sir Isaac Newton. In fact, it was built some 22 years after his death. 

Another fable tells that the bridge was designed and built without the need for nuts or bolts. The Mathematical aspect of the bridge’s design led to a timber structure that was entirely self supporting. It was believed that a group of students attempted to take the bridge apart before putting it back together but they were unable to make it hold, and as a result, they had to use nuts and bolts.

In 1905 a complete rebuild of the bridge took place. This was necessitated by decay to the original oak. The rebuilt structure followed the same design, but teak was used instead of oak, and the stepped walkway was sloped in order to offer access for wheelchair users.

This historic bridge is every bit as interesting as the history of engineering surrounding it, and it certainly adds something memorable to a punting tour on the River Cam.

Posted on March 17th, 2021, by the Traditional Punting Company