Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29, 1573: John Caius, RIP

John Caius, second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, died on July 29, 1573 at age 62. He was a Catholic and served as physician for Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I until being dismissed by the latter because of his Catholicism in 1568.

On the college website a history of Caius College, as it is usually known, provides a rather mixed portrait of the former John Keys (he adopted the classical spelling of his name after travel in Italy). It is excerpted from Professor Christopher Brooke's History of Gonville and Caius College :

In the early 1530s Gonville Hall was still a tiny community, not at all well off — though by now boasting a complete court, the nucleus of what is now Gonville Court, with chapel, hall, library and chambers for fellows and students to live in in small groups of 2,3 or 4 to a chamber. The young fellows included some who were to become leaders of the protestant cause in the early days of the reformation, notably Nicholas Shaxton, later bishop of Salisbury. It also included a young man called John Caius, who went off to Padua in 1539 to study Greek and Medicine. Richard Nykke, the conservative catholic bishop of Norwich, thought Gonville Hall was a hotbed of protestants: ‘I hear of no clerk that hath commen out lately’ of Gonville Hall ‘but savoureth of the frying pan, though he speak never so holily’. But it seems clear that the small community harboured a wide variety of different viewpoints — and as Caius travelled round Europe he met Catholics in Padua and protestants in Zurich — the naturalist Conrad Gessner of Zurich came to be one of his closest friends — and he cared little for religious controversy; he became in fact one of that hidden minority who believed in religious toleration. The specialists in the sixteenth century tend to tell us there weren't such people, but there clearly were.

In the mid–1540s he came back to England and set up a medical practice in the City of London, where there were rich men and women who could afford large fees — and pay them. Legend later had it that he was a royal physician: fortunately not, for sixteenth century royalty was notorious for not paying its debts. At the south end of Hall, above High Table, you may see displayed John Caius and his friends. On either side of him Joan Trapps, a friend and probably a grateful patient, and her husband Robert, a leading City alderman of the 1540s and 50s. To their left, Joyce Frankland, their daughter and heiress, one of our greatest benefactors. To the right, Caius’s chosen successor as master, Thomas Legge — also a believer in religious toleration and a much more genial character than Caius. But I am going ahead too fast.

Caius’s tastes were an extraordinary mixture of conservative and avant–garde. He was a brilliant classical scholar of the high renaissance, but that led him to excessive devotion to classical texts. He was a leader in medical thought who organised dissections and serious study of several kinds — yet regarded the text of the Greek Physician Galen with fundamentalist awe. When he revisited Cambridge in the late 1550s he looked back with enormous nostalgia to his student days, when all was peace and dedicated study, and students were respectful to their seniors — or so he thought. At the same time he wanted to build the tiny, struggling, half–dead little college into a great foundation worthy of the humanist ideals of the age. He was a cosmopolitan figure, and appropriately won the right to refound the College in 1557 from the most cosmopolitan of our sovereigns — Philip and Mary, King and Queen (according to our foundation charter) of England, Spain, France, the two Sicilies, Jerusalem and Ireland — and dukes and counts here and there besides. He doubled our endowment and built Caius Court — and would be remembered with unmitigated affection if he had not unfortunately accepted the office of master in 1559. In the years that followed intolerant protestants took the place of intolerant catholics in many high places in Cambridge — and the tolerance of John Caius allowed them into the fellowship. Once there, they grumbled at the master’s conservative tastes: he was not (so far as we can tell) a Roman Catholic in theology, in which he had little interest; but he preserved books and vestments — actually rather a prudent course, one might have thought (and as others thought) amid the bewildering religious changes of the age — you never knew when they might not be wanted. Unfortunately Caius was difficult man. He clearly could exercise charm among friends and equals; but he was peremptory and tyrannical to fellows who disagreed with him — the more contumacious he expelled from the college, the lesser criminals he put in the stocks in the hall. His close friend Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, had to be called in to make the peace — and even so the young Turks delated Caius to the vice-chancellor and the master of Trinity and others who had a bonfire made in the court of the vestments and other ancient treasures. Yet nothing is more characteristic of John Caius than his determined generosity: while the young fellows barked at his heels, he went steadily on, building Caius Court and increasing the endowment of the College. After a stormy mastership he found peace at last in the College chapel in 1573, aged only 62 — it says 63 on his tomb, but that means in his 63rd year.

More about Christopher Brooke here; you might note that Dom David Knowles was a great influence on him. I enjoyed Brooke's The Age of the Cloister.

Speaking of "religious toleration", read the "guy fawkes" sermon notes linked on this page from the Chapel! It washes any distinctions down to nothing--except for fundamentalism, which is the great evil.

You might also remember that Harold Abrahams, whose story was told(?) in Chariots of Fire, attended Caius College. He became a Catholic in 1934--is that funeral service at the beginning and end of the movie a Catholic Mass? I don't remember.

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