Skip to main content

The Lady Margaret professorships

The first endowed professorships in England were the Lady Margaret professorships of divinity: one at Oxford and one at Cambridge. The precise date of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s professorship endowments is difficult to pin down because the endowment process seems to have been protracted. Rashdall (1895) dates the professorships’ foundation at 1497. Corroborating this, Jones and Underwood (1992) write that in letters patent of 1497 Lady Margaret was granted a ‘licence to establish her lectureships in the universities, and to endow them to the value of £20’, but they add that ‘another four years were to elapse before Margaret’s lectureships were officially founded, with their own regulations’, and they refer to ‘indentures of foundation’, directing the payment of the lecturers’ stipends, being drawn up in 1502. Hibbert and Hibbert, the authors of The Encyclopaedia of Oxford (1988), also give this year as the date the professorships were founded at Oxford, and the same year is given by the authors of a much more recently published book relating to the Lady Margaret professorship at Cambridge: ‘Both the original indenture in the University Library and an official copy in the Close Rolls of Henry VII give the date as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in the eighteenth year of Henry VII’s reign: namely, 8 September 1502’ (Collinson et al., 2003).

The Lady Margaret professorships of divinity have survived over the centuries. Their current incumbents are Professor Judith Lieu at Cambridge  and Professor Carol Harrison at Oxford. Brief biographical details on the Cambridge chair’s incumbents from the early 19th century to 2009 appear on the Cambridge Faculty of Divinity website:

The professorships seem to have had a chequered history, with some ‘colourful’ incumbents who did not discharge their duties conscientiously. Several of them neglected what was meant to be their principal duty: lecturing – or ‘professing’. The authors of Lady Margaret Beaufort and her professors of divinity at Cambridge, 1502 to 1649 (one of these authors, Graham Stanton, was in fact the Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge from 1998 to 2009) ‘name and shame’ some of the feckless or disreputable incumbents of the Cambridge chair.  John Newcombe, for example, who held the chair from 1727 to 1765, gave only one lecture – his inaugural lecture – and thereafter remained silent.

Professor Zachary Brooke, who held the chair between 1765 and 1787 did exactly the same, prompting his obituary-writer to describe his professorship as ‘a valuable sinecure’. ‘In 1788 the University urged the electors to the Chair to appoint someone who would lecture regularly in accordance with the regulations. John Mainwaring, who held the Chair from 1788 to 1807, made a promising start, but as soon as the numbers attending dwindled, he too ceased to lecture’ (Collinson et al., 2003). The reason for dwindling student numbers, Collinson and his co-authors suggest, was that whilst most Cambridge professors had, by the beginning of the 18th century, abandoned the historic custom of lecturing in Latin, the Lady Margaret professors persisted with tradition, which deterred students. Not until 1809 did the Lady Margaret professor – who was at that time Herbert Marsh – lecture in English. But this innovation had limited effect because when Marsh became Bishop of Peterborough in 1819 he put all his efforts into that much more lucrative and higher status post, and gave no more lectures, despite continuing to hold the Lady Margaret chair until his death twenty years later.