Magdalene College

Magdalene Street

From 29 November 1954, C.S. Lewis holds a chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University until his failing health forces him to resign his chair in August 1963.

Read more

C.S. Lewis in Cambridge

C.S. Lewis becomes a Fellow of Magdalene College when he becomes Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge in 1954. For years, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien and others hope that Lewis will become a professor at Oxford. But in the autumn of 1954, some of Lewis’s friends and admirers at Cambridge University hear that he is increasingly burdened by difficulties at Magdalen College, Oxford University. The time commitment that his tutorial work involves keeps him from writing. And the nature of the English faculty at Oxford is changing, which includes more modern authors in the reading curriculum.

Despite his important scholarly work, there is little hope that Lewis will ever gain a professorship at Oxford, perhaps because of disapproval among some of the faculty of his Christian apologetics. They dislike the idea of a professor of English literature gaining fame as an amateur theologian. The University of Cambridge is much less sceptical about Lewis’s religious popularity. As a result, his Cambridge friends at the English faculty there create the professorship of Medieval and Renaissance English in Cambridge especially for him.

Lewis is initially reluctant to take the position, due to his attachment to Oxford and his financial inability to sell the Kilns, his Oxford home, in order to move to Cambridge. His Cambridge friends suggest he lives in Cambridge during the working week and travel back to Oxford at weekends. Lewis agrees to this arrangement and on 29 November 1954, his fifty-sixth birthday, he delivers his inaugural address, entitled “De Descriptione Temporum”, which means: about describing the times. He moves to his new quarters in the First Court above the Parlour and Old Library of Magdalene College on 1 January 1955 and begins his duties as professor, which involves occasional lectures and no tutoring, leaving him much more time to write and read. Lewis usually goes home to The Kilns in Oxford during weekends and holidays. To accommodate him, the regular Inklinks meetings on Tuesday mornings have been moved to Monday.

Lewis remains in Cambridge throughout his marriage to Joy Gresham, until ill health forces him to resign his chair in August 1963. Shortly before he dies, he learns that the fellows of Magdalene College have elected him an Honorary Fellow.

About Magdalene College

Magdalena College is founded by the Benedictine Order. In 1428, Abbot Lytlington of Crowland Abbey near Peterborough obtains a license to acquire the land north of the River Cam so that an inn for student monks of the Benedictine Order could be established in Cambridge. It becomes known as Monk’s Hostel.

Between 1470 and 1472, Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham, works with John the Wisbech, Abbot of Crowland, in planning the First Court and building the Chapel. After this, individual Benedictine abbeys may build a staircase for their student monks, and these are built between 1472 and 1483. As a result of the Duke’s patronage, the institution’s name is changed from Monk’s Hostel to Buckingham College.

The next major development occurs in 1519 when Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham, built the Hall. This is followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536 and 1539, but although Crowland Abbey is destroyed, the College somehow manages to remain open.

After the Reformation, some of the Benedictine abbeys associated with the College come into the possession of Thomas, Lord Audley. As Lord Chancellor, he presides over the trials of Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn, and helps Henry VIII get rid of two wives, as well as Thomas Cromwell. He refounds Buckingham College as the College of St. Mary Magdalene in 1542. When Audley dies in 1544, the College is inadequate endowed and struggling with poverty. The college then goes through many years of mismanagement, causing the rest of the college to be built up very slowly. The construction of the Pepys Building, the most important ornament of the College, takes fifty years and is not completed until after 1700. It is named after the great diarist Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) who gave his library to the College (on the evening of 23 February 1961, Lewis gives a lecture on Pepys’s birthday).

The College’s fortunes improve under one of its most famous masters, A.C. Benson. He is Fellow from 1904 and Master from 1915 to 1925. Further improvements are made between 1950 and 1970. First Court, the oldest part of the College where you now enter from the street, is being built between about 1470 and 1585.

The beautiful rooms Lewis occupies in the ‘North Range’ of First Court are on the second floor of Staircase 3. These rooms are not open to the public, but you can usually visit the small fifteenth-century chapel where Lewis attended services and preached his last sermon ‘A Slip of the Tongue’ at Evensong on 29 January 1956. A small plaque with Lewis’s name hangs at the top right of the chapel entrance.