‘The Restricted Section’

In Christ’s College, Cambridge, we have a ‘restricted section’ of sorts: the Old Library. It is usually kept off-limits to even members of the college but recently we had ‘The Theater of Plants’ exhibition during which access was given (it is usually during such exhibitions or talks that the library is opened). And what a trove of tomes and valuable manuscripts the Old Library has!

The Theater of Plants

The exhibition was a journey about herbs, honey and horticulture across five centuries that was related to the college in the one way or the other.


The most important books on display were

1. Theater of Plants (1640) by John Parkinson

2. The feminine monarchie (1634) by Charles Butler – the first English bee-keeping book.

3. Insectivorous Plants (1875) by Charles Darwin that had description of some experiments on carnivorous plants.

4. The College’s Garden Book (1646-1714) – a manual for safekeeping of the College gardens.

There were also preserved plant samples and photographs of gardeners from various generations.

The Old Library

I have always been fascinated by the The War of the Roses and the one key figure in the entire saga was Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry Tudor, who defeated King Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Fields.


She is also credited with founding Christ’s College (or re-founded Byngham’s God’s House, which previously stood where King’s Chapel stands today). Lady Beaufort is said to have donated the first few books in the current lot of the Old Library.

The Library is now home to 50,000 rare manuscripts and books., covering a wide variety of languages, historical periods and subjects.  Till the Library was built in its present place n 1893, the Old Library was housed in the first floor of the College’s western range behind the five close-set, two light windows and served as the primary Library for the college, with undergraduates strictly not allowed in the initial few decades (with a charge of two pounds for daring to!).


The current structure was built by George Frederick Bodley, the leading proponent of Gothic Revivalism in the late Nineteenth century. In 1974, the undergraduate Library was built after the building of a bay window overlooking the Bath Court (that used to have a public Bath at some point but today is just a hard-floored courtyard).


the Old Library is home to over 50,000 books from the 11th to the 20th century. Besides books on law, theology, classical literature and history, the Library also has some rare books. It has the first six editions of Paradise Lost, the Magnus opus of John Milton, an alumnus of the College. The Library also has a large collection of books by Charles Darwin, another alumnus of the College, besides a collection of his letters addressed to his cousin William Darwin Fox. There are also collections contributed by Charles Lesingham Smith (a former Fellow of the College), William Robertson Smith (Adams Professor of Arabic, 1889-1894) and W.H.D. Rouse (a former Fellow of the College and subsequently headmaster of the Perse School of Cambridge) on fields as diverse as astronomy and linguistics.


There are also various beautiful portraits in the Library including those of Margaret Beaufort and St. John Fisher. There are also portraits of theologian William Paley and archaeologist Harry Mengden Scarth. There are two famous busts: one of Milton and the other of Peter Fraser (former Rector of Kegworth), who bequeathed a whopping 3500 books to the Library. The Library also has the plaster cast of the tomb of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the foundress of the College. One also has the famous heraldic symbol of the Lady Beaufort: the Rose, on the ceiling of the Library. Not to forget, the beautiful stained glass windows are a sight to see in themselves.

Going around the Old Library of my college Christ’s-Cambridge was truly an experience to cherish!



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