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St Radegund: the nunnery and its history rediscovered

St Radegund

In 1496, when the College was founded by Bishop John Alcock, it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin Saint Radegund. The College took over the buildings of the twelfth-century Benedictine nunnery of St Mary and St Radegund, which remain at the core of the college to this day. While other Cambridge colleges share the dedication to St Mary and St John, St Radegund is unique to Jesus.

Around 552, Radegund, after fleeing the court of her husband Clothaire of Thuringia, established the Convent of Our Lady of Poitiers. Living under the Rule of Caesaria of Arles, the cloistered sisters were required to be able to read and write, and to devote several hours of the day to reading the scriptures and copying manuscripts, as well as such traditionally female tasks as weaving and needlework. So, in retrospect, it is pleasing that the College can be associated with a saint who fostered female learning.

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Charter of Countess Constance: N/Gray 3a.

Charter of Countess Constance: N/Gray 3a.

1. In one of the earliest nunnery deeds (1153 or ’54), the Countess Constance, widowed daughter-in-law of King Stephen, grants to the nunnery certain fishery rights and freedom from taxation. Constance was of French birth and it has recently been suggested that she may have been responsible for the added dedication to St Radegund, a patron of widows. This has otherwise been credited to King Malcolm IV of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon and Cambridge, and one of the nunnery’s most important benefactors; he fought in France, around Poitiers, in the 1150s. Could the truth be that they both had a hand in the decision?
Saint Radegund, Patroness of Jesus College, Cambridge
Saint Radegund, Patroness of Jesus College, Cambridge
2. The title page of Saint Radegund, Patroness of Jesus College, Cambridge, is followed by a note in which the author, Freddy Brittain, points out that this brief sketch of the life and cult of Saint Radegund was the outcome of a visit he had made to Poitiers in 1924. While he hoped that it might have broader appeal than just to members of Jesus College, he observed that “it will have achieved its object, even if it succeeds only in eradicating the error which leads some to refer to the third and most distinctive patron of the College as ‘he’”. The frontispiece is a redrawn mediaeval illustration from a Poitiers ms.
The Lyfe of Saynt Radegunde

Reproduced from F. Brittain, The Lyfe of Saynt Radegonde (Cambridge University Press, 1926).

3. Brittain complemented his 1925 work on St Radegund by editing the anonymously written The Lyfe of Saynt Radegunde, a copy of which had been presented to the College Library by Dr Farmer, Master of Emmanuel College, in 1792. This illustration comes from the frontispiece to that book, originally published in 1525.
Documents relating to the Priory of S. Radegund

From Arthur Gray’s notebook: “Documents relating to the Priory of S. Radegund” (College Archives).

4. Few records of the nunnery remain, except for a series of property deeds. However, some attempts have been made at piecing together a more complete picture of the life of the nunnery. This list of Prioresses from 1213 to 1493 represents research carried out by Arthur Gray, Master of the College from 1912 to 1940. He wrote The Priory of Saint Radegund, which was published in 1898.
bones found at Jesus Colle

Photograph taken by Jesus College staff.

5. These bones were dug up in August 1993. Whenever excavation is carried out near the Chapel, there is always a possibility of recovering bones. Nuns and parishioners were buried in different sections of the churchyard.
Statue of St Radegund

Statue of St Radegund - photo taken by Jesus College staff.

6. St Radegund’s symbolic value to women involved in the life of Jesus College manifested itself strongly in 1886, when the wives and sisters of some members of the College, led by Mrs Morgan, the Master’s wife, contributed to having a statue of her made and placed on the newly completed Carpenter building. The Chanticleer, [the College magazine of the time – later on spelt Chanticlere] reported that while the men noticed how “our patron saint sheds her sweet influence from an elevated niche in the Chapel Court … We are ashamed to say that we haven’t the least idea who St Rhadegund is”.
Seal of the Priory 7. The seal of the Priory with a portrait of St Radegund. From Arthur Gray, The Priory of St Radegund, Cambridge (Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1898), frontispiece. She holds a staff and a book, and has a tasselled bag over her shoulder (indicating high social status, or representing resources for almsgiving, or both).