Cambridge is a city well known for its quirkiness, eccentricities and downright bizarre traditions. In many ways this is what makes it so appealing to visitors and locals alike. We at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge certainly appreciate them. But we also appreciate that they can seem downright opaque to our guests. So we felt it was time to shed a little light on one of these institutions for the benefit of our more casual visitors by explaining the University Colleges in Harry Potter terms.
Cambridge University contains many different Colleges – approaching 30 of them at last count. This is a confusing term to some people, not least Americans who use the word College in place of University. Many people assume that Cambridge functions in a similar fashion to the University of London, where individual Colleges such as Imperial or King’s are effectively completely separate institutions of higher learning.
Not so in Cambridge. Cambridge is a single university, not multiple. It consists of many academic departments such as the Department of Zoology, for example. These arrange lectures etc for students studying the appropriate course. The Colleges, meanwhile, are more akin to the Houses in Hogwarts. They are where you live, and function as a community.
So just as Harry Potter is a part of both Hogwarts overall and Gryffindor House, so a Cambridge undergraduate is a part of both Cambridge University overall and Churchill College, for example. And just like for the Hogwarts houses, the Cambridge Colleges are not academically divided. In the same College you’ll find students studying Natural Sciences, Engineering or Medicine alongside those studying languages or Economics.
And also like Hogwarts, the College sports teams compete viciously against each other. Though in this case it’s in unique rowing Races called the Bumps, not Quidditch.
But the individual Colleges are also semi-independent institutions within the University, some of which are centuries old. And while Hogwarts was founded with four Houses and retains them to the present day, new Cambridge Colleges have been added over the centuries. These range from Peterhouse, founded in 1284, through St. John’s founded in 1511, to Churchill College (1960).
One of the largest and certainly the wealthiest is Trinity College. A College of particular recent note as it was the College of King Charles III back when he was a student here. Just don’t call it “King’s College” – that’s a completely separate College just down the road, and the two have been rivals for centuries.
Trinity College was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, who notoriously had six wives. He also famously broke away from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, dissolving the Monasteries of England and confiscating and redistributing their land. Many of this went to his friends and cronies, but some went to a new Cambridge College he set up.
But while noble families rise and fall, an institution endures. And following that royal start in life Trinity has gone from strength to strength. To the point that it is currently possible to walk from Trinity College Cambridge to Trinity College Oxford without leaving land owned by Trinity College Cambridge. Which is quite extreme, to say the least…
Not as extreme as platform 9 ¾ and the Hogwarts express, of course. But as we at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge understand all too well, fact isn’t always stranger than fiction. Though in Cambridge it often is.