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Susanna Gregory will be adding exclusive articles on the background to the Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew on this page. We begin with a look at the origins of the college at the heart of the stories, Michaelhouse.

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Michaelhouse's archaeology

Given that Michaelhouse stood in the south-west corner of what is now the fine Great Court of Trinity College, there has been little opportunity for archaeologists to dig it up. A survey of available literature brought to light only one archaeological report, which is now more than a hundred years old (Atkinson, 1891-4). More recent surveys have relied on architectural evidence and on maps, such as the ones mentioned above, which were drawn years after Michaelhouse surrendered to Henry VIII.

While some alterations to the buildings south of Trinity's hall were being conducted in the late nineteenth century, some foundations came to light. Given their location, archaeologists assumed that they belonged to Michaelhouse's hall. They point out that a hall of a small institution like Michaelhouse, which seldom had more than two dozen members even at the height of its power, would not have been able to accommodate the additional hundred or so scholars from King's Hall and the other seven hostels. Michaelhouse's hall, if it were to be of use, would have been extended.

As if to underline the dangers of accepting too literally the details of plans made in the 16th and 17th centuries - where accuracy may have taken second place to artistic merit - the archaeological findings contradict them. Hammond's (1592) plan shows a three-storeyed building with no buttresses, and an oriel with a range of four other windows to the north and three to the south. A plan dating to 1595, however, has a different number of windows both to the north and south of the oriel, plus fewer chimneys. By the time Loggan's plan (1688) had been drawn up, the old hall had been converted to butteries and a new kitchen had been built. The oriel window survived until the 1770s, when the whole range between the present hall and the south-west corner of the court was demolished. Because new cellars were included in the rebuilding, most of the original foundations were also destroyed. All that was left of Michaelhouse are the rubble foundations of the oriel and four buttresses; two of the buttresses retained the lowest course of dressed masonry. None of these can be seen today, because the plinth of the replacement building buries them by a depth of at least 0.5m.

The nineteenth century excavations suggest that to the north of the oriel, the buttresses were almost twice as far apart as those suggested on the 1592 plan, while the buttresses to the south were about 4.5m apart, as opposed to the plan's estimated 3.5m. Using diagrams from the report, it is possible to determine a new set of dimensions for Michaelhouse's hall. It seems it was about 23m in length, and was about 12m in width. Archaeologists maintain that since this would have represented a sizeable room for a mere two dozen scholars, it must be assumed that the hall was lengthened during the 1550s when a larger hall was required. There are records of an extension being made to the northern end, so it seems they were correct. However, it should not be forgotten that the small community of Michaelhouse scholars tended to live well - as exemplified by the addition of an extra twelve chambers for the already existing Fellowship - and just because other, less well endowed institutions tended to live in cramped conditions, there is no reason to assume that Michaelhouse did, too.

Besides measuring the foundations, the excavation also discovered some fragments of the oriel window mouldings. From these, it is possible to project that the transoms were arched and that they formed a delicate three-light window. However, nothing remains of them today.

The archaeological evidence gives some idea of what the hall was like after its 1550s remodelling. It had an open-plan room with a central hearth (evidence for this also comes from the chimneys in Hammond (1592) and the plan of 1595). At the southern end, near the light flooding in from the oriel window, would have been the high table. A conclave or the combination room was attached. This was a place where the Fellows could gather to talk in the evenings - the origins of the Fellows' common rooms still used today. Since Michaelhouse had a generously proportioned hall, it is not unreasonable to assume that it also had a nice, spacious conclave.

To the north of the hall were a series of screens forming a passage that would have allowed servants to serve meals cooked in the kitchens. The northern end of the hall was extended in the 1550s, and so it is difficult to tell what might have been the original Buttetourte hall and what was added later. However, it is likely that the passageway to the kitchens and the two adjoining rooms (buttery and pantry) were later additions, because it is more likely that the original kitchen would have been in the north courtyard - well away from the main buildings to reduce the risk of fire. The passageway, buttery, and pantry, therefore, were added in the 1550s, when there would have been a reason to link the hall with the newly raised kitchens.