Biography

John Baker: examples of biographical documents in the College archives

Baker will

John Baker and his brother Philip were fellows of King's during the reigns of King Edward VI (1547-53) and Queen Mary I (1553-58). Philip Baker became provost at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, in 1558, three years after John's death. Philip is a major figure in the history of College in the sixteenth century, famously leaving his provostship – and the country – in 1570 because of his Catholic sympathies. But it is the life of John Baker, rather than that of his brother, which represents the starting point for this exploration of the biographical and historical possibilities of College Archives.

John Baker lived in a period of profound political and religious change, which, although often conceived of in terms of national law and governance, profoundly affected the subjects of the crown at a local level – this was certainly the case in the kingdom's two academic centres of Oxford and Cambridge. During the reign of King Edward VI, King's became a flagship of Protestant Reformation. The Chapel was already an established and potent symbol of Tudor authority, and the College's provost from 1548, John Cheke, was a tutor to the king and a man at the cutting edge of English humanism and evangelical reformation. Cheke's admission as provost – and his impressive annual stipend of £100 – were marks of royal favour for Cheke and King's. The College Archive's Protocollum Book for the period records Cheke's formal admission and offers a clear statement of mission and allegiance: it records that nothing in the election bound the new provost 'contrary to the trewe doctryne of the Church of England' or stood 'contrariouse to such facultye liberte or licence as the Kynges highnes alredy hath gyven me or herafter shall of his Kynglye power gyve me'.

John Baker played a small but historically recordable part in these national events. In 1551 he contributed classical verse to a volume, edited by Cheke, celebrating the life of the German Protestant reformer Martin Bucer. A later account of Bucer's funeral in Cambridge described how men proficient in Latin and Greek 'set up some Verses … upon the walles of the church' of St Mary the Great. John Baker may well have been one of these men, but, if he was at St Mary's in 1551, he was not the most senior member of King's present. The Latin oration on Bucer was given by Walter Haddon, one of the most senior fellows of King's in the reign of Edward VI, a distinguished civil lawyer, a Latinist of considerable reputation, and later master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and president of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Some of the most important events in John Baker's life and academic career survive in the archives of the College, from his admission as an undergraduate in 1545 to the full text of his will, proved ten years later by Provost Atkinson. These documents offer a sense of the rhythm of college life in the middle decade of the sixteenth century, with its ordered progression from undergraduate study to the responsibilities of teaching. They also offer a remarkable insight into the material culture of Cambridge in the middle decade of the sixteenth century. Baker's will – with its virginals, gowns, gaberdine coat, and the names of his pupils – is a fascinating social document.

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