Who’s afraid of Elizabeth Wolfe? An investigation into Hall decor

Google Peterhouse and eventually (hidden amongst all the allegations about Michael Portillo’s sex life) you will find an article from 1999, detailing challenges faced and progress made by our female fellows. It is an admirable piece, which sums up some of the more traditional elements of Peterhouse’s decorations nicely:

Like the sediments of geological time that make mammals look like arrivistes, the 700 years of the college’s male prehistory are very visible. Portraits of jowly men stare down at students as they eat in hall. The armchairs in the college library are heavy and leather, like a gentleman’s club. And the only pictures of women around the college are the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows depicting Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, most of whom were abandoned by their lovers’ or dutifully sacrificed themselves for a higher, male cause.

This is quite clearly recognisable as our dear college: the college which existed for 701 years, about 96% of its history, before letting in female undergraduates in 1985. Who can forget the heart-warming words of the lovely Roger Scruton regarding this momentous occasion? ‘Peterhouse was a great institution, but probably is no longer – it was gratuitously destroyed by the admission of women.’ Pure charm.

jowly old men par excellenceYet the idea that depictions of women are confined to the Combination Room is not quite accurate. Our Hall (aka ‘the-oldest-secular-building-in-Europe-still-used-for-it’s-original-purpose’, as any Petrean will rush to tell you) also has some. These may not be the most exciting works of art ever to hit Trumpington Street (nothing can compete with the Fitzwilliam Museum’s delightful collection of pornographic Japanese prints last year), but there are in fact three female faces hidden amongst the ‘jowly men’. Who are these female pioneers, bravely battling the portraiture patriarchy?

Elizabeth Wolfe (portrait back centre):

Who she is: “The widow of Master Wolfe” according to the label. Or Elizabeth to her friends (thank you, Google).

What she did: Donated ‘20 acres of land in the fields of Cambridge and Barnwell’ to the college. So clearly anybody suggesting that women have had no role in Peterhouse’s history should now (literally) have the ground taken from under their feet. She was basically one of those nice people whose efforts contributed to the wealthy situation of Peterhouse today, clearly visible in all the lovely offers we current students get of free language lessons and travel grants.

Queen Eleanor of Castile (stained glass window):

Who she is: Edward I’s first Queen of England, as well as Countess of Ponthieu in her own right from 1279 until her death in 1290.

What she did: Ruled a kingdom, theoretically. In reality, she may have ruled together with her husband. But it’s a start. Wikipedia rather damningly says that ‘contemporary evidence shows clearly that Eleanor had no impact on the political history of Edward’s reign’, which is a bit unfortunate. But Wikipedia allegedly also once said that Alan Titchmarsh had published a new version of the Kama Sutra, so let’s just ignore it. Eleanor had 16 children for the good of the realm, and on top of this she seems to have been an unusually adventurous character, casually accompanying her husband on his crusade to Palestine, for example.The Hall, 1923: is it still stuck in the past?

St. Ethelreda (stained glass window):

Who she is: Ethelreda was married to the King of Northumbria, who one day decided he wanted to have sex with her. Pretty much an Anglo Saxon version of Geordie Shore. But Ethelreda, being something of a maverick, said she wanted to become a nun instead (not in an Ann Summers way, so perhaps the Geordie Shore comparison slightly falls down here…).

What she did: She eventually persuaded her husband to give permission for this and moved to a local abbey. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that he had had a change of heart and was going to use force to get her back. But Ethelreda the Ready wasn’t having that. She escaped, disguised as a beggar, and travelled back to her original home in Ely, roughly 222 miles and 73 hours walk.

Eventually arriving in Ely after a few handy interventions from the big man in the sky (the tide staying in for 7 days to halt pursuers, a tree mysteriously sprouting from the ground to provided shade on a hot day, etc etc), Ethelreda set up a large double monastery. She then lived frugally ever after with many other nuns, such as her excellently named sister: St. Sexburga. After her death, her body was found not have decayed, a trick medieval saints seem to have had something of a knack for.

Despite all this, there’s no disguising the fact that we are still rather lacking in pictures of female fellows or alumnae. Progress is already being made, though – one unidentified 19th century portrait of a woman has recently been discovered in the depths of the college and is undergoing research, for a start (more on her to come!). The jowly men should watch their backs.

– Eloise Davies


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