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Who were Gonville and Caius?

Edmund Gonville and John Caius were the two founders of Gonville & Caius, and the College owes its character to the far-sightedness and individual contributions of both.

Gonville, Rector of Terrington St Clement in Norfolk, first founded the College as Gonville Hall in 1348, dedicating it to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His motives in doing so are not recorded, but the cluster of foundations established at the time - Pembroke College, Gonville Hall, Trinity Hall, and Corpus Christi College all came into existence within a decade of one another – are often dubbed “plague colleges”, created to deal with the shortage of learned men in the aftermath of the Black Death in 1348.

On 5 March 1347, Gonville purchased three pieces of land on what is now Free School Lane (today part of Corpus Christi College) and in January 1348 he gained a licence from King Edward III to establish and endow a Hall on the site.

Gonville’s ambitions were admirable – he sought to create a College consisting of a Master and 20 scholars pursuing higher degrees, particularly in the arts and theology – but his resources failed to match his dream. When he died shortly afterwards in the summer of 1351, the Hall’s finances were shaky, and his executor William Bateman, Bishop of Norwich, stepped in to move the College a short distance to its present site and make provision for its endowment.

Over the next two centuries, the community of Gonville Hall gradually acquired further endowments and buildings, but the College still entered a period of some decline.

In 1557, rescue came in the shape of former student and Fellow John Keys. As was common in Elizabethan times, Keys spelled his name in many different ways, one of which was the "Caius" – a Latinised form deemed suitable for use in legal documents. Dr Caius, as we now know him, had studied medicine in Padua in Italy and then set up a successful medical practice in the City of London. After 10 years, he was sufficiently wealthy to offer to re-found his old College of Gonville Hall as "Gonville and Caius College". A year later, Caius was elected Master.

Under Caius’ leadership, the area of the College was increased to almost its present size, with purchases including the land that now forms most of Tree Court. His most visible legacy to the College remains the very beautiful Caius Court and the College's three famous gates of "Humility", "Virtue" and "Honour", which symbolise the student’s moral journey from arrival to departure.

The lands Caius gifted to the College or which were bought with his money virtually doubled its endowment – most are still owned by the College today and continue to underpin the wealth that funds world-class teaching and research.

Caius died in 1573 and was buried in the College Chapel. A brass plaque marks the site of his grave, while an elaborate monument to him is set on the north wall.