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The Lost Colleges of the University of Coimbra

[Seal of the University of Coimbra] — Last year I took note of a very interesting essay in Portuguese by Miguel Pires Prôa on the lost residential colleges of the University of Coimbra. Oxford and Cambridge were not the only collegiate universities in medieval and early modern Europe: other institutions of higher learning also had collegiate systems, but over the centuries most of these colleges came to ruin during periods of political and religious upheaval. In the case of Coimbra this collegiate tragedy occurred in 1834, when the religious orders, and their collegiate property, were dissolved during the Portuguese Civil War.

In an effort to keep alive the memory of these ancient collegiate societies in Portugal it is now my pleasure, through the kind offices of Miguel and of Frank Cranmer, a fellow of St. Chad’s College at Durham and a friend of the Collegiate Way, to present here an English translation of Miguel’s essay as a Collegiate Way exclusive.

The Lost Colleges of Coimbra

IF YOU WALK along the Rua da Sofia – the Street of Wisdom – in Coimbra (and if you can allow yourself the luxury of ignoring the cars, the crowds and the car exhaust) raise your head and look at the “walls” of the street and you will certainly be intrigued by the profusion of churches. Churches in very much the same style repeat themselves almost regularly along both the sides of the street. Well, I had already surrendered to this luxury and that intrigued me; so I decided to search for the why or, better still, for the how of the matter.

I knew that Portugal was (and is) one of more Catholic countries in the world, that it was (and still is?) one of the more clerical countries in Christendom and one where the clergy had exerted more influence in its most varied daily aspects; but in the middle of Coimbra, with the Monastery of the Holy Cross at its foot, I did not immediately manage to guess the reason for the profusion of churches.

I started with the map that you can obtain free at any Information Office in the city and looked at the names of the churches. With this I could now search the Net. I read things, and started to notice a word associated with the churches: “college.” What appeared was the “Church and College” of so-and-so. I went to the books and found that Coimbra had had many university colleges, more or less as at Oxford or Cambridge, until the Liberalismo (the civil war from 1826 to 1834 between the Liberals led by King Peter IV and the Absolutists led by his brother the usurper King Michael I), many more than the ones I already knew and that today house Departments of the University: Jesus College (Departments of Zoology and Earth Sciences), St Jerome’s College (the Old Hospital), the College of Arts (Departments of Biochemistry and Architecture) and St Benedict’s College (Departments of Botany and Anthropology).

This explained the regularity of the churches in the Rua da Sofia: they were the college chapels! Most of the colleges were created in the sixteenth century, during and immediately following the Reformation of the University during the reign of King John III. They were intended for clergy who wished to study in the University and they belonged to or were managed by religious orders, as a result of which they were often called Colégios Monásticos – “Monastic Colleges.” A new street was laid out in Coimbra for constructing the buildings of the colleges: Rua da Sofia.

[Image: Locations of the early modern colleges of Coimbra University]

The Studium Generale (University) was sited definitively in Coimbra in 1537, first occupying annexes to the Holy Cross Monastery (which was, at the time, an authentic rival university), including the Holy Cross Monastery’s Colleges of St Michael and of All Saints, and later the Alcáçova Real (bought finally by the University from the King in 1597) which one can still find today. The colleges had been instituted by Brother Brás de Barros in 1535 (though they had already been proposed by Prince Peter, first Duke of Coimbra, almost a century before) to allow for studies preparatory to entering the University, to house the students and to act as halls for the University, which suffered from lack of adequate premises. The enterprise did not go very well; but the reasons for this would certainly fill a doctoral thesis and I do not wish to get involved in such an undertaking. What I can say is that because they were in the hands of the Church, the colleges were disbanded as a result of the dissolution of the religious orders in 1834 and the buildings either nationalised or sold for different purposes, obliging the University to function without them.

By now, intrigued not by the churches but by the colleges, I continued my researches and managed to discover the names of many of them, hoping to find out much more about both “Upper” and “Lower” Coimbra (the Alta and the Baixa). Regarding their names, I tried to find out:

  1. the date of establishment (not exactly of the construction of the building); and
  2. the approximate locality of the building (Upper Coimbra was destroyed in 1940 in order to construct the present buildings of the Faculty of Letters, the General Library, the Faculty of Medicine, and the Departments of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics).

Here is the result of my researches: a chronology of the University Colleges of Coimbra and brief notes on them.

  • 1527 Holy Cross Monastery reformed
  • 1535 St Michael’s College
  • 1535 All Saints’ College
  • 1537 University of Coimbra refounded
  • 1539 St Thomas’s College
  • 1540 College of Our Lady of Carmel
  • 1540 St Peter’s College
  • 1542 Jesus College, or the College of the Eleven Thousand Virgins
  • 1543 College of Our Lady of Grace
  • 1545 St Bernard’s College, or the College of the Holy Spirit
  • 1545 St Dominic’s College
  • 1548 Royal College of the Arts
  • 1548 College of St John the Evangelist
  • 1549 St Jerome’s College
  • 1550 College of St Paul the Apostle
  • 1550 St Bonaventure’s College, or the College of the Pimentas
  • 1552 Trinity College
  • 1552 New College, or St Augustine’s College
  • 1555 St Benedict’s College
  • 1566 College of Our Lady of Conception, College of Tomar, or Christ’s College
  • 1572 College of the Calced Franciscans (“the Dregs”)
  • 1602 College of St Anthony of the Quarry
  • 1603 College of St Joseph of the Marians
  • 1615 Military College
  • 1616 St Bonaventure’s College
  • 1707 College of St Anthony of the Star
  • 1755 St Rita’s College, or the College dos Grilos (“of the Crickets”)
  • 1779 College of St Paul the Hermit
[Image: Locations of the Lower Town colleges of Coimbra University]

St Michael’s College: Established in 1535. Belonged to the Holy Cross Monastery. It was intended for student canonists and theologians of noble families. It ceased to exist in 1566 and its building and that of All Saints’ College functioned as the Court of the Inquisition until 1821.

All Saints’ College: Established in 1535. Belonged to the Holy Cross Monastery. It was intended for poor but honest pupils. It ceased to exist in 1566 and its building and that of St Michael’s College functioned as the Court of the Inquisition until 1821.

St Thomas’s College: Established in 1539 close to the river, moved in 1546 to the Rua da Sofia because of flooding. Belonged to the Dominicans. With the dissolution of the religious orders in 1834 the building passed into private hands and suffered successive remodellings, until it was turned into the current Palácio da Justiça (Courthouse). Nothing can now be seen of the original sixteenth-century building except a stone portal which was moved to the Machado de Castro Museum.

College of Our Lady of Carmel: Established in 1540 and built from 1541 by the Bishop of Porto, Dom Baltasar Limpo, as a residence for clergy attending the University. In 1547 it was donated to the Order of the Calced Carmelites. Following the dissolution of the religious orders in 1834, the building passed in 1837 to the Venerable Third Order of St Francis; today it is a Hospital-Asylum.

St Peter’s College: Established in 1540 by the Bishop of Miranda, Dom Rodrigo de Carvalho, so that twelve poor Mirandese clergy could study at the university. The building in the Lower Town was constructed between 1543 and 1548. In 1572, King Sebastian I gave the College the building next to the Alcáçova Real (Royal Palace) (to the south of which is today the Porta Férrea or Iron Door which leads to the courtyard of the Old University), granting St Peter’s College the use of two buildings, one in the Lower Town and the other in the Upper Town. In that same year, the building in the Lower Town passed to the Franciscans of the Regular Third Order (the Calced Franciscans or Tertiaries, vulgo “The Dregs”!). The building in the Upper Town was intended to house graduates wishing to teach in the University, who had completed their studies but who did not yet have a post. Today, the Upper Town building houses University administrative services.

Jesus College, or the College of the Eleven Thousand Virgins: Established in 1542 for the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), it was the first Jesuit college in the whole world and the largest college in Coimbra. Its purpose was to prepare missionaries, mainly for the East. It catered for more than 200 pupils, faculty and staff. With the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759, the goods of the College were annexed to the University Treasury. Its church became the New Cathedral (the Sé Nova) of Coimbra in 1772; and during the reform of the University by Prime Minister the Marquess of Pombal, between 1773 and 1775 its buildings were adapted to house the Museum of Natural History (Zoological Museum) – which is still there today.

College of Our Lady of Grace: Established in 1543 by Brother Luís de Montoia for the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. The building (by architect Diogo de Castilho) provided the prototype for the future monastic colleges of the city. The College was incorporated into the University by Royal Charter in 1549. With the dissolution of the religious orders in 1834, the building passed to the Brotherhood of the Lord of the Steps (Senhor dos Passos) and to the College of the Army. Today it is the Military Quarter.

St Bernard’s College, or the College of the Holy Spirit: Established in 1545 under the patronage of the Cardinal Prince Henry, it belonged to the Cistercians. In the nineteenth century, after the dissolution of the religious orders in 1834, it was turned into a private mansion.

St Dominic’s College: Established in 1545, it belonged to the Dominicans and functioned only up to 1566, still with an unfinished building. Its church (the only remaining part) is now a shopping centre.

Royal College of the Arts: Established in 1548, it functioned initially in the buildings of St Michael’s and All Saints’ Colleges (belonging to the Holy Cross Monastery). In 1555 it was entrusted to the Jesuits and in 1566 transferred to houses next to Jesus College; in 1568 began construction of the building that still exists today. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1759, the College building was incorporated into the University. The College was a little different from the others, not only because it had been created by the Crown, but also because it exercised specific functions: the “Arts” corresponded to what we would now call “secondary education” and were taught in the University as preparation to enter one of the three “Major Faculties” (in contrast to the “Faculty” of Arts, the “Minor Faculty”). In order to bring the Arts directly under the control of the University, King John III created the College. Virtually all intending students of the University would have to study first in the College of the Arts before matriculating. This did not work well and, seven years after its establishment, the King handed over the College to the Jesuits.

College of St John the Evangelist, or the College of the Lóios: Established in 1548, it belonged to the Secular Canons of St John the Evangelist or Padres Lóios and was settled in the Lower Town. In 1597 the Lóios moved to the Upper Town and had the college building constructed between 1631 and 1638 in the Largo da Feira, today the Largo da Sé Nova. It was suppressed in 1834 and the building then housed departments of the Civil Government until it was demolished in 1942. Curiously, the Lóios where excellent physicians and, after the demolition of their college building, the University Faculty of Medicine’s building was built on that same location!

[Image: Locations of the Upper Town colleges of Coimbra University]

St Jerome’s College: Established in 1549 by Queen Catharine (wife of King John III) for the Monks of St Jerome and built from 1565 at the site of the old fortified city walls. Suppressed in 1834, in 1836 the building passed to the University, which in 1848 adapted it into its (Old) Hospital (the Jeronim Monks, like the Lóios, excelled in the area of Medicine). Today, the building houses the Academic Museum and several University departments.

College of St Paul the Apostle: Established in 1550, the building was opened in 1563 where today stands the General Library of the University of Coimbra. It was intended originally for poor clergy; later, graduates were admitted who had completed their studies and wished to teach in the University but who did not yet have a post. It was suppressed in 1834 and the building was handed over to the University, which installed the Faculty of Letters there in 1912. That building site suffered three destructions since the construction of the first building: the first in 1755 when it got severely damaged by the Great Lisbon Earthquake (which didn’t affect only Lisbon) and was rebuilt almost from scratch; the second in 1888, demolished for construction of a completely new building for the University; and thirdly, that new building was demolished in the 1940s to put up yet another new building (today’s General Library)!

St Bonaventure’s College, or the College of the Pimentas (in the Lower Town): Established in 1550, it belonged to the Conventual Franciscans of the Province of Portugal (“Venturas”), later to the Capuchins of St Anthony and finally to the Franciscans of the Algarve (“Pimentas” or “Peppers”). The existence in the Upper Town of another entirely different St Bonaventure’s College causes confusion: which description belongs to which, and what dates belong to what? I can only say with certainty that the college of the Lower Town (today private dwellings) was the College of the Pimentas, that it was founded in 1550, and that it was the college of the Upper Town that was turned into the Anthropological Museum in the nineteenth century.

College of the Most Holy Trinity: Established in 1552 by Brother Roque do Espírito Santo and built from 1562 in the Couraça de Lisboa; it belonged to the Order of the Most Holy Trinity of the Redemption of the Captives. It was in its church that University religious services were held when the University Chapel was unavailable. Suppressed in 1834, the building was sold and subsequently changed hands many times; what remains today are ruins bound to be restored and house The University, Judicial and European Court.

New College, or St Augustine’s College, or the College da Sapiência (“of the Wisdom”): Established in 1552 by the Bishop of Coimbra, Dom Afonso Castelo Branco. The Sapiência belonged to the Holy Cross Monastery, which saw advantage in constructing a College in the Upper Town. At the time, St Michael’s and All Saints’ Colleges no longer existed; the only existing institution was the Holy Cross “College.” Construction took from 1593 to 1604. It is said it communicated by underground tunnel with the Holy Cross Monastery itself. With the extinguishing of the religious orders in 1834, the building passed to the Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Coimbra. Today it is property of the Misericórdia and functions as the church, the museum and the archive of the Misericórdia. It also houses the University’s Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences.

St Benedict’s College: Established in 1555 by Queen Catharine and Brother Diogo de Murça, Rector of the University, it belonged to the Order of St Benedict. Building started in 1576. In 1772 it offered part of its grounds for the University Botanical Garden to be built. Suppressed in 1834, it was handed over to the University. Today it houses the University Departments of Botany and Anthropology.

College of Our Lady of Conception, or College of Tomar, or Christ’s College: Established in 1566 by the Knights of the Order of Christ. Initially (from 1556) resident in St Jerome’s College, the student-monks decided to install themselves in their own enclosure. Ceased to exist in 1834 and went through various uses until it was demolished to make way for Coimbra Prison.

St Peter’s College of the Regular Third Order of St Francis (the Calced Franciscans, the Tertiaries or “The Dregs”): Established in 1572 in the premises of an older college (see St Peter’s College). It was suppressed in 1834 and its building bought by a theatre company and turned into the Teatro dos Borras (“Theatre of the Dregs”), now extinct.

College of St Anthony of the Quarry: Established in 1602 for the brothers of the Reformed Franciscans (Capulhos or Pedreiras: “Quarries”). Suppressed in 1834, the building is now the Casa de Infância Dr. Elísio de Moura, in the Rua dos Grilos.

College of St Joseph of the Marians: Established in 1603; building started in 1606. Suppressed in 1834; the building was used successively as the Leper Hospital, the Royal Ursuline College of the Chagas (for the education of girls, not as part of the University) in 1851, and in 1910 the Military Hospital – which it remains till today.

The Military College: Established in 1615 to the north of St Benedict’s College. It was intended for the noble members of the Military Orders of Saint James of the Sword and St Benedict of Avis. When it was suppressed in 1834 the building passed to the University (which installed the Leper Hospital there in 1853, moved from the old College of St Joseph of the Marians). It was demolished in the 1940s.

St Bonaventure’s College (in the Upper Town): Established in 1616 (see St Bonaventure’s College or the College of the Pimentas). In 1625, the Brothers “Venturas” had been granted a Pontifical license to acquire the building of one of the old colleges and the neighbouring houses in Rua Larga. The buildings were remodelled as the College between 1665 and 1678. Suppressed with the religious orders in 1834, it provided the first nucleus of the University Anthropological Museum; it was demolished in 1942.

[Image: Upper Town buildings at Coimbra before the demolitions of the 1940s]

College of St Anthony of the Star: Established in 1707 by the Provincial Brother Ambrósio de Santo Agostinho, construction began in 1715. Yet, it was in the premises that would later become the initial buildings of this college that the University first functioned when moved from Lisbon to Coimbra, in 1537, before occupying the Alcáçova Real. It belonged to the Franciscans, and with the suppression of the religious orders in 1834, the building passed into private hands, going through some remodellings (including turning part of it into a factory!) and a fire. Today, all that remains is the old church, used by the Junta de Freguesia de Almedina.

St Rita’s College, or the College dos Grilos (“of the Crickets”): Established in 1755 and belonged to the Order of the Discalced Hermits of St Augustine (“The Crickets”). Suppressed in 1834, it was then used as residence for men. Today it houses the University Central Administration.

College of St Paul the Hermit: Established in 1779 in Rua Larga (Broad Street!). Ceased to operate in 1834, the building was successively headquarters of the Higher Council of Public Instruction, the Institute of Coimbra, a Museum of Antiquity and Archaeology and the Associação Académica de Coimbra until its demolition in 1942.

Three colleges – the Royal College of the Arts, the College of St Paul the Apostle and St Peter’s College – were different from the others. The first was an “Intermediate School” or “Preparatory to University entrance”; the other two, called “secular” colleges, were what today would be called “graduate colleges,” providing graduated students (bachelors, licentiates, masters and doctors) intending to teach in the University with a residence until a University post became vacant. All the other colleges belonged to the religious orders and were intended for monks – who were mainly students of theology. So we can say that at Coimbra the college system functioned only for the Theology Faculty, while the students in the other faculties (clearly the majority in the University as a whole) lodged with the local inhabitants (Taveira, 2002).

I perceived that, in all, nineteen colleges had been established in the sixteenth century, four in the seventeenth and three in the eighteenth. But I could still not establish whether the Holy Cross College actually existed or was only an expression synonymous with Holy Cross Monastery. However, I was certain that the Holy Cross Monastery had had proper colleges: St Michael’s College and All Saints’ College (established by Brother Brás de Barros in 1535), disbanded in 1566, and later New College. However, I found more information in a text of Professor Fernando Taveira (2002) about two names associated with the Holy Cross Monastery. Citing the Description and Sketch of the Monastery of Santa Cruz he mentions St Augustine’s College and the College of St John the Baptist, which were situated “one to the right and the other to the left of the Monastery” (Taveira 2002). I have no further reliable information about these hypothetical colleges: whether they are a misinterpretation of the text, whether they represent an error on the part of the original author, or whether it is a confusion with other colleges of the same name or in a similar location – whether, in fact, they had ever existed.

However, the Grande Enciclopédia Portuguesa e Brasileira is definite that at the date of the refounding of the University in Coimbra the Holy Cross Monastery would have had four colleges, though without presenting any information about them – not even names. Two of the four were evidently St Michael’s and All Saints’; the presence of those other two might explain why St Augustine’s College in the Upper Town was called New College. (“The New College of Saint Augustine,” perhaps? The “official” name of New College, Oxford, is “The College of St Mary.” Since there was already an existing “College of St Mary” at Oxford – Oriel College – William of Wykeham’s foundation was known as “the new College of St Mary”: hence “New College.”) I will try to find something more on them and include them in the chronological table.

I found names of two more colleges associated with Coimbra: St Barbara’s College and the College of the Discalced Carmelites. The first, though in practice Portuguese, was not situated in Portuguese territory: it was a college of the University of Paris leased to Diogo de Gouveia in 1520 to lodge Portuguese students. I will try to say something about it in another post. I haven no information about the second college, only three hypotheses:

  1. it is, in fact, a university college per se, on which I still do not have any reliable information;
  2. it is an alternative name for another college already described; or
  3. it is not a university college at all.

As a final note, let me say that the names Pimentas (“Peppers”), Borras (“Dregs”), Grilos (“Crickets”), Venturas (“Ventures”) and Pedreiras (“Quarries”) are academic slang, that is to say, mock names students would give to the priests of those Colleges. The origins of such names is still unknown to me, but surely a matter to investigate further.

Sources consulted
Not consulted
  • Alta de Coimbra, História-Arte-Tradição – 1º Encontro sobre a Alta de Coimbra Outubro 1987. Coimbra: Livraria Minerva. 1988.
  • “Conteúdo” Comunicação sobre a influência dos colégios da “Alta” e o desenvolvimento da arte em Coimbra e sua região.
  • Gonçalves, Nogueira (1982) “Os Colégios Universitários de Coimbra e o Desenvolvimento da Arte,” in A Sociedade e a Cultura de Coimbra no Renascimento, Actas do Simpósio Internacional Organizado Pelo Instituto de História da Arte da Universidade de Coimbra. Coimbra: Epartur.
  • Revista Monumentos Nº 25. 2006.
  • Lobo R P (1999) Os Colégios de Jesus, das Artes e de São Jerónimo. Coimbra: Department of Architecture, University of Coimbra.
  • Planta da Cidade de Coimbra 1873–1874. Irmãos Goullard.
  • Santana P (2003) “Identidade e globalização: uma geografia da memória da Alta de Coimbra,” in Cadernos de Geografia Número Especial, pp. 21–35.

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