Cambridge Apostles

From Academic Kids

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Trinity College Great Court. The Cambridge Apostles were for decades centered around Trinity and King's.

The Cambridge Apostles, also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society, is an elite intellectual secret society at Cambridge University, founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson, a Cambridge student who went on to become the Bishop of Gibraltar.

The society takes its name from the idea that its members are supposedly the 12 cleverest students at Cambridge. The active membership consists largely of undergraduates, though there have been graduate student members. The society traditionally centered around King's College and Trinity College, though this is no longer the case.


Activities and membership

The society is essentially a debating club. Meetings are held once a week, traditionally on Saturday evenings, during which one member gives a prepared talk on a topic, which is later thrown open for discussion, while the members eat sardines on toast, called "whales". There are no constraints regarding which topic may be raised and how it is approached: members may raise any idea they can mount an argument for, no matter how controversial or politically incorrect.

The Apostles retain a leather diary of their membership stretching back to its founder, which includes handwritten notes about the topics each member has spoken on. The diary is retained by the secretary of the society. The members referred to as the "Apostles" are the active, usually undergraduate members; former members are called "angels". Undergraduates usually agree to become angels after graduating or being awarded a fellowship; they then look out for new members among the undergraduate population. Every year, amid great secrecy, all the angels are invited to an Apostles' dinner at a Cambridge college.

Undergraduates being considered for membership are called "embryos" and are invited to "embryo parties," where members judge whether the embryo should be invited to join. The students attend these parties without knowing they are being considered for membership. Becoming an Apostle involves taking an oath of secrecy and listening to the reading of a curse, originally written by Apostle Fenton Hort, the theologian, in or around 1851.

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There have been very few women members. The first woman to join, an American Ph.D student in social anthropology, became a member in 1985, 165 years after the society was founded.

Critics say the society's secretive nature, combined with the small number of women members, and the significant percentage of angels who have acquired fellowships at Cambridge, and positions in the media, government and the church, places the Apostles at odds with the meritocratic ideals the university espouses. Former members have spoken of the life-long bond they feel toward one another. Henry Sidgwick, the philosopher, wrote of the Apostles in his memoirs that "the tie of attachment to this society is much the strongest corporate bond which I have known in my life."


The Apostles first became well-known outside Cambridge in the years before the First World War with the rise to eminence of the group of intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and his brother and G.E. Moore were all Apostles and subsequently prominent as members of Bloomsbury.

The Cambridge spy ring

The Apostles were once again thrust into prominence following the exposure of Cambridge spy ring. At least four men with access to the top levels of government in Britain — two of them former Apostles — were found to have passed information to the KGB. The four known agents were Guy Burgess, an MI6 officer and secretary to the deputy foreign minister; Anthony Blunt, MI5 officer, director of the Courtauld Institute, and art adviser to the Queen; Donald MacLean, foreign office secretary; and Kim Philby, MI6 officer and journalist.

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Guy Burgess, who made the Apostles famous by working for MI6 and spying for the KGB, drank himself to death in Moscow in 1963.

Although only four men were identified, there were rumors of a fifth man, a senior British intelligence officer, who was never found. Many stories linked this rumor to Victor Rothschild, another Apostle, who had supplied an apartment in London for some of the Cambridge spies to meet in, though there is no evidence that he knew about their spying activities. The American writer Michael Straight, the former editor of the New Republic, was also later tentatively identified.

Of the four named spies, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, both homosexual, had been members of the Apostles at a time when homosexuality seemed to be an attribute of many of the undergraduates chosen for membership, and stories persisted that the membership was mainly homosexual and Marxist. Anthony Blunt, a communist, was the first to be recruited by the KGB, during a visit to Russia in 1933. When he returned to Britain, he in turn recruited other Cambridge students, at the instruction of his KGB handlers, including Straight, though Blunt was not the person who recruited Burgess, Philby, and MacLean, according to writer Russell Aiuto. [1] (

As the Queen's art advisor, Blunt was knighted in 1956, but was stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly named him as a spy.

Former members

Members of the Cambridge Apostles have included (with the year they joined in brackets, where it is known):


  • Deacon, R., The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University's Elite Intellectual Secret Society

External links


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