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The Cambridge Apostles, also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society, is an intellectual secret society at the University of Cambridge founded in 1820 by George Tomlinson, a Cambridge student who went on to become the first Bishop of Gibraltar.
The origin of the Apostles' nickname dates from the number, twelve, of their founders. Membership consists largely of undergraduates, though there have been graduate student members, and members who already hold university and college posts. The society traditionally drew most of its members from St John's, Jesus, King's and Trinity Colleges.
Six former members of the Apostles are buried in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge : Henry Jackson, classicist (1863); Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb, classicist (?); Desmond MacCarthy, newspaper critic; G. E. Moore, philosopher (1894); Frank P. Ramsey, philosopher (1921); and Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher (1912).
Activities and membership
The society is essentially a discussion group. 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; during the meetings, members used to eat sardines on toast, called "whales". Women first gained acceptance into the society in the 1970s.
The Apostles retain a leather diary of their membership ("the book") stretching back to its founder, which includes handwritten notes about the topics each member has spoken on. It is included in the so-called "Ark", which is a collection of papers with some handwritten notes from the group's early days, about the topics members have spoken on, and the results of the division in which those present voted on the debate. It was a point of honour that the question voted on should bear only a tangential relationship to the matter debated. The members referred to as the "Apostles" are the active, usually undergraduate members; former members are called "angels". Undergraduates apply to become angels after graduating or being awarded a fellowship. Every few years, amid great secrecy, all the angels are invited to an Apostles' dinner at a Cambridge college. There used to be an annual dinner, usually held in London.
Undergraduates being considered for membership are called "embryos" and are invited to "embryo parties", where members judge whether the student should be invited to join. The "embryos" 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 John Anthony Hort, the theologian, in or around 1851.
Former members have spoken of the lifelong 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 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. John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his brother James, G. E. Moore, E. M. Forster and Rupert Brooke were all Apostles. Keynes, Woolf and Lytton Strachey subsequently gained prominence as members of Bloomsbury.
Cambridge spy ring
The Apostles came to public attention again following the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring in 1951. Three Cambridge graduates with access to the top levels of government in Britain, one of them a former Apostle, were eventually found to have passed information to the KGB. The three known agents were Apostle Guy Burgess, an MI6 officer and secretary to the deputy foreign minister; Donald MacLean, foreign office secretary; and Kim Philby, MI6 officer and journalist.
In 1963, American writer Michael Straight, also an Apostle, and later publisher of The New Republic magazine, admitted to a covert relationship with the Soviets, and he named Anthony Blunt, MI5 officer, director of the Courtauld Institute, and art adviser to the Queen as his recruiter and a Soviet spy. Confronted with Straight's confession, Blunt acknowledged his own treason and revealed that he had also drawn into espionage his fellow Apostle Leonard "Leo" Long. Straight also told investigators that the Apostle John Peter Astbury had been recruited for Soviet intelligence by either Blunt or Burgess. Leo Long confessed to delivering classified information to the Soviets from 1940 until 1952.
Writers have accused several other Apostles of being witting Soviet agents. Roland Perry in his book, The Fifth Man (London: Pan Books, 1994) makes a circumstantial case against Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild, who was a friend to both Burgess and Blunt. The espionage historian John Costello in The Mask of Treachery (London: William Collins & Sons, 1988) points a finger at the mathematician Alister Watson. Kimberley Cornish, in his controversial The Jew of Linz (London: Century, 1998), makes the rather extravagant claim that Ludwig Wittgenstein was the "éminence grise" of the Cambridge spies.
In the 1930s when Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt were elected the membership was mainly Marxist. Documents from the Soviet archives included in The Crown Jewels (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev, indicate that it was Burgess who seduced and led Blunt into the Soviet underground. As the Queen's art adviser, Blunt was knighted in 1956, but was stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher publicly named him as a spy — his confession having been kept secret before then.
Members of the Apostles have included (with the year they joined in brackets, where known):
- George Tomlinson, Bishop of Gibraltar (1820)
- Frederick Denison Maurice, theologian, Christian socialist, founder of the Working Men's College (1823)
- Erasmus Alvey Darwin, brother of Charles Darwin (1823)
- Benjamin Hall Kennedy, Latinist (1824)
- John Sterling, writer and poet (1825)
- John Mitchell Kemble, historian (1826)
- Charles Buller, barrister and MP (1826)
- Richard Chenevix Trench, Christian writer, Archbishop of Dublin (1827)
- Arthur William Buller, judge of the Supreme Court, Calcutta (1828)
- Arthur Hallam, poet (1829)
- Alfred Tennyson, English poet, member of the House of Lords (1829)
- Sir William Harcourt, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1847)
- Fenton John Anthony Hort, theologian (1851)
- James Clerk Maxwell, physicist (1852)
- Richard Claverhouse Jebb, classicist (?)
- Henry Sidgwick, philosopher (1857)
- Henry Jackson, classicist (1863)
- Oscar Browning, educator
- A. N. Whitehead, mathematician, logician and philosopher (1884)
- Roger Eliot Fry, art historian (1887)
- Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, social activist and logician, member of the Royal Society, Nobel prize winner, member of the House of Lords (1892)
- Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, historian and philosopher
- J. M. E. McTaggart, philosopher
- G. E. Moore, philosopher (1894)
- G. M. Trevelyan, historian (1895)
- G. H. Hardy, mathematician (~1897)
- E. M. Forster, writer (1901)
- James Kenneth Stephen, poet, tutor to Prince Albert Victor (Eddy) and suspect for Jack the Ripper
- Desmond MacCarthy, newspaper critic
- Lytton Strachey, writer and critic (1902)
- James Strachey, translator of Freud
- Gordon Luce, scholar
- Robert Trevelyan, poet and translator (1893)
- Saxon Sydney-Turner, civil servant
- Francis Birrell, critic and journalist
- Leonard Woolf writer and publisher (~1902)
- J. T. Sheppard, classicist, provost of King's College (1902)
- John Maynard Keynes, economist, member of the House of Lords (1903)
- Rupert Brooke, poet (1908)
- Gerald Shove, economist (1909)
- Ferenc Békássy, Hungarian poet (1912)
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher (1912)
- F. L. Lucas, writer and critic (1914)
- Lionel Penrose (1920)
- R. B. Braithwaite, philosopher (1921)
- Frank P. Ramsey, philosopher (1921)
- Dadie Rylands (1922)
- Dennis Robertson, economist (1926)
- Dennis Proctor, classicist; later Sir Dennis Proctor; Permanent Secretary, UK Ministry of Power. (1927)
- Anthony Blunt, art adviser to the Queen, MI5 officer, KGB spy (1927)
- Julian Bell, poet (1928)
- Hugh Sykes Davies (1932)
- Guy Burgess, MI6 officer, KGB spy (1932)
- William Grey Walter (1933)
- Victor Rothschild, financier, member of the House of Lords (1933)
- D. G. Champernowne (1934)
- Alan Lloyd Hodgkin (1935)
- Michael Whitney Straight, American magazine publisher, member of the Whitney family, Presidential speechwriter (1936)
- Derek Prince (1938)
- Peter Shore, Labour politician (1947)
- Robin Gandy, mathematician (1947)
- Noel Annan, intelligence officer, provost of King's College, Cambridge, provost of University College, London, vice-chancellor of the University of London, member of the House of Lords (1948)
- Harry Gordon Johnson (1951)
- Eric Hobsbawm, historian
- Jonathan Miller, knight, physician, comic, member of Beyond the Fringe, theatre, opera and film director (~1957)
- Anthony Kelly, headmaster, professor of education, author (1979) [Anthony Elliott-Kelly]
- Quentin Skinner, historian of political philosophy
- Lal Jayawardena, economist, diplomat
- Amartya Sen, Nobel prize winning economist and philosopher
- James Mirrlees, Nobel prize winning economist
- Geoffrey Lloyd, emeritus professor of classics at Cambridge; Master of Darwin College, Cambridge
- Partha Dasgupta, emeritus Frank Ramsey Professor of Economics at St John's College, Cambridge
Appearances in literature
- Avenging Angel, a murder mystery by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah
- The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
- The Longest Journey by E. M. Forster
- The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
- The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
- The Philosopher's Ring by Randall Collins
- The White Garden by Stephanie Barron
- W. C. Lubenow, The Cambridge Apsotles 1820-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1999, page 27.
- The Times obituary, 11 May 1967.
- The Times obituary, 18 August 1947.
- Brian McGuinness, Young Ludwig, Oxford University Press, 2005, p146.
- The Times obituary, 31 August 1983.
- The Times obituary, 8 June 1984.
- Norton-Taylor, Richard (9 January 2004). "Obituary: Michael Straight". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2008-10-03.
- "Interview of Professor Quentin Skinner - part 2". YouTube. 2008-06-02. Retrieved 2012-05-26.
- Allen, Peter (1978). The Cambridge Apostles: The Early Years. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-21803-0.
- Deacon, Richard (1986). The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University's Elite Intellectual Secret Society. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-11820-4.
- Levy, Paul (1980). Moore: G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. ISBN 978-0-03-053616-8.
- Lubenow, W. C. (1998). The Cambridge Apostles, 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination, and Friendship in British Intellectual and Political Life. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-57213-2.