The origins of St Edmund's College lay in the repeal of the Test Act in 1871, permitting Jewish, Non-Conformist and Roman Catholic scholars to return to the University of Cambridge for the first time since the religious revolution of the sixteenth century. The lifting of this exclusion led to the formation of a small community of Catholic students under the supervision of Fr Edmond Nolan, a former Vice-President of St Edmund's College at Ware, Hertfordshire. The group of four students settled in Cambridge on 23 April 1896, moving to the former Ayerst Hostel, the site of the present Norfolk building on Mount Pleasant, on 2 November of that year. Known as St Edmund's House, the new academic institution was initially a lodging house for students who were matriculated at the different Colleges in the University. The impetus for the foundation came from Henry Fitzalan Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk, who provided the funds, Mgr Bernard Ward, the President of St Edmund's College, Ware, who supplied the students, and Baron Anatole von Hügel, the Curator of Cambridge University's Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Three of the first students were studying for the priesthood and were drawn from St Edmund's College, Ware, that is, the seminary for the archdiocese of Westminster. Within a few years most of the students were already ordained to the priesthood before coming into residence as members of the University. They read a range of degrees to equip them for posts in grammar schools and universities. There was a steady increase in the number of students towards the outbreak of the first world war. The new chapel was blessed by Cardinal Francis Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, in 1916. At a later stage St Edmund's was recognised as a House of Residence. The dining hall and further student rooms were built in 1939 by the seventh Master, John Petit, later bishop of Menevia (1947-72). Several distinguished scholars were among the students resident in St Edmund's House, including one future Head of a Cambridge College.
The Mastership of Canon Garrett Sweeney (1964-76) was a period of steady progress, laying the foundation for the emergence of the present College. The increased number of postgraduates in the University during the later 1950s led the Regent House of the University to establish four graduate Colleges in 1965; the other three were Darwin College, Wolfson College and Clare Hall. The graduate Colleges were permitted to matriculate their own postgraduates and to present them for degrees; this was later extended to mature and affiliated undergraduates. 1965 saw the election of the first four Fellows; others followed in succeeding years. The Fellows' powers were circumscribed by the Association, that is, the Trustees, two thirds of the Trustees were Bishops, and a group of Catholic Dons, including some Fellows; the Association was invested with authority regarding matters of finance and the election of Fellows. Although laymen had been part of the College's community from its inception, the years from 1965 saw a sharp increase in their number. In an act of remarkable generosity on 20 March 1973 the Catholic Church through the Association signed away the buildings and the land of the present College to the Master and Fellows. The College achieved the status of an Approved Foundation on 8 March 1975. The old Association was dissolved on 30 June 1984 and replaced by a new governing body of Fellows and St Edmund's became a fully autonomous and self-regulating society. The Catholic identity of the College was to be represented by the Archbishop of Westminster, who would serve as the Visitor, and the Dean, a Catholic priest.
Changes in the governance of St Edmund's House were accompanied by the development of the site, with the construction of rooms for students and visiting academics. Fr John Coventry, SJ, was the last Master in holy orders (1976-85). He was succeeded by Richard Laws, SCD, CBE, FRS (1985-96). The bequest of Dr Shoichi Okinaga, an Honorary Fellow, funded the construction of the new tower, which supplied additional rooms and a Master's office, in 1992. This was formally opened by the Right Honourable Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, on 30 April 1993. The Master and Fellows worked towards full collegiate status, which was approved by the University in 1996. Centenary celebrations brought visits from Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, Archbishop of Westminster, for a Mass of Thanksgiving on 15 June 1996 and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh for dinner on 25 June 1996. The College petitioned the Privy Council for a Royal Charter, which was granted by the Queen on 22 April 1998 in the Mastership of Professor Sir Brian Heap, SCD, CBE, FRS. The chapel was solemnly blessed by the Rt Rev. Peter Smith, Bishop of East Anglia, on 25 October 2000. These years witnessed an increase in the number of Fellows and a sharp rise in the number of students. This led to a further building programme of 50 student rooms. His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, the Chancellor of the University, opened the Richard Laws building and the Anglo-German garden of reconciliation on 2 May 2002. The thirteenth Master, Professor Paul Luzio, F.MedSci, already one of the senior Fellows and a former Senior Tutor of this College, was elected in 2004 and spearheaded the next stage of building, a block of 70 rooms for students.
The records of the first nine Masters of St Edmund's House [EDAR 1/0 - 1/9] form the core archive of the first eighty years of the College. The archive also contains, inter alia, minutes of its governing bodies, records of early clubs and societies, College publications, photographs from the earliest days of the College, and some personal papers of a number of St Edmund's members. Some records acquired from external sources predate the date of the foundation of St Edmund's.