The college's alumni include the winners of ten Nobel Prizes, seven prime ministers and twelve archbishops of various countries, at least two princes and three Saints. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth studied at the college, as did William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the two abolitionists who led the movement that brought slavery to an end in the British Empire. HRH Prince William was affiliated with St John's while undertaking a university-run course in estate management in 2014.
St John's College is also well known for its choir, its members' success in a wide variety of inter-collegiate sporting competitions and its annual May Ball. In 2011, the college celebrated its quincentenary, an event marked by a visit of HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The site was originally occupied by the Hospital of St John the Evangelist, probably founded around 1200. By 1470 Thomas Rotherham Chancellor of the University, extended to it the privileges of membership of the University. This led to St. John's House, as it was then known, being conferred the status of a college. By the early 16th century the hospital was dilapidated and suffering from a lack of funds. The Lady Margaret Beaufort, having endowed Christ's College sought to found a new college, and chose the hospital site at the suggestion of John Fisher, her chaplain and Bishop of Rochester. However, Lady Margaret died without having mentioned the foundation of St John's in her will, and it was largely the work of Fisher that ensured that the college was founded. He had to obtain the approval of King Henry VIII of England, the Pope through the intermediary Polydore Vergil, and the Bishop of Ely to suppress the religious hospital, by which time held only a Master and three Augustinian brethren, and convert it to a college.
The college received its charter on 9 April 1511. Further complications arose in obtaining money from the estate of Lady Margaret to pay for the foundation and it was not until 22 October 1512 that a codicil was obtained in the court of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In November 1512 the Court of Chancery allowed Lady Margaret's executors to pay for the foundation of the college from her estates. When Lady Margaret's executors took over they found most of the old Hospital buildings beyond repair, but repaired and incorporated the Chapel into the new college. A kitchen and hall were added, and an imposing gate tower was constructed for the College Treasury. The doors were to be closed each day at dusk, sealing the monastic community from the outside world.
Over the course of the following five hundred years, the college expanded westwards towards the River Cam, and now has twelve courts, the most of any Oxford or Cambridge College. The first three courts are arranged in enfilade.