History of Cambridge

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Cambridge > History

Chapels, colleges, alleyways, laboratories, libraries; all have a tale to tell. If only the stones could speak - and they do! Henry VIII clutching a chair leg; Captain Cook's wife's grave, so far from her husband; Christopher Wren's first building; the Washington family's coat-of-arms (which inspired the Stars and Stripes). All can be found if you know where to look.

Coming out of the railway station, you join Hills Road. Taking this northwards, you follow in the footsteps of Roman legions marching from Colchester. They continued their path till they reached the river, which was forded and later bridged. The crossing point (now Magdalene Street Bridge) with nearby hill (Castle Hill) proved an ideal place to settle, and the town of Durolipons was born.

After the Romans, others came and went: Vikings, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, all remembered in the local parish names (St Clement, St Bene't and St Giles reflect three different Christian cultures, and the Anglo-Saxon tower of St Bene't's is now the oldest surviving building in the city). The centre of the town moved south to the current market area. With an 11th century population of some 1,600, Cambridge was one of eastern England's largest towns.

Growth continued into the 13th century. In 1209, King John declared Cambridge a royal borough; a merchant's guild was established, and regular fairs were held on Midsummer Common. Many goods were transported by boat, and Cambridge's wharf trade boomed. Though already an important market town, simultaneous developments were about to change the city's destiny forever.

In the early 13th century, riots in Oxford - and later Paris - caused many of these cities' scholars to flee, fearing for their lives. For reasons unknown, many headed to Cambridge. These students - most of them boys in their early teens - would gather in groups for lessons in grammar, rhetoric and logic, all taught in Latin. The education lacked formality or ceremony; indeed the learners were an unruly lot, but this indiscipline soon prompted teachers and townsfolk to impose some form of order. Students were gathered in hostels, and rules established.

In 1284, the Bishop of Ely, Hugh de Balsham, founded Peterhouse to house a Master and six Fellows. This was the first of the Cambridge colleges. Over the next 70 years, seven more followed. The Old Court of Corpus Christi College is the oldest surviving university building, and gives the visitor an idea of the style of colleges at this time. The town and its nascent university survived plague, peasant uprisings and fire, and in the 15th century, more colleges were founded by the great and good. These founders live on today, immortalised in the college names and heraldry.

Cambridge was at the centre of the English reformation; in the early days it was even dubbed 'Little Germany'. Hugh Latimer, who preached Lutheranism from the pulpits of St Edward's Church and Great St Mary's, would later be burnt at the stake in Oxford. Just as these two churches remain, so does much else from the era - a 1574 map has much in common with the street plan of today.

'Students do not wear clerical clothes, but new fashioned gowns of blue, green, red or mixed colours; they have fair roses upon their shoes, wear long, frizzled hair upon the head'and long Merchants' Ruffs about the neck, with fair feminine cuffs at ye wrist.' Such was the damning disapprobation of Puritanism!

In 1640, Cambridge returned Oliver Cromwell to Parliament. Though staunchly on the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War, the town was never a battleground.

The year 1667 saw a 27-year-old take the chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics ' Isaac Newton still is, arguably, the university's greatest mind to date. The following century, however, saw a curriculum too heavily dependent on mathematics, resulting in dwindling student numbers. This was reversed only in the 19th century: in 1800, 150 freshers 'came up' (began studies); by 1870, this figure had risen to 800.

The change was not solely quantitative. A series of reforms changed the university into the one we see now. For the first time, centralised university faculties rather than the colleges took responsibility for teaching. This brought a wave of new faculty buildings, such as the Cavendish Laboratories. In the 1820s, rowing, cricket and other sports became student pursuits. And - most controversial of all - Girton College, the first college for women, was founded in 1869 (but kept a respectable three miles from the city centre). Women didn't achieve full university membership until 1947, however, and all-male colleges only began admitting them in the 1970s. Today, there are two all-women undergraduate colleges, the rest being co-educational.

The railway arrived, resisted by the university authorities (the station only slightly closer in than Girton College!), and this spelt the end for the riverside wharves. The river empty, punting became and remains a popular afternoon pastime. And in the late 19th century, the University finally relinquished many of its municipal powers, such as licensing, to the council.

Over the 20th century, town and gown have learned to live and work together. In 1951, King George VI granted Cambridge city status, something it already was in all but name. Its suburbs sprawled out to the villages of Trumpington, Girton and Cherry Hinton, and the M11 motorway linked it to London. The university now has 35 colleges, the newest being Robinson, founded in 1977. Future historians will look back at 20th century Cambridge and see an era of enormous scientific discovery - over 50 Nobel prizewinners come from the university, most of them scientists. Industry has harnessed this genius with the arrival of hi-tech companies, such as Phillips, NAPP and Microsoft, to the area, reflected in a programme of confident modern architecture.

This cohabitation of science and enterprise is embraced by both city and university and, at the dawn of the 21st century, Cambridge is well-placed to face future unknowns, as it has done so often before...