A History of the University of Cambridge since the 13th Century

View over Trinity College, Gonville and Caius, Trinity Hall and Clare College towards King’s College Chapel, seen from St John’s College chapel whereas on the left, just in front of King’s College chapel, is the University Senate House. / Photo by Bob Tubbs, Wikimedia Commons

In 1209, scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge and settled there.

Early Records

When we first come across Cambridge in written records, it was already a considerable town. The bridge across the River Cam or Granta, from which the town took its name, had existed since at least 875. The town was an important trading centre before the Domesday survey was compiled in 1086, by which time a castle stood on the rising ground to the north of the bridge, and there were already substantial commercial and residential properties as well as several churches in the main settlement which lay south of the bridge.

Within the town, or very close to it, there were a number of other religious institutions. There had been canons in the Church of St Giles below the castle before 1112, when they moved to a new site across the River Cam at Barnwell, and the Convent of St Radegund had existed since 1135 on the site which eventually became Jesus College. There were also two hospitals, one reserved for lepers at Stourbridge, and a second, founded for paupers and dedicated to St John, which after 1200 occupied the site where St John’s College now stands. Seventeen miles north of the town was the great Benedictine house of Ely which, after 1109, was the seat of a Bishopric.

There was thus much to bring clerks (clergymen) to the town, but traders were also attracted to it. After about 1100 they could reach Cambridge easily by the river systems which drained the whole of the East Midlands, and through Lynn and Ely they had access to the sea. Much wealth accumulated in the town, and the eleven surviving medieval parish churches and at least one handsome stone house remain as evidence of this. There were food markets before 1066, and during the twelfth century the nuns of St Radegund were allowed to set up a fair on their own land at Garlic Lane; the canons of Barnwell had a fair in June (later Midsummer Fair), and the leper hospital was granted the right to hold a fair which developed into the well-known and long-lasting Stourbridge Fair.

By 1200, Cambridge was a thriving commercial community which was also a county town and had at least one school of some distinction. Then, in 1209, scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge and settled there. At first they lived in lodgings in the town, but in time houses were hired as hostels with a Master in charge of the students. By 1226 the scholars were numerous enough to have set up an organisation, represented by an official called a Chancellor, and seem to have arranged regular courses of study, taught by their own members. From the start there was friction between the town and the students. Students, usually aged about fourteen or fifteen, often caused disturbances; citizens of the town, on the other hand, were known to overcharge for rooms and food. King Henry III took the scholars under his protection as early as 1231 and arranged for them to be sheltered from exploitation by their landlords. At the same time he tried to ensure that they had a monopoly of teaching, by an order that only those enrolled under the tuition of a recognised master were to be allowed to remain in the town.

The Medieval University

Trinity Lane in the snow, with King’s College Chapel (centre), Clare College Chapel (right) and the Old Schools (left). / Photo by Monsarc, Wikimedia Commons

The students who flocked to Cambridge soon arranged their scheme of study after the pattern which had become common in Italy and France, and which they would have known in Oxford. They studied first what would now be termed a ‘foundation course’ in arts – grammar, logic and rhetoric – followed later by arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, leading to the degrees of bachelor and master. There were no professors; the teaching was conducted by masters who had themselves passed through the course and who had been approved or licensed by the whole body of their colleagues (the universitas or university). The teaching took the form of reading and explaining texts; the examinations were oral disputations in which the candidates advanced a series of questions or theses which they disputed or argued with opponents a little senior to themselves, and finally with the masters who had taught them. Some of the masters, but by no means all, went on to advanced studies in divinity, canon and civil law, and, more rarely, medicine, which were taught and examined in the same way by those who had already passed through the course and become doctors. The doctors grouped themselves into specific faculties.

It soon became necessary, to avoid abuse of the royal privileges conferred on scholars, to identify and authenticate the persons to whom degrees had been granted. Enrolment with a licensed master was the first step towards this; it was called matriculation because of the condition that the scholar’s name must be on the master’s matricula or roll, but later the University itself assumed this duty. It was also desirable to mark the stage in a scholar’s progress by a ceremony of admission (graduation) to the different grades, or degrees, of membership. These were conferred by the whole body of masters, with the Chancellor exercising the power on their behalf, as his deputy, the Vice-Chancellor, came to do later. The grades of scholar became differentiated by a series of variations on the gown, hood and cap. Reminders of these terms and practices survive today.

The Regent Masters, who were the teaching body, soon found that in addition to a ceremonial head they needed other representatives to speak and act for them. The first of these were the two Proctors (literally representatives) whom they elected annually to negotiate on their behalf with the town and other lay authorities, to keep the accounts, to safeguard their treasures and books, to moderate in examinations, and to supervise all other ceremonies. These duties were soon to be shared by other elected officers: Bedells, at first attached to the faculties, presided over ceremonies; and a Chaplain took charge of treasures and books. By the sixteenth century a Registrary recorded matriculations, admissions to degrees, and decisions of the regent masters, while an Orator wrote ceremonial letters and addresses. Most of these offices remain today, although in some cases for ceremonial purposes only.

A community of such complexity needed rules. To this end, as problems arose, Statutes were adopted by the whole body of the University. These were not at first arranged or codified, but were noted haphazardly in books kept by the Proctors. The earliest known version of these decisions is a copy made in the mid-thirteenth century, which is now in the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome.

Moving to Independence

Memorial to Bishop Hugh de Northwold in Ely Cathedral. / Photo by Andrewrabbott, Wikimedia Commons

Most of the scholars of the University were at first clerks or clergymen,in holy orders of some sort, and expecting careers in the Church or in the Civil Service (as diplomats, judges or officers of the royal household). To support them during their years of study, they looked for preferment in the Church (a benefice, a canonry, even a dignity in a cathedral), but as ordained clerks they were at first subject to the local ecclesiastical authorities, that is, the Archdeacon and the Bishop of Ely. Before the end of the fifteenth century, however, they had freed themselves from this, and were independent of all ecclesiastical authority except the Pope’s. The Chancellor became an ecclesiastical judge in his own right, hearing all cases involving the morals or discipline of scholars, and proving the wills of all who died in residence. At about the same period, the Chancellor also provided scholars with a secular court to which they could resort for the trial of all civil and criminal cases except those concerning major crimes.

The Crown added to the University’s independence. It introduced measures to protect scholars against exploitation by townsmen who had acquired market and toll rights which enabled them to raise the prices of food, fuel and candles. To counter this, the University was granted the right to proceed at law against market profiteers, and to enforce the conduct of assizes, or tests, of bread and ale by the town.

The acquisition of these powers continued to be a source of friction between town and gown (the University) until the nineteenth century. More immediately, it is thought that the attacks on University property in the town in 1381 were partly inspired by resentment of this interference.

If this is so, the attack was ill judged, since as a result of a Royal inquiry into the disturbances, the University was granted a jurisdiction which allowed the Chancellor not only to prosecute the profiteers, but also those falsifying weights and measures, endangering public health by the adulteration of food and drink, interrupting the supplies of fresh water, or wilfully introducing infection during epidemics of ‘plague’. Further control of traders was allowed to the Chancellor with the grant of jurisdiction over law suits arising during markets and fairs. The last vestiges of these rights did not disappear until the nineteenth century, and the University retains even today certain responsibilities in connection with policing and licensing.

The Physical Setting

Cambridge in 1575. Credit: William Smith and Richard Lyne – Civitates orbis terrarum, volume ii, published in Cologne by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg. / Wikimedia Commons

In its earliest days, the University had no premises of its own: it relied on parish churches, especially Great St Mary’s and St Benedict’s (or ‘Bene’t’s’) and on the premises of the religious orders, as sites for its public ceremonies. Lectures, disputations and lodgings were found in private houses which frequently changed hands or went out of use. Soon a few groups of Regent Masters, lawyers and theologians, began to build or hire larger premises for teaching and lodging. A few of the hostels survived until the sixteenth century when they were often acquired as part of the premises of Colleges. Unlike the Colleges, hostels had few endowments and were always privately owned.

Meanwhile during the late fourteenth century and after, the University began to acquire property on the site today known as Senate-House Hill, and to build on it a group of buildings called the ‘Schools’ – some of which survive today as the ‘Old’ Schools. Here were the teaching rooms of the higher faculties – the first building to be erected was the Divinity School – where lectures and disputations were held, the chapel, the library, and the treasury, with its chests and muniments. Most of the land and buildings in the town was still in private hands, or in those of religious houses, although from the late thirteenth century much was already passing to the new institutions called Colleges. Pious donors provided these Colleges in the first place for a small number of advanced students in law or divinity who would pray for the souls of their benefactors. It was later that the Colleges housed the very young undergraduates who had previously been lodged in hostels or private houses.

The earliest College was St Peter’s or ‘Peterhouse’, founded in 1284 by Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely. King’s Hall, 1317, was intended by its founder, Edward II, to provide recruits to the higher civil service. Michaelhouse, Clare, Pembroke, Gonville Hall, Trinity Hall, Corpus Christi, King’s, Queens’ and St Catharine’s followed during the next 100 years. Three late foundations, Jesus, Christ’s and St John’s, emerged from the dissolution of small religious houses before 1520 and, like the King’s Hall, provided for younger scholars as well as ‘post-graduates’.

Before the middle of the sixteenth century, the Colleges began to play a decisive part in University life. They now nominated the Proctors from among their own members for the annual term of office, and their heads often served with the Vice-Chancellor and senior doctors as members of an advisory council which was soon to be called the Caput Senatus. From the sixteenth century until almost the end of the twentieth, the Head of one of the Colleges always held the office of Vice-Chancellor.

One of the key figures in Cambridge at this time was John Fisher, who was successively Master of Michaelhouse, Proctor, Vice-Chancellor, Chancellor (1509-35) and President of Queens’. As adviser to King Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, he was instrumental in the foundation of Christ’s and St John’s; equally importantly he evidently inspired the establishment of the first endowed university teaching post, the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity. He also attracted to Cambridge a number of scholars – notably Erasmus of Rotterdam – who encouraged the ‘new learning’ in Greek and Hebrew, helping to clear the way for the half-theological, half-philosophical speculations which produced the reformation of the church and the dissolution of the monasteries.

Sixteenth Century

Gonville and Caius College from King’s Parade. / Photo by Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia Commons

The effect of the early academic and religious changes of the century can be seen in the physical appearance of the town: a great new College, Trinity, was founded by Henry VIII from the two small houses of King’s Hall and Michaelhouse; Dr Caius enlarged Gonville Hall to make it almost a new foundation, called Gonville and Caius College, which occupied a large site close to the Old Schools; Emmanuel absorbed the Dominican site, Sidney Sussex that of the Franciscans, and Magdalene absorbed the former Benedictine house of studies known as Buckingham College. These new foundations were concerned with the education of men for the priesthood in the national church, but they, and Trinity especially, attracted for the first time large numbers of lay students.

The size of the official University greatly increased, but the total population of young men in the town included those who came to Cambridge, not so much with the intention of eventual graduation, but to profit from unofficial contacts and extra-curricular activities, and who then went on for a year or so to an Inn of Court in London. These lay students, their servants, and the tailors, fencing-masters, tennis-court-keepers, riding-masters and the like, who came to profit from them, put very great pressure on living accommodation and food-supplies in the town and created serious problems of public order. This was a period when town-gown relationships were very severely strained.

The changing character of the student body is reflected in the curriculum. Henry VIII had issued a series of injunctions to the University in 1536 suppressing the Faculty of Canon Law and forbidding the study of scholastic philosophy. The study of canon law declined, and the Greek and Latin classics, mathematics and Biblical studies now came to the fore.

The changes in the University were perpetuated by successive Royal interventions; the monarchs were concerned with the universities as producers of the future leaders of the reformed church, and the Statutes of 1570 ensured this. They concentrated authority not, as previously, in the Regent Masters and the Proctors, but in the Vice-Chancellor and the Heads.

The endowment by Henry VIII of five professorships, the Regius professorships of divinity, Hebrew, Greek, physic and civil law, emphasised changes in teaching methods and set an example for private donors. The national upheavals of 1640 to 1660, and to a lesser degree of 1688-89, led to disturbances in appointments and discipline, but Royal influence in the shape of Privy Council orders, and of requests for degrees for the court’s nominees (mandate degrees) continued until the early eighteenth century.

The Georgian/Hanoverian University

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton at 46 by Godfrey Kneller, 1689. / Isaac Newton Institute, Wikimedia Commons

Printing had been undertaken in Cambridge in the 1520s and a Royal charter in 1534 gave to the University the power to name (or license) three printers (stationers) who were to print and publish works which it approved. Another fifty years were to pass before this privilege was regularly exercised and it eventually developed into the University Press. From 1584, regular publication began under the University’s privilege and continued more or less steadily but did not achieve real force until Richard Bentley’s reorganisation in the last decade of the seventeenth century provided new premises and types. These improvements allowed the University Press in due course to exploit more fully the monopoly of Bible printing which it shared with Oxford and the ‘King’s Printers’, and to produce a steady stream of works essential to the development of its studies. The Cambridge University Press continues to this day as one of the oldest and largest academic publishers in the world.

The mathematical work of the seventeenth century had developed its full flower in the career of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), who with his followers pursued scientific investigations of all sorts. This is reflected in the rapid establishment by the University and by private donors of a series of professorships for mathematics (the Lucasian), chemistry, astronomy (the Plumian), anatomy, botany, geology (the Woodwardian), astronomy and geometry (the Lowndean), and experimental philosophy. The professors encouraged the provision of teaching aids within the University: this is the time when the Botanic Garden and the Woodwardian Museum of Fossils were established through private donations, and an Observatory was set up by Trinity College. Parallel with this scientific activity, two professorships of Arabic (Sir Thomas Adams and the Lord Almoner’s), moral philosophy (the Knightbridge), music, modern history (Regius), divinity (Norrisian) and law (Downing) were established to meet other needs.

The disputations and opponencies of the past were adapted to the new studies. Those completing the first stages of their graduation were arranged in an order of merit, which was announced on Ash Wednesday. Entertaining verses, sometimes satirical, were read at the graduation ceremony by a senior BA (or ‘old bachelor’) sitting, as a licensed fool, on a three-legged stool or tripod. In time, the graduation list came to be printed on the back of these Tripos verses, and became known as the Tripos list.

Despite the provision for natural sciences and arts, from the late 17th century, mathematics came to dominate studies in Cambridge, and eventually ‘the Tripos’ came to mean the examination in mathematics. This was conducted in the Senate-House, where candidates likely to do well took special papers of ‘problems’, at first dictated to them by the moderators but by 1800 appearing as a printed paper.

The University Library had expanded with the rest of the University during the later seventeenth century, and after the gift by George I of the manuscripts and books of Bishop John Moore, it outgrew its original quarters in the Old Schools. Plans had already been suggested for the building of a Senate-House in front of the Old Schools, and this was finally completed in 1730. Between this date and 1758 a series of alterations and adaptations to the old buildings provided space and splendid fittings for the Library, which are familiar from Rowlandson’s drawings: many of the cases survive in the present University Library.

Additions to the staple mathematical curriculum were only slowly made: an examination for the LLB in civil law appeared first in 1816, a classical Tripos began in 1824 and, after 1843, ordinands could take a voluntary examination in theology which was to develop into a theological Tripos.

These changes began during a time when the central administration of the University was strengthened and extended by a series of small reforms which were to be fundamental to future changes. The Statutes, for example, were for the first time issued in a printed version in 1785, and the system of permanent or temporary committees (usually termed syndicates) expanded to cover the supervision of estates (which the endowments of the new professorships had greatly extended), and also of buildings and institutions such as the Botanic Garden, the Library and the Press.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Photograph of Prince Albert the Prince Consort by J. J. E. Mayall, May 1860. / Wikimedia Commons

Despite these developments, there was in the first half of the nineteenth century a continued call for change and reform in the University, which in part reflected the political movements of the country as a whole. The election as Chancellor of Prince Albert the Prince Consort in 1847 is an indication of the strength of the movement for reform, and in 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the two ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The Commission’s report resulted in the promulgation of new Statutes for Cambridge in the Cambridge University Act of 1856. These Statutes have been much revised since their first appearance, but the form of government which they embodied has remained as a framework. The ultimate authority in the University was at first the Senate, the whole body of graduates, together with the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and doctors.

All important powers of this body came in time to be exercised by those of its members holding official positions in the University or Colleges (the Regent House), who in turn elect a proportion of members of the executive body, the Council. Curriculum and the content of examinations were the responsibility of another elected body, the General Board of the Faculties (which began in 1882), while the Financial Board (now the Finance Committee of the Council) dealt with accounting and the management of the University’s estate. Committees or boards concerned with teaching within individual disciplines developed into systematic Faculties during the inter-war years. Each Faculty has its own managing board and degree committee.

The introduction and examination of new studies – building partly upon Cambridge’s ancient strength in mathematics – advanced very rapidly after the Royal Commission of 1850 had reported. The natural sciences and moral sciences (now philosophical) Triposes were approved as early as 1851, and before 1900 Triposes in law, history, theology, Indian languages, Semitic (later oriental) languages, medieval and modern (European) languages, and mechanical sciences (later engineering) were all established. To develop these new branches of learning a number of new or remodelled professorships were established by the University and by private benefactors, the earliest being the Disney Professorship of archaeology in 1851.

The numbers of other established teaching posts remained small, and most undergraduate teaching was done by lecturers, appointed and paid by the Colleges, or by private coaches. As numbers of students grew during the last half of the century (matriculations increased from 441 in 1850 to 1,191 in 1910), much accommodation was added to existing Colleges, three entirely new institutions appeared during the century (Downing, Selwyn and St Edmund’s), and a number of attempts were made to provide cheap non-collegiate hostels catering for poorer students. Most of these hostels had disappeared before 1900 (the buildings of one, known as Cavendish College, are now occupied by Homerton), but a new non-collegiate society took over their work and later became Fitzwilliam College.

Resources for the study of art, architecture and archaeology had been provided, under the will of Sir Richard Fitzwilliam, by the establishment of the museum which bears his name. An even more extensive series of premises was housed on the old site of the Botanic Garden which moved to Hills Road, leaving free a considerable area behind Free School Lane for the New Museums site. This site came to house the Cavendish Laboratory for experimental physics, as well as departments of medicine, chemistry, zoology, anatomy, and engineering. Meanwhile across the street some of the surplus land originally acquired for Downing College was sold to the University and provided on the Downing Site space for laboratories and museums for botany, geology, agriculture, physiology and archaeology and anthropology, and a law school. The University Library, substantially enlarged on the Old Schools site during the nineteenth century, outgrew its original home and moved in 1935 to splendid new buildings west of the River Cam with the aid of a very substantial benefaction from the Rockefeller Foundation.

‘Extension lectures’ in provincial centres were an important feature of University activities in the late nineteenth century. They were often associated with attempts to provide professional teaching and examinations for girls through the local examinations for schools provided by the University in conjunction with Oxford. Training courses for male graduate teachers began in Cambridge at much the same time, but perhaps the most far-reaching effect of the movement was the establishment at Cambridge of two Colleges for women students (Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1872). From the first, these Colleges aimed to prepare their students for the Tripos, and the first women were in fact examined in 1882. Attempts to make women full members of the University were repeatedly defeated until 1947. From the 1860s, Colleges began slowly to permit their Fellows to marry. This had a profound influence on Cambridge society and on the topography of the town when houses came to be built to accommodate the new families. A few advanced students appeared in the University, especially in the laboratories, in the early twentieth century but postgraduate degrees, chiefly the PhD, made a slow start after their introduction in 1921.

Organised sport came to play a notable part in the life of the Colleges and University after 1851. The boat-race between Oxford and Cambridge and the inter-university cricket matches had already begun as early as 1827, and became annual events in 1839. Meanwhile, boat clubs, other athletic organisations and inter-collegiate competitions (Lents and Mays – named after the terms in which they took place – and Cuppers) became a well established feature of under-graduate life. The Proctors continued, in conjunction with College officers, to supervise public order and maintain discipline and it should be noted that until 1970 gowns were worn on the streets after dark by all junior members, and Colleges closed their gates well before midnight.

In the First World War (1914-19), 13,878 members of the University served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching, and the fees it earned, came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the University first received systematic state support in 1919, conditional upon a further inquiry into its resources and organisation, and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the University (but not the Colleges) should receive an annual grant, and should be reorganised so as to take over responsibility for lectures and practical teaching. The Colleges retained control of individual teaching of their students and this division of responsibility continues today.

The University after 1945

The Old Hall at Newnham College, the first building of the college on Sidgwick Avenue. / Photo by Orangecounty2008, Wikimedia Commons

This period has seen an accelerated rate of development in almost every direction. The reputation of Cambridge scientists had already been established in the late nineteenth century by Clerk Maxwell and the Darwins among others and was maintained afterwards by J. J. Thomson, Lord Rayleigh and Lord Rutherford. Work done by their pupils and associates during the Second World War greatly increased this reputation and large numbers of students anxious to use the laboratories flocked to the University and to the growing number of government-sponsored institutions established in the town (which was chartered as a city in 1951). University departments and research institutes were established as new areas of study developed, and with them new teaching courses.

The 1950s and 1960s saw an unprecedented expansion of the University’s teaching accommodation. Some older departmental and faculty buildings were replaced – for instance, those for Chemistry and Engineering – and the growing arts faculties received permanent accommodation for the first time, notably in the complex of buildings on the Sidgwick Avenue Site. Development of a huge new regional general hospital south of the city, eventually replacing the ancient Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the city centre, provided the nucleus for a wide range of medically related departments and institutes, including a new School of Clinical Medicine. The need for more space than could be made available on the cramped central sites led to dispersal of other departments, notably the Cavendish Laboratory to a spacious site west of Cambridge in the 1970s. The west Cambridge expansion continues today, and the area now houses many facilities including the Computer Laboratory and the Centre for Nanoscience.

Social and cultural activities were not neglected, and in this period a permanent social centre for graduate students and staff – the University Centre – was established with funds provided by the Wolfson Foundation, a purpose-built music school and concert hall was built, again partly from benefactions, the University Library was again extended, the modern art collection of Kettle’s Yard was acquired and enlarged, and England’s oldest University playhouse, the ADC, opened by the Amateur Dramatic Club in 1855, was leased by the University and refurbished as a centre for undergraduate drama. Such developments as these showed an increasing awareness of the wider responsibilities of the University, both to its own members and to the community at large.

More directly related to its core activities was the development named ‘the Cambridge Phenomenon’, the rapid and successful growth of science-based industry in and around the city, much of it deriving from research conducted in University laboratories. Crucial in this process was the establishment of the Cambridge Science Park by Trinity College, an innovation which has now grown vastly in size and which has been followed by other similar developments. The University’s own Industrial Liaison Office began in the 1970s with the support of the Wolfson Foundation, and has now developed into the Research Office.

Meanwhile the undergraduate numbers were increased after the war by the admission to full membership from 1947 of women students, by the foundation of a third women’s College, New Hall (1954, now Murray Edwards College), as well as the foundation of Churchill (1960) and Robinson (1977). More revolutionary steps were taken in the 1960s. Four new Colleges were established to provide fellowships for some of the growing number of teaching and research staff, as well as more places for research students (Darwin, Wolfson, Clare Hall and Lucy Cavendish). Some older foundations originally loosely connected with the University – Hughes Hall, St Edmund’s and Homerton – were recognised as Colleges. The older men’s Colleges now began to admit women students and appoint women Fellows. Now ‘co-residence’ is usual, but three Colleges admit women students only – Newnham, New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), and Lucy Cavendish.

Originally published by the University of Cambridge, republished under fair use for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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