Cambridge Online City

Cambridge history

St Benets
St Bene't's

Cambridge is most famous for its historic university. However, Cambridge is far older than the university.

The original settlement was north of the river, on Castle Hill. There is evidence for pre-Roman activity in the area, but the Romans built the first town. It was a convenient crossing point of the river Cam, on the edge of the marshy fen land. The town was a port, since it was the head of the navigation of what was then known as the River Granta. The area by Magdalene Bridge is still known as Quayside (see right), although now it only has punts. St Peter's Church, halfway up Castle Hill, has pieces of Roman tiles in its walls.

In Anglo Saxon times, there was a settlement on Castle Hill, since it could be defended, and another close to St Benedict's Church, or St Bene't's as it's known in Cambridge. The tower of St Bene't's is Saxon (see left), which makes it the oldest building in Cambridge. The city at the time was called Grantabrycge. At one time it came under Danish rule. St Clement's Church is near Quayside, and this dedication is common in Danish settlements. The Great Bridge (later replaced by Magdalene Bridge) may have built by King Offa (756-793AD). It was the last river crossing until King's Lynn. Cambridge had good trading links to the Continent and a market, and became prosperous.

Quayside
Quayside
Round Church
Round Church

The Normans built a castle on Castle Hill in 1068. It was particularly important to fortify Cambridge, since Hereward the Wake was defying Norman rule nearby in Ely. All that is left of the castle is Castle Mound (see right) and a few stones in the grounds of Shire Hall, off Castle Hill, belonging to Cambridgeshire County Council. If you climb to the top of the mound, you get a good view of Cambridge. It is the highest point of Cambridge, and allegedly, if you go north in a straight line, there is no higher ground until you reach the North Pole!

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (usually known in Cambridge as the Round Church) is one of only four round Norman church in England (see left). They were built by the Knights Templar. The round arches are typical of Norman church architecture. The Leper chapel on Newmarket Road is another Norman chapel.

By now, the town was known as Grentebrige or Cantebrigge. Eventually the name became Cambridge. However, the river was still called the Granta. Someone thought "Cambridge must be the bridge over the Cam, so the river should be called the Cam instead of the Granta", and so the river's name was changed! Upstream, where it flows through Grantchester, the River is still called the Granta. The Latin name for Cambridge is Cantabrigia, which is why degrees are called Cantab. This was not the Roman name for the town. The Roman settlement was called Duroliponte.

Castle Mound
Castle Mound
Folk Museum
Folk Museum

Barnwell Priory was founded in 1092, originally on Castle Hill, but later moved to area now known as Riverside, by the Elizabeth Way bridge. There is little left now apart from a church, St Andrews the Less, and a building known as the Cellarer's Checker (see right). There were many other religious houses founded in Cambridge, including St Rhadegund's Nunnery, which gave its name to Maid's Causeway, and later became Jesus College. King John granted a charter to Cambridge in 1201. The city council still own the charter of 1207.

The first recorded date connected with Cambridge University was 1209, when some Oxford students moved to Cambridge. Peterhouse, the first college, was founded in 1284. From this point, various colleges were founded. Some amalgamated previous colleges, or took over from priories, such as St Rhadegund. Corpus Christi was founded by the Guilds of Cambridge. As the university grew, trouble broke out between Town, the people who lived in Cambridge, and Gown, the students. The centre of the town was now definitely within the loop of the river, although you can still see older houses on the lower parts of Castle Hill, such as the Cambridge Folk Museum or Museum of Cambridge, as it is now called (see left).

Cellarers Exchequor
Cellarers Exchequor
Christ's gatehouse
Christ's gatehouse

Another old building is the School of Pythagoras in St John's college, the oldest University building in Cambridge still in active use, but originally a town house.

Henry VIII removed control of the university colleges from the religious bodies which had previously controlled them. There was a lot building at this time, including most of the splendid gatehouses (see left), and Kings College Chapel was finished (see right).

Oliver Cromwell was educated at Sidney Sussex College, and was elected Member of Parliament for Cambridge in 1640. Previously he had been MP for Huntingdon. He became Lord Protector of England, and beheaded King Charles I. After Cromwell died, Charles II became king, and Cromwell's head was displayed as the head of a traitor. The head is now buried in Sidney Sussex college, but they won't say where! Cromwell now has a statue outside the House of Commons in London.

Kings College Chapel
Kings College Chapel
Hobson's Conduit
Hobson's Fountain
In 1614, Cambridge needed a new water supply. Thomas Hobson built a causeway bringing water from springs at Nine Wells near Shelford outside Cambridge into the city centre. The channels still run along Trumpington Street (see right), although the conduit fountain has been moved from the market place to the corner of Lensfield Road (see left). Thomas Hobson hired out horses, but hirers had to take the horse closest to the door. This led to the expression "Hobson's Choice" meaning "No choice"! There is a Hobson Street in the centre of Cambridge.

William Harvey (15781657) discovered the circulation of the blood. He studied at Gonville & Caius College.

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) made fundamental discoveries about gravity and light, and invented calculus. He was at Trinity College.

Charles Darwin was at Christ's College. His book "The Origin of the Species" described how different animal species could evolve by natural selection.

Hobson's Conduit
Hobson's Conduit

There were no colleges founded from 1594 to 1800, and this was a time of decline, both in the university and the town. However, in late Victorian times, there were several colleges founded, including the first women's colleges (although degrees were not awarded to women until 1948). The university was developed as a centre of scientific research, based at the Cavendish Labs and the Downing Site (see right).

Judges Institute
Judges Institute
Famous scientists at Cambridge include:
  • William Harvey (see above)
  • Isaac Newton (see above)
  • Charles Darwin (see above)
  • Ernest Rutherford split the atom in 1903
  • Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA in 1953
  • Professor Stephen Hawking wrote Brief History of Time in 1988
  • There have been many famous writers connected with Cambridge as well.

    In 1845 the railway reached Cambridge, and the Barnwell Enclosure Act of 1806 allowed development of the town to the south and east. Cambridge became a city in 1951. Twentieth century development was mostly to the north, east and south. The size of the city did not grow for some time, because of planning restrictions. There is some striking modern architecture in Cambridge, such as the Judges Institute (see left). Future development of the city is under consideration, and the university is expanding to the west. For an account of modern Cambridge, see Cambridge economy.


    Some websites for further information:
  • Walks round Cambridge including old buildings, churches and colleges gates
  • Local Cambridge and Cambridgeshire history
  • A brief history of Cambridge University
  • Colleges of the University of Cambridge - some include their history in their websites
  • Cambridge Folk Museum or Museum of Cambridge
  • Gwydir Street - a typical Cambridge terrace - its history and what it looks like now.
  • Downing Site
    Downing Site


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