A history of Cambridge

The Old Schools, Senate House, Gonville and Caius College, and Great St Mary’s Church from King’s Parade, Cambridge


Before the university

While Cambridge is famous for its university, which is over 800 years old, it has existed as a settlement for much longer. Venture up to Castle Hill and in the foundations of St Peter’s Church you will spot flat, red Roman brickwork. This is evidence of the Roman fort, but we also know of Bronze and Iron Age settlements here, too. The settlement was abandoned upon the Roman withdrawal from Britannia in 410 CE; however, a crossing over the river Granta, or Cam, was established by the Danes in 875, which gives the city its modern name.

Granta bryg, as it would have been known, swapped between Danish, Anglo-Saxon, and Danish control. By the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, Cambridge was a flourishing town of some 2,000 residents, several churches, and the castle on the hill. Cambridge continued to grow and prosper, benefiting from an easily navigable river route to the sea at Lynn (now King’s Lynn) and its proximity to the bishopric of Ely. It had a weekly market, was home to at least three annual fairs, several hospitals, and numerous religious institutions on its outskirts.

There are 11 extant mediaeval churches in Cambridge, but St Bene’ts with its Anglo-Saxon tower, the remarkable Round Church–built to resemble the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem–and St Peter’s with its 12th century font, are perhaps the highlights.

Civil War

Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarian faction that defeated Charles I during the 1642-1651 Civil War, was an alumnus of Sidney Sussex College, and while training the New Model Army, stayed at Jesus College. The town gave itself over to the Parliamentarian cause (much to the anguish of the then Master and Fellows of Jesus College); the castle was fortified and garrisoned, and some bridges destroyed in order to aid its defences. While Royalist forces came within a few miles of the town, it was never taken.


The town expanded rapidly as a result of the economic boom fostered by the agricultural revolution, the Enclosures Acts of 1801 and 1807, and the arrival of the railways. The University was instrumental in the location of Cambridge’s railway station, insisting that it should not be positioned too close to the centre and the Colleges, which would make trips to London too alluring and distracting for the students!

City charter to today

Cambridge was officially recognised as a city, with a charter, in 1951. (Cambridge does not have a cathedral, giving lie to the adage that a cathedral makes a city.) The university has contributed to its thriving technology and bioscience industry, making Silicon Fen the beating heart of UK research and development.

The symposium is grateful to the City Council for its continued support and over the years the Mayor of Cambridge has generously extended a welcome to our delegates on the occasion of the first dinner.


Jesus College

Chimney Entrance to Jesus College, Cambridge



Jesus College was founded by John Alcock, Bishop of Ely, in 1496. He converted a dilapidated nunnery on the eastern side of Cambridge into a College for an all-male community.

The first Fellows of the College would have been ordained, although they rarely exceeded more than six or seven before 1560. However, the College did provide a free grammar school for the chapel’s choristers and residents in neighbouring communities.

After 1860, the numbers of students at Jesus College increased dramatically, particularly under the leadership of Henry Arthur Morgan, who served as Master of the College from 1885 to his death in 1912. He recognised the value of a university education to the Victorian middle classes and expanded its teaching and accommodation to reflect this. By 1881, there were seven times the number of students in the College than there had been 20 years previously.

Since then, Jesus has continued to grow. Today, it is a community of more than 1,000 members, including around 500 undergraduates, around 400 graduates and research associates, and over 100 Fellows, all of whom are supported by more than 100 staff.

Jesus College in the late 17th century


With such an extensive history, Jesus College has admitted many well known alumni.. Among the most famous are Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, the Elizabethan playwright Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke, John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Alistair Cooke the broadcaster, literary critic Lisa Jardine, the classicist Simon Hornblower, and the novelist Nick Hornby.

You will meet a number of the alumni who participate in the programme. The College is particularly proud of the fact that two of the most recent Lord Mayors of the City of London studied at Jesus College, and are both speaking this year.

The West Court

In 2015, Jesus College launched a campaign to create West Court, an expansion to the College, providing the students and Fellows with more space and improved facilities. The West Court was officially opened by HRH The Earl of Wessex, an alumnus of the College, in October 2017. It houses the Frankopan Hall, the Laura Case Medical Teaching Suite, accommodation for visiting scholars, as well as the Intellectual Forum, the China Centre, a café, research space, and a student social area.


The University of Cambridge

Senate House and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge



While Cambridge had at least one school of note in 1200, it was not until 1209 that scholars fleeing hostility from Oxford townspeople sought refuge in Cambridge, which would lead to the establishment of the university. By 1226 the scholars had set up an organisation, were represented by a Chancellor, and were running their own courses. In 1284 Hugo de Balsham, the Bishop of Ely, founded the first of Cambridge’s Colleges: Peterhouse.

The number of Colleges continued to grow throughout the later mediaeval period; there were 10 by 1500. Students would have studied what we might refer to as a foundation year of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. They would have progressed to to arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy before gaining their bachelors or masters degrees. Teaching was conducted by those who had themselves taken the course, qualified, and been approved by the university.

Cambridge’s first chair of divinity was founded in 1502. Henry VIII founded Trinity College in 1547 and in 1571 the University was formally incorporated by an act of Parliament. In 1584, the Cambridge University Press was founded. It has released at least one publication every year since. Girton College, the first residential university-level institution of higher learning for women was founded by Emily Davies in 1869.

Cambridge’s Contribution

Cambridge’s contribution to scholarship, understanding, and the furthering of human knowledge can never be underestimated. It has given rise to William Harvey and his treatise on the circulation of blood about the body, to Sir Isaac Newton and his Principia Mathematica, and to the poets Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and Tennyson. Charles Babbage imagined his ‘counting machine’ while at Cambridge. Charles Darwin studied at Cambridge. James Clerk Maxwell outlined his theory of electromagnetic radiation at Cambridge and Thomson discovered the electron here. Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and GE Moore combined to make Cambridge the most important centre for philosophical research in the English-speaking world. Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins discovered vitamins in Cambridge. Cockcroft and Walton split the atom at the Cavendish Laboratory. Frank Whittle pursued the theory of jet propulsion at Cambridge. John Maynard Keynes was a Fellow of King’s College. Crick and Watson identified the double-helix structure of DNA in Cambridge. Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsating stars or 'pulsars' using Cambridge's Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. Dr Frederick Sanger established how to sequence DNA. And Professor Stephen Hawking made his inestimable contributions to astrophysics at Cambridge.

Cambridge today

Today, Cambridge is a thriving university city, home to 125,000 inhabitants, 25,000 of whom are students in 31 Colleges. It is ranked the number two higher education establishment in the world, and number one in the UK.


Enjoying the city

The market and Great St Mary’s, Cambridge

The Round Church, Cambridge

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge

The Old Divinity School, Cambridge

Punting in Cambridge

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, from the Backs

Cambridge market and Great St Mary’s church

The Old Divinity School and St John’s College, Cambridge

Midsummer Common, Cambridge

Trinity Street shops, Cambridge

The Grand Arcade shopping centre, Cambridge

Close to Cambridge

Ely Cathedral


The cathedral city of Ely is a 15 minute train journey from Cambridge. Etheldreda founded an abbey there in 673. This abbey was destroyed in 870 by the Danes, but rebuilt in 970. Construction of the cathedral that rises to sit majestically atop the Isle of Ely and known as the Ship of the Fens, commenced in 1083. The fens remained the last stronghold of Hereward the Wake in his guerrilla defence against William the Conqueror until his murder in 1072. The growth of the cathedral continued until the dissolution of the abbey under the Reformation in 1539. The cathedral was restored between 1845 and 1870 and Ely granted a city charter to compliment its long-held bishopric in 1974.

Wimpole Hall

Wimpole Hall

A few miles to the west of Cambridge you will find the country house and home farm of Wimpole Hall. The house contrasts intimate rooms with Georgian splendour, including Soane’s wonderful Yellow Drawing Room, and a look at life below stairs. The grounds feature a paterre garden, Pleasure Grounds, and a walled garden. And there are the cow sheds and piggery of the home farm, too!

Audley End House

Audley End

Audley End House was originally Walden Abbey, but was rebuilt on the scale of a royal palace by Thomas Howard, First Earl of Suffolk, between 1605 and 1614. Robert Adam, the celebrated neoclassical architect, transformed the house in the 1760s, while Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown remodelled the grounds, turning them into one of England’s finest landscape gardens.

Henry Spiller i smaller.jpeg


Newmarket has held a market charter since 1200, but there is evidence of habitation since long before then. The ancient Icknield Way runs along the town’s high street and its southern border is formed by the Devil’s Dyke, an Anglo-Saxon earthworks. However, it is horse racing that has brought fame to the town, which has been the headquarters of the sport since 1666. It was then that Charles II chose to stable his horses in the town and race them on the surrounding heathland. Newmarket is now home to 3,000 thoroughbred horses, two race courses, one of the largest expanses of cut grass in the world, and hosts two of the most significant races in the calendar.

Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey

Bought as a restoration project in 1926 by Lord Fairhaven, Anglesey Abbey is a Jacobean country house with an opulent 1930s finish. Now administered by the National Trust, the beautiful house and gardens are but a few miles from Cambridge. Wander the formally laid gardens, the more natural parks, and enjoy the art, antiques, and clocks within the house.

Tea in the Orchard, Grantchester

Grantchester Meadows

Grantchester Meadows sit to the south of the city and form part of a flood plain reaching up to the Plough at Ditton. You can walk along the Cam, across Lamas Land, and through the Paradise Nature Reserve to reach the village. There, you can take tea in the Orchard, where the poet Rupert Brooke once lived. Alternatively, you can take a punt from the city, and wend along the water to the village.