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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the University of Cambridge

What is the University of Cambridge?

The University of Cambridge is a world-famous collegiate university that was founded in the early 13th century.


University of cambridge

University of Cambridge History

This illustrious university, the second oldest university in the United Kingdom and third oldest continually operating in the world, began with a murder. In 1209, a woman was killed in Oxford and the culprit fled. According to a 13th-century chronicler, the townsmen went to the suspect’s rooms and arrested the three scholars they found there. Under normal circumstances, the clerics would not have been concerned. The University of Oxford was a place to teach those entering the clergy and to study theology, and under ecclesiastical privileges, the university was independent and not subject to secular rules. A swift release would have been expected for the innocent men who had been detained. Instead, they were hanged for murder.


If the account is true, it’s likely that this occurred because King John had been excommunicated by the pope, which meant the Church could not enforce its rights. The consequence of this injustice was a full academic strike. Scholars and students walked out and left Oxford, some travelled to Reading, others to Paris, and a few to the thriving commercial town in the Fens, known as the ‘Holy Land of the English’: Cambridge. When the tensions had passed by 1214, many clerics returned, but enough stayed that by 1225 organised study was underway in rented hostels, and Cambridge University received its founding charter from King Henry III six years later.


As a collegiate university, Cambridge life has always been organised around its colleges. Each college has its own distinct identity, atmosphere, and culture, and continues to operate as an independent body where students live, learn, dine, socialise and study. The first college, Peterhouse, was founded and endowed by the Bishop of Ely in 1284. Another 30 colleges (though three are called ‘Halls’) would follow, with 16 making up the ‘old colleges’ and 15 constituting the ‘new colleges’. Prestige most often came with age, particularly for those placed along the picturesque riverbank: Queens’, King’s, Trinity, St John’s, and Magdalene; though in 1964, Darwin found a home on the riverbank as a graduate-only college and the first to accept both men and women. Women-only colleges were founded by Suffragists in the late 19th century, though they didn’t become full members of the university until 1948. Between all of the 31 colleges there are friendly, yet robust, rivalries played out in sporting competitions. The rivalry between St John’s and Trinity is particularly long-standing, allegedly originating from when King Henry VIII, the founder of Trinity, executed John Fisher, who was instrumental in the founding of St John’s. Nevertheless, the fiercest rivalry for all the colleges is, of course, with Oxford.


Overhearing nattering students quickly reveals the need for a Cambridge glossary. Cambridge, like Oxford, has developed its own list of words and phrases to fit its peculiar culture. Don’t be intimidated by the strange sound of Pidges, Plodges, Bops, Swaps, Dons and DoSs. Dons and DoSs are in fact residential fellows and Directors of Studies. ‘Plodge’ is a contraction of ‘Porter’s Lodge’ and ‘Pidge,’ ‘Pigeonhole’, while Bops and Swaps are meant fairly literally: Bops for a party and Swaps for a dinner between different college sports teams. Distinction from Oxford is paramount: the squares in colleges are not quadrangles – or quads – like in Oxford, but courts; and teaching for undergraduates is referred to as ‘supervisions’ in Cambridge, not ‘tutorials’.


Together, the collegiate system, historic architecture, academic excellence and long-held traditions, make Cambridge University an extraordinary institution that continues to nurture Britain’s (and the world’s) politicians, scientists, academics, and cultural figureheads. Truly, it’s hard to summarise the university’s notable alumni. Taking a modern view, they include some 200 athletes with Olympic medals, 120 Nobel Laureates, 50 heads of states, 14 British Prime Ministers, and innumerable actors, directors, writers and artists. Their shared past can all be glimpsed in this small, cobbled city.


Dive deep into the city’s rich history with our comprehensive Cambridge audio tour.

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