The history of Cambridge
The University at Cambridge owes much to «town and gown» troubles at Oxford University. In 1209 scholars and masters escaping troubles between the university and townsfolk in Oxford began arriving in Cambridge. By 1226 the scholars had organized themselves, offered regular courses of study, and named a Chancellor to lead them. The first great boost to the formation of a university came from Henry III, who gave the scholars his support as early as 1231. Henry decreed that only students studying under a recognised Master were allowed to remain in Cambridge.
A standard course of study consisted of grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy. Examinations were conducted as oral disputations or debates. Most, but not all, of the university Masters were also in holy orders of some sort. (For more on medieval universities click here.) Rules and regulations governing behaviour and awarding of degrees were not codified until the mid 13th century. These clergy were originally under the authority of the local ecclesiastical authority, represented by the Bishop of Ely. By the mid 15th century, however, the Chancellor of the University had taken over much of this authority, and heard cases involving discipline and morals. The Chancellor also set up a secular court for scholars, to hear cases involving minor crimes.
Like Oxford, Cambridge experienced a fair share of trouble between townsfolk and scholars. Both sides were protective of their unique rights and privileges.
The university had the right to enforce laws regulating the quality of bread and ale sold in the town, and to monitor rates charged for food, fuel, and candles.
In 1381 tension between the town and university exploded into violence, with attacks on university property throughout Cambridge. The result was that even more civil authority was awarded to the University Chancellor, including the right to prosecute lawsuits arising from trade and market disputes. The university retained many of these legal rights until the 19th century.
From the 13th century private teaching institutions, the forerunners of today’s colleges, were established, most with only a few Masters and students. Peterhouse (1284) was the first college, but others soon followed. These colleges were founded by individual benefactors, not by the university as a whole. Under the influence of Chancellor John Fisher (1509-35) the university attracted scholars from the European mainland, including Erasmus, who helped foster a climate of classical studies, religious debate, and reform that characterized the upheavals of the English Reformation.
Several prominent colleges were founded in the years following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, taking over former religious foundations. Emmanuel College, for one, took over the buildings used by a Dominican friary.
This change from a religious to a secular focus was emphasized when Henry VIII took measures to forbid the study of Canon Law. Henry also established professorships in Greek, divinity, Hebrew, physic, and civil law.
Over the centuries that followed, successive monarchs and governments sought to influence which courses were taught, and the university was even compelled to award degrees to candidates put forward by the royal court.
A royal charter in 1534 gave the university the right to print books, though this right was only infrequently exercised until the late 17th century. From the 1690s Cambridge University Press enjoyed prominent status as an academic press, encouraged by the monopoly in Bible printing it shared with Oxford.
The university continued to expand, both physically and in focus of studies. The foundation of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University Botanical Gardens, to name just two, opened the way for study of art, architecture, and botany at Cambridge.
Perhaps to balance this scholarly emphasis, the university encouraged student activities, notably in sporting endeavors. A boat race against Oxford University («The Boat Race») became an annual event in 1839, as did a cricket match between the two schools. A regular intramural program of inter-college athletics began at the same time.
In the devastation following World War I, when many students and teachers died, Cambridge received regular state funding for the first time.
The 1950s and 60s saw a great expansion of facilities, with many new college buildings added or old ones expanded. Due to space problems in central Cambridge many new buildings were established much further away from the university core. Much of the teaching emphasis was on the sciences, and as a consequence the Cambridge area became a centre for scientific industry, fueled by research at university laboratories.
Cambridge University today boasts 31 colleges and over 13,000 students.
CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY TRIVIA
Peterhouse, founded in 1284, is the oldest college at Cambridge.
Students began university at the tender age of 14 or 15, and it took 7 years to graduate.
University courses of study are known as «tripos» after the three legged stools used by BA candidates in the Middle Ages.
Until 1869 Cambridge was only open to men. Girton College was founded for women in that year, to be followed two years later by Newnham. There are now no men-only colleges.
A huge wooden spoon was awarded to students coming last in the class in mathematics. According to reports the wooden spoon was deemed a great honour by the students themselves!
Cambridge has a tradition of each college maintaining a chapel choir. Students can receive scholarships for musical skills, and most college chapel choirs maintain a regular program of choral concerts.
The university at Cambridge evolved from informal teaching arrangements of scholars and students who arrived here as early as the 13th century (for a brief history of Cambridge University). From these humble beginnings a system of individual colleges evolved, funded by private donors. The university, then, is not a central institution, but separate teaching colleges gathered together under the administrative umbrella of the University.
Most of the older colleges are arranged along the banks of the River Cam in central Cambridge. The grounds of several colleges lead down to the river, creating a large expanse of parklike lawn called The Backs. Most of the colleges can be visited by tourists, but there may be restrictions on which parts of the college buildings can be accessed at different times of the year. Remember that the colleges are active residential teaching institutions, not museums, and please respect the needs of students and masters for privacy and quiet.
The older colleges all have private chapels, and these chapels are often among the most intriguing college buildings from an architectural standpoint. Here we focus on the older colleges, which are more likely to be of interest to the tourist or casual visitor to Cambridge. The date in parentheses is the official founding date of the college.
Corpus Christi College
Gonville and Caius College
King’s College Chapel
Sidney Sussex College
St. Catherine’s College
Punting in Cambridge
Christ’s College, Cambridge University
Christ’s College was originally established in 1437 by William Byngham, who called his establishment God’s House. In 1448 the college moved to its present location after Henry VI decided that he needed the original site for his new King’s College.
In 1505 God’s House was re-dedicated as Christ’s College under the patronage of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. The college is entered through an imposing 16th century Gatehouse, still boasting its original oak doors. Above the entry is a statue and coat of arms of Lady Beaufort.
The college is laid out in a series of four courts. First Court is the oldest part of the college, dating to the 15th century. The range between the Gatehouse and the Chapel formed part of the original God’s House and were built between 1448 and 1452. The buildings in First Court do not look their age as they were refaced with stone in the 18th century.
The Dining hall is an early 16th century building. Though it was remodelled in the late Victorian period the hall retains its original roof, and a 16th century portrait of the foundress.
Second Court gives access to the wonderful Fellow’s garden, arguably the finest such garden in any Cambridge college. The site has been owned by the college since 1554, but the present garden was established in 1825. In the garden is Milton’s Mulberry Tree, planted in 1608 (the year of Milton’s birth) as part of an attempt to encourage the English silk industry. Legend has it that Milton composed Lycidas under the tree. Nearby is a bathing pool and summerhouse that have stood here since at least 1763.
The Old Library contains an excellent collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed material.
Like several other Cambridge Colleges, Christs’ has its resident ghost; an elderly man dressed all in black is occasionally seen walking in the Fellow’s Garden. Cambridge universyty college
Clare College, Cambridge University
Clare College is the second oldest among Cambridge Colleges (preceded only by Peterhouse). It was founded in 1326, with the later aid of an endowment by Lady Elizabeth de Clare. It was at first known as Clare Hall, though like most Cambridge colleges it later exchanged the «hall» for «college».
Clare had an intimate involvement in the turmoil of the English Reformation. In the 17th century and for a century following, Clare underwent a major rebuilding, with the present Old Court taking shape. Unsupported Clare tradition holds that it was the early classical pioneer architect Inigo Jones who was responsible for making Old Court the harmonious composition it is today.
The East and West Ranges were built in 1638 and the bridge the following year. The rest of the court was completed by 1715 with the chapel a later addition of 1763.
The Fellow’s Library (1738) holds an impressive collection of early printed books and medieval manuscripts. The Library’s collection is based upon the collection of scholar and playwright George Ruggle (1575-1621).
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University
Corpus Christi is one of the smallest Cambridge colleges, with an enrollement of only 75 undergraduates, but it is also one of the oldest colleges, using the same buildings since about 1380.
Corpus Christi, or «Corpus» as it is known for short, is quite unusual in that it was not founded by a great patron or monarch, but by two guilds of the city of Cambridge! The guilds in question were the Guild of Corpus Christi and the Guild of St. Mary; thus the full official name of the college is the College of Corpus Christi and of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Despite the close early ties between college and city, constant tension between «town and gown» resulted violent riots in 1381, when Corpus Christi in particular seemed a target of irate townsfolk. The college was broken into, and precious book, manuscripts, and plate removed or destroyed. It took a plea to the King to get restitution from the city for damages.
The college is built around two courts, the medieval Old Court and the Victorian New Court. An newer third court, called Beldam, was added just a few years ago, but seems something of an afterthought to the design.
The building of Old Court began about 1352, and that date is generally taken as the founding date of the college. The college had no chapel, and members worshipped at nearby St. Benet’s church. For many years the association between church and college was so strong that the college was popularly known as Bennet College. In the early 16th century a gallery connecting Old Court and the church was erected. St. Benet’s is the oldest building in Cambridge, with an 11th century Saxon tower.
King’s College, Cambridge University
King’s College was founded by Henry VI in 1441. He intended it to serve as the next step on the educational ladder for his new school at Eton, and for the next four centuries scholarships were limited to Old Etonians. Indeed, King’s claimed the unusual privilege of allowing its students to graduate without taking examinations!
King’s now occupies a lovely riverside location in the centre of Cambridge, but its first site was between the Chapel and Senate House Passage. No sooner had Henry established his college than he purchased new lands where the present Back Lawns and Front Court are now and began building on a much grander scale.
He planned a grand court composed of three residential ranges and a chapel, with a cloister and bell tower on the river side. The chapel was begun in 1446, but the Wars of the Roses intervened and when Henry was deposed in 1461 it was only partly built. Work proceeded sporadically until 1508, when Henry VII granted funds, but the work was not complete until 1544. For a full history and guide to the magnificent Chapel, click here. As for the residential ranges only the east range was begun, and traces can sometimes be seen under the lawn.
The Front Court was redesigned by James Gibbs in 1724, but once again grand plans for King’s College were waylaid and only the west range, now called Gibbs’ Building, was finished. The rest of the court was only completed in 1828, when William Wilkins added the Gothic Revival library, screen, Gatehouse, and Hall. The range along King’s Lane was added by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1873.
The Fellow’s Garden is a pleasantly informal Victorian garden open as part of the National Gardens Scheme for one Sunday afternoon in mid-July.
What is a punt?
A punt is a narrow flat-bottomed boat that somewhat resembles a Venetian gondola with the curve removed. Punts generally seat up to four adults while a fifth person stands at the rear and propels the boat with a long pole.
The design was developed in the medieval period to allow for easy navigation in areas with shallow water. Until recently punts were used by commercial fishermen working the fens of East Anglia, but today they are almost exclusively used for recreation.
Poling along the river looks effortless and easy; a relaxing way to enjoy a quiet summer afternoon. Looks can be deceiving however, as steering a punt is neither as easy or effortless as it looks. For one thing, the pole can get stuck in the mud of the river bottom, and steering from the rear of a punt takes skill and dexterity.
Unless you are remarkably well co-ordinated, your first few attempts to direct a punt in a straight line will provide some entertainment for onlookers on the banks. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long to get the hang of things, and it really is a great deal of fun!
Punting along the River Cam is one of the traditional delights of visiting Cambridge, and something that should be tried — at least once — by everyone! Punts can be hired at Silver Street bridge, Mill Lane, Magdalene Bridge, Jesus Green, Trinity College, or Grantchester.