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Cambridge History And Visits

Cambridge is one of the two oldest and most famous university towns in Britain. Today we associate learning with progress and change, but this has not always been so. The University of Cambridge grew out of a group of monasteries and religious communities, where knowledge was an eternal revelation of the same unchanging truth. This early emphasis on the unchanging nature of knowledge has led to a town in which a great deal of the past has been preserved. We now have a famous university where great strides are made in knowledge, situated in one of the most historic environments to be found in Britain.



The Romans built a town at Cambridge, replacing an earlier Belgic settlement. The Roman town was gradually deserted in the fifth century, Saxon invaders replacing the Romanised Britons. It was the Saxons who built the church of St Bene't, the tower of which is still standing. This is the oldest building in Cambridge. In the twelfth century Cambridge became an important commercial centre. Around 1200 the first mayor of Cambridge was installed. This man was believed to be Hervey FitzEustace. He lived in a stone building, one of the few in the area, known as The School of Pythagoras. The School of Pythagoras still stands in the grounds of St John's College.


It was in 1209 that a group of students ran away from Oxford, following a disturbance during which a townswoman was allegedly killed by a student. After King John gave permission for students to be executed by the townsmen of Oxford, many scholars decided to flee, and a number ended up in Cambridge. Students lived in lodgings, and houses were used for teaching. Monastic teaching orders, the Carmelites, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, moved in. In 1286 a hall was built specifically for students, using money left by the Bishop of Ely. Parts of this original building survive as the dining hall of Peterhouse College, the oldest of the Cambridge colleges. Students have been taking meals in the hall at Peterhouse for over seven hundred years.


King's College

Colleges then became more settled and organised. In 1441 Henry VI, at the age of nineteen decided to build a college at Cambridge. This was intended to provide higher education for students who attended Eton which Henry VI had also founded. Henry laid the first stone of King's College Chapel in 1446. The building was completed almost eighty years later, work delayed by the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII visited Cambridge in 1505 and provided money for continuing the work on King's College Chapel.

Into the sixteenth century Cambridge became a battle ground in a religious struggle between the established Catholic Church, and the new Protestant movement. England was a Catholic country, but Protestant ideas were filtering over from the continent. Although books written by Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, were burnt in 1520, many Cambridge students and tutors were protestant sympathisers. Since this new faith encouraged individual study of religious texts, this is hardly surprising. In 1534 the Act of Supremacy made Henry VIII supreme head of the Protestant Church of England. Some at Cambridge tried to hang onto the old Catholic faith which had been replaced. Vice Chancellor John Fisher refused to accept Protestantism. He was executed and replaced by Thomas Cromwell. Catholic monks and friars were ejected from the university, while buildings belonging to the old religious orders were taken over by colleges. Cambridge now became a place where men were trained to work in the new Church of England, although educated men were also needed in government, and the university supplied these too.

In 1553 Henry VIII's son Edward VI died. In an effort to maintain England's new religion, the protestant Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen. The Duke of Northumberland assembled ten thousand men to support Lady Jane, but his men deserted him, and the catholic daughter of Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, became queen. Northumberland was arrested in King's College and taken to London to be executed. Under Mary no student could obtain his degree unless he was a catholic. Then in 1558 things swung the other way again with the succession of the protestant Elizabeth I. Parts of Cambridge now embraced an extreme form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. Emmanuel College became the principal centre of Puritanism in England. Christ's College was similarly puritan.

Only one man amongst senior figures in Cambridge retained his position throughout the whole of this period of religious confusion. Dr Andrew Perne simply went with the flow, a catholic when it was wise to be a catholic, a protestant, or a puritan when it was necessary to be that way inclined. At Peterhouse he erected a weathervane, with the initials A.P. on the top. Critics said these initials stood for "A protestant, a papist, or a puritan". This weathervane, now on the steeple of St Peter's in Castle Street, is an echo of the religious turmoil of sixteenth century England.

Christ's College

Through the centuries that followed, many of Britain's most famous historical figures passed through Cambridge. The poet John Milton was at Christ's College, 1625 - 1632. Oliver Cromwell studied at Sidney Sussex, before becoming MP for Cambridge and leading the Parliamentarian overthrow of Charles I. The diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys was at Magdalene 1650 - 1654, and this college now houses the Pepys Library. Isaac Newton entered Trinity College in 1661, and returned as a fellow in 1667. In 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne in the lodge. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was at Jesus College 1790 - 1792; William Wordsworth was at St Johns College 1787 - 1790. Lord Byron was at Trinity College 1805 - 1808. Charles Darwin was at Christ's College 1827 - 1831.

It was Darwin who changed the old religious world view which had dominated Cambridge for so long. Darwin and other nineteenth century scientists ushered in the knowledge of science where things constantly change and develop. This brought about a fundamental change at the university. Science had not been important for Cambridge. At Oxford a scientific group of scholars, centred around Robert Boyle, had arrived in the 1650s, but Cambridge had not had such a fortunate influx. The first scientific professorship at Cambridge was established in 1663. This was a professorship of mathematics, and the first holder was Isaac Barrow. The fact that Barrow had previously been a professor of Greek indicates that the new subject was not taken very seriously. Barrow's lectures may have stimulated young Isaac Newton's interest in science, but Newton's revolutionary studies at this time into light, colour and gravity, were all taking place outside the scope of his university course. Not much had changed by the late 1820s when Darwin arrived at Christ's College. Darwin, like all Cambridge undergraduates was receiving, officially at least, an education designed to prepare him for a career in the Church of England. But the impact of Darwin's work made it clear that this approach to education would have to change. Darwin's The Origin Of Species was published in 1859. This landmark event encouraged the construction at Cambridge of a building for natural sciences in 1864 - 1865. The Cavendish Laboratory for physics was built with funds provided by the 7th Duke of Devonshire, 1872 -1873. James Clark Maxwell became Professor of Experimental Physics here in 1871. Maxwell formulated a set of equations which expressed the basic laws of electricity and magnetism. Into the twentieth century Lord Rutherford led famous work at the Cavendish in the 1920s and 1930s, which included Sir James Chadwick's discovery of neutrons in 1932. Modern nuclear physics came out of this work. In 1953 Watson and Crick demonstrated the structure of DNA, working from room 103 at the Cavendish; although Crick once said that some of his best thoughts came to him at the nearby Eagle pub. Meanwhile, back in the natural sciences, the Sedgwick Museum opened in 1904, and became one of the country's foremost museums of natural history, in which age by age, display case by display case, the endless change of life is revealed to visitors

Cavendish Laboratory

And so the great progress of modern knowledge continues in Cambridge. Certainly in wandering around the town there is a sense that you are looking into the future. This is a town of youth. "Cambridge makes me feel old" said my wife as we walked around amongst the crowds of undergraduates. And yet this is a place of unparalleled history. Looking up at the colleges it's as if the old knowledge is still there, something that doesn't change. This is the kind of knowledge that makes Shakespeare's plays as valuable now as when they were written. Art and science often at odds can actually complement one another. The old colleges are a counterpoint to the modern world. In some ways the world does not change, inspite of all the changes brought about by new scientific knowledge.


Film enthusiasts may be interested to know that Cambridge was used as a location during the filming of Elizabeth the Golden Age.


Directions: Click here for an interactive map centred on Cambridge.



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