A History of Cambridge

By Tim Lambert

Saxon Cambridge

In the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, there were settlements on the site of Cambridge. Then in the 1st century AD, the Romans built a fort on Castle Hill. However, this fort was abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century AD as the Roman Empire declined.

The modern city of Cambridge was founded in 875 when the Danes conquered Eastern England. They created a fortified town called a burgh (from which we derive our word borough) on the site. Cambridge would have been surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart probably with a wooden palisade on top.

In the 10th century, Cambridge was captured by the Saxons. However, in 1010 Cambridge was burned by the Danes. That was an easy task when all the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand, if Cambridge was burned it could be easily rebuilt.

By the 10th century Cambridge was flourishing and it had a mint. It was also the administrative center for the area and so it was a town of some importance, although it would seem tiny to us.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Cambridge probably had a population of about 2,000. By the standards of the time, it was a medium-sized town. Later in the Middle Ages, the population of Cambridge probably rose to about 3,000.

The Church of St Benet was built around 1025 AD.

Cambridge was originally called Granta bryg (Granta Bridge) because the river it stands on was once called the Granta, not the Cam. In time the ‘Gr’ changed to a c and the ‘nt’ changed to ‘m’. People must have thought that if the town was called Cambridge then the river it stood on must be called the Cam. They began to call the river that.

Medieval Cambridge

In 1068 William the Conqueror visited Cambridge and ordered that a castle be built there. At first, it was of wood but in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in stone.

The town of Cambridge was severely damaged by a fire in 1174. (Fire was a constant hazard when most buildings were of wood with thatched roofs). Another fire raged in Cambridge in 1385.

Medieval Cambridge had a weekly market and by the early 13th century it also had a fair. In those days fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year for a period of a few days. People would come from all over Eastern England to buy and sell at a Cambridge fair.

Cambridge prospered because it was located on the river Cam which in turn flowed into the Great Ouse. That river flows to the sea at Kings Lynn, which in the Middle Ages was a large and important town. In those days it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by water than by land. The Cam acted as an ‘artery’ through the Fens.

Wine, the drink of the upper class, was imported into Cambridge. So were salt and fish from the sea. Reeds and rushes were also brought to Cambridge by the river. (They had many uses. They were strewn on the floor and when soaked in fat were used as cheap lights. They were cheaper than candles.) The grain from the land surrounding Cambridge was taken to Kings Lynn then transported by sea to London and exported to other parts of Europe.

In Medieval Cambridge, there was also a leather industry. By the 15th century, there was also a wool industry in Cambridge. After it was woven wool was fulled. That means it was pounded in a mixture of water and clay to clean and thicken it. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills. After it had dried the wool was dyed.

In Medieval Cambridge, there were also the same craftsmen found in any town such as carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, butchers, brewers, and bakers.

In 1207 Cambridge was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights). From then on the merchants of Cambridge elected a mayor.

The Round Church was built in 1107. Then in the 13th century, friars arrived in Cambridge. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Cambridge, there were Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes). There were also Carmelites (known as white friars) and Franciscans (known as Grey Friars).

In the early Middle Ages, there was a Jewish community in Cambridge but they were all expelled to Huntingdon in 1275.

The School of Pythagoras was founded in Cambridge in 1200. The university was founded in 1209. The students were a market for the craftsmen’s goods yet they were unwelcome. The townspeople were often accused of overcharging the students. In 1231 the king forbade the townspeople to charge the students excessive rents. In 1262 a fight broke out between students from the north of England and some from the south. Some townspeople became involved in the fight and afterward, 16 were hanged. Anti-student riots occurred again in 1304, 1322, and 1371.

In time Cambridge University came to own large parts of the town, which caused much resentment. From 1317 the bailiffs of Cambridge (officials who assisted the mayor) were forced to swear an oath to uphold the privileges of the university which they bitterly resented.

The first colleges of Cambridge University were founded in the Middle Ages. Peterhouse was founded by the Bishop of Ely in 1284. Clare College was founded in 1326. Pembroke College was founded by the Earl of Pembroke’s widow, Lady Mary de Valence in 1347. Gonville and Caius College was founded in 1348 by Edmund Gonville. Trinity Hall was founded in 1350. It was expanded in the 16th century by Dr John Caius. Corpus Christi College was founded in 1352. Kings College was founded by Henry VI in 1441. Queens College was founded in 1448. St Catharine’s College followed in 1473. Finally, the Bishop of Ely founded Jesus College in 1497.

Cambridge in the 16th century and 17th century

In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Cambridge.

From 1575 the streets of Cambridge were cleaned. (Before they would have been full of dung and all kinds of rotting organic matter). From 1610 a conduit bought water from Vicar’s Brook into the town.

Like all towns at that time, Cambridge suffered from outbreaks of the plague. There was a severe outbreak in 1630. However, from 1653 Cambridge was connected to London by stagecoach. In 1654 a writer said Cambridge was situated in a low-lying and dirty place. The streets, he said were badly paved and the air was infected by the fens.

At the end of the 17th century, the travel writer Celia Fiennes said Cambridge lay in a valley with the marshy ground around it. Willows surrounded the town. She said the buildings were indifferent and the streets were narrow, except for Market Place.

More colleges at Cambridge University were founded in the 16th century. Christ’s College was founded in 1505. St John’s College was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1511. Magdalene College was founded in 1542. Trinity College was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII. Sir Walter Mildmay founded Emmanuel College in 1584. Finally, Lady Frances Sidney founded Sidney Sussex College in 1596.

Cambridge in the 18th century

In 1728 it was estimated that the population of Cambridge was 6,179. (There were also 1,599 inhabitants of the university). By the standards of the time, Cambridge was a fair-sized town.

Cambridge continued to develop during the 18th century. The first newspaper in Cambridge appeared in 1744. Shire Hall was built in 1747 and a new Guildhall was built in 1782. Meanwhile, Senate House was built in 1730 by James Gibbs.

Addenbrookes Hospital opened in 1766 after a man named Dr John Addenbrooke left money in his will for its establishment. In the early 19th century Addenbrookes became a school of medicine.

The first bank in Cambridge opened in 1780. Then in 1788, an act of parliament formed a group of men called the Improvement Commissioners with powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Cambridge. (At first oil lamps were used). The Mathematical Bridge was built in 1749. It was designed by William Etheridge. The Botanic Garden was founded in 1762.

In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe said of Cambridge: ‘the trade of the town very much depends on them (the colleges) and the tradesmen may be said to get their bread by the colleges, and this is the surest hold the university may be said to have of the townsmen and by which they secure the dependence of the town and consequently their submission.’

Cambridge in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Cambridge was 10,087. It was a large and prosperous town. In the early 19th century goods were still transported to and from Cambridge by the river. Coal was brought to Cambridge and agricultural goods such as grain and butter were taken to Kings Lynn to be transported to London. The railway reached Cambridge in 1845. It stimulated the growth of industry in Cambridge by connecting the town to a huge market in London.

From the late 19th century a new industry of making scientific instruments grew up in Cambridge.

There were several improvements in Cambridge in the 19th century. Fitzwilliam Museum was founded in 1816 by Viscount Fitzwilliam. Cambridge gained gas light in 1823. Great Bridge was built in 1823 and the first modern police force in Cambridge was created in 1836. A corn exchange where grain could be bought and sold was built in 1842. In 1855 a water company was formed to provide Cambridge with piped water and Fulbourn Mental Hospital was founded in 1858.

In 1889 the old Improvement Commissioners surrendered their powers to the council who created a network of sewers in the town. These were completed by 1895.

From 1880 horse-drawn trams ran in the streets of Cambridge. The first electricity was generated in Cambridge in 1893.

Cambridge University continued to expand. New colleges were founded. Girton 1869, Newnham College 1871, Westcott House 1881, Selwyn College 1882, Hughes Hall 1895, St Edmunds Hall was founded in 1896.

Cambridge in the 20th century

In the 20th century the university, while still important, did not dominate Cambridge in the way it did in earlier centuries. New industries grew up such as electronics. Making surgical and scientific instruments was also important. In the 1980s a new business park was created in Cambridge.

In 1901 the population of Cambridge was 38,379 and it grew rapidly. The boundaries of Cambridge were enlarged in 1912 and 1935. Cambridge was made a city in 1951.

The first cinema in Cambridge opened in 1910. Cambridge Museum was founded in 1936. Kettles Yard Gallery opened in 1967. The Lion Yard Shopping Centre opened in 1975. The Grafton Centre opened in 1983. In 1986 a 19th century building, the Corn Exchange, was made a theatre and entertainment centre.

By 1951 then the population of Cambridge had grown to 91,000.

In the 20th century, Cambridge University continued to expand. Hughes Hall was founded in 1949. New Hall was founded in 1954. New colleges were Churchill (1960), Darwin (1964), Lucy Cavendish (1965), Wolfson (1965), Fitzwilliam (1966), and Robinson (1979).

Sedgwick Museum of Geology was founded in 1904. The Scott Polar Research Institute followed in 1920.

Cambridge in the 21st century

Today Cambridge is a flourishing town. In 2023 Cambridge had a population of 145,000.

A Bridge in Cambridge

A Timeline of Cambridge

875 The Danes create a fortified settlement at Cambridge. In the 10th century, Cambridge is captured by the English.

1010 The Danes burn Cambridge. However, it is soon rebuilt.

c. 1025 The Church of St Benet is built

1068 The Normans build a castle at Cambridge

1086 Cambridge has a population of about 2,000

c. 1107 The Round Church is built

1174 Cambridge is badly damaged by a fire

1207 Cambridge is given a charter (a document giving the townspeople certain rights)

1209 Cambridge University is founded

1250 Cambridge has a population of about 3,000

1385 Another fire damages Cambridge

1575 The streets of Cambridge are cleaned

1610 A conduit brings water into Cambridge

1630 Plague strikes Cambridge

1653 Stagecoaches begin running from Cambridge to London

1728 The population of Cambridge is 6,179. (By the standards of the time it is quite a large town).

1730 Senate House is built

1744 Cambridge gets its first newspaper

1747 Shire Hall is built

1749 The Mathematical Bridge is built

1766 Addenbrookes Hospital opens

1780 Cambridge gets its first bank

1788 A body of men called the Improvement Commissioners is formed to pave, clean and light the streets of Cambridge (with oil lamps)

1801 Cambridge has a population of 10,087

1823 Cambridge is lit by gas. Great Bridge is built.

1845 The railway reaches Cambridge

1855 Cambridge gets a piped water supply

1858 Fulbourn Mental Hospital is built

1880 Horse drawn trams begin running in Cambridge

1893 Electricity is first generated in Cambridge

1901 The population of Cambridge 38,000

1910 The first cinema opens

1936 The Folk Museum opens

1951 Cambridge is made a city

1967 Kettles Yard Gallery opens

1975 Lion Yard Shopping Centre opens

1983 The Grafton Centre opens