The University of Cambridge, it is generally accepted, came about as a result of a migration from the University of Oxford in 1209. The existence of a studium at Cambridge was recognized by a papal degree of Gregory IX dated June 14, 1233, and by about 1250 a draft of its statutes had arrived in Rome (Anglica MS 401). These were preceded by recognition from the Crown in 1231. The university’s first college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284, and today there are thirty-one colleges, the latest, Robinson, founded in 1977.
The earliest studies of the university followed the usual pattern for medieval universities, with a particular emphasis on canon law, a trend encouraged by the foundation in Cambridge of large Franciscan and Dominican houses, to be followed by several other orders.
In 1381, in a manifestation of the Peasants’ Revolt, the townspeople of Cambridge made assaults on both the university and the colleges, notably on Corpus Christi College which, uniquely, had been founded by the amalgamated town gilds of St. Mary and of Corpus Christi (in 1352). This resulted, ironically, in royal charters greatly increasing the university’s dominance of the town, including the oversight of weights and measures and other day-to-day business.
Although royal and papal recognition came earlier to Cambridge than it did to Oxford, Cambridge was certainly the lesser of the two universities until the English Reformation in the sixteenth century. Cambridge men were dominant in both church and state under Henry VIII (e.g., Thomas Cranmer) and Elizabeth I (e.g., William Cecil and John Whitgift), but during the English Civil War (1642–1649), when the royal court removed to Oxford, the balance was reversed.
Academically, Cambridge’s eminence was enhanced in the early eighteenth century by the pupils of Isaac Newton, and for more than a century thereafter mathematics was the prime field of study and the only subject in which examinations for degrees were conducted. In the nineteenth century degrees became available in law (1816) and classics (1824), and later in the century other honors courses were introduced, natural sciences first, then moral sciences (philosophy) and gradually others. Although students of the natural sciences were at first few, it was this school that from the 1870s raised Cambridge to the status of a world-class university, with researchers coming from far and wide to work with the physicists James Clerk Maxwell (Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, 1871–1879) and his successors J. W. Strutt, Baron Rayleigh, J. J. Thomson, and Ernest Rutherford. Since Thomson (1906), Cambridge has been home to some thirty Nobel laureates, including Francis Crick and James Watson, the discoverers of DNA, and since Rayleigh and Kelvin (1902) some forty holders of the British Order of Merit. A roll call of the many earlier luminaries connected with Cambridge must include the teachers Erasmus of Rotterdam, St. John Fisher, Roger Ascham, Sir John Cheke, Richard Bentley, William Whewell, Lord Acton, Sir James Frazer, G. H. Hardy, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, F. R. Leavis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein; and the alumni Oliver Cromwell, Charles Darwin, and the poets, to name but a few, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Samuel Coleridge, and William Wordsworth.
Barring several false starts in the medieval period and one (Durham) in the seventeenth century, Cambridge and Oxford were the only English (as opposed to British) universities until the 1840s. Given that, they have naturally been the universities of choice for long-established families and schools, and although there was always a variable amount of scope for the admission of the less affluent, in recent years the catchment of both universities has expanded vastly. Except in the sixteenth century, Oxford historically maintained closer relations with church and state (thus sending out more future prime ministers and archbishops), but Cambridge was never very far behind, sending out mathematicians and poets, as well as competing with Oxford for places in the civil service, seats in Parliament, and other influential positions. Some of this perception of prestige continues today, but it has been amply supported by recent national and international rankings that attract students, especially graduate students, from all over the world.
The colleges of the university, in order of foundation, are:
1348: Gonville Hall; refounded 1557 as Gonville and Caius College
1350: Trinity Hall
1352: Corpus Christi College
1441: King’s College
1448: Queen’s College; previously St. Bernard’s College (1446); refounded 1465; and known as Queens’ College from c. 1831
1473: St. Catharine’s College
1496: Jesus College
1505: Christ’s College, incorporating Godshouse (1439)
1511: St. John’s College
1542: Magdalene College, incorporating Buckingham College (1428)
1546: Trinity College, incorporating King’s Hall (1317) and Michaelhouse (1324) and expropriating Physwick Hostel (1393) from Gonville Hall
1584: Emmanuel College
1596: Sidney Sussex College
1800: Downing College
1869: Girton College
1871: Newnham College
1882: Selwyn College
1885: Cambridge Training College for Women, now known as Hughes Hall, Recognised Institution of the University 1949
1892: Fitzwilliam Hall, housing noncollegiate students, known as Fitzwilliam House from 1924; full college status as Fitzwilliam College (1966)
1894: Homerton College, moved to Cambridge (formerly in London from 1822) as a teacher training college; recognized by the university as an Approved Society (1977)
1896: St. Edmund’s House, a Roman Catholic training college recognized as a House of Residence; recognized as an Approved Society (1965); known as St. Edmund’s College from 1985
1954: New Hall
1960: Churchill College
1964: Darwin College
1965: Lucy Cavendish College
1965: University College, known as Wolfson College from 1973
1966: Clare Hall
1977: Robinson College
Of these, Newnham, New Hall, and Lucy Cavendish are for women only, and Darwin, Wolfson, and Clare Hall are for graduate students.
Brooke, Christopher. 1992. A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 4: 1870–1990. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Leader, Damien Riehl. 1988. A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 1: The University to 1546. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Leedham-Green, Elisabeth S. 1996. A Concise History of the University of Cambridge. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Morgan, Victor, with contribution by Christopher Brooke. 2004. A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 2: 1546–1750. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Searby, Peter. 1997. A History of the University of Cambridge, Vol. 3: 1750–1870. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
After the Reformation, the poor students largely disappeared, to be replaced by the sons of aristocratic and wealthy families. Many of the leading figures of the Renaissance of learning were associated with Cambridge, including Erasmus, long resident at Queen's College, Ascham, and Fisher. An Elizabethan statute of 1570 had the effect of making the wealthy constituent colleges more independent of the university. As puritanism flourished in East Anglia, and many of the students were local, Cambridge supported the parliamentary cause in the Civil War, while Oxford was the headquarters of the royalists: these political sympathies died hard and in the 18th cent. Whiggish Cambridge gave a much more enthusiastic welcome to the Hanoverians than did Oxford. Academically, Cambridge was characterized by the growth of science, or natural philosophy as it was called, with Newton at Trinity its best-known exponent.
By the middle of the 19th cent. reform was long overdue. Cambridge supported the notion of a royal commission which investigated the two universities from 1850. Two Acts, in 1856 and 1877, did much to break the oligarchical nature of the government of the university. In 1871 Anglican religious exclusiveness was ended. Cambridge's scientific reputation was further enhanced with the opening of the Cavendish Laboratory in 1873, which became famous for its work in experimental physics. Two women's colleges were established at this time, Girton in 1869, Newnham in 1871.
The majority of the heads of colleges are called master. For the first six centuries of its existence, Cambridge, like Oxford, was a seminary, and until 1871 fellows were required to be celibates in holy orders. There are now over 30 colleges. The older foundations date from the Middle Ages, like Corpus Christi College (1352), Pembroke (1357), and Trinity Hall (1390). Several are Tudor, such as Christ's (1505), Trinity, and Emmanuel (1584). Downing was founded in 1800 after a protracted and troublesome legal action over the original bequest by Sir George Downing in 1717. Selwyn and St Edmunds came in the late 19th cent. (1882, 1896). During the 1960s, no fewer than six new colleges came into existence, Churchill (1960), Darwin (1964), Lucy Cavendish (1965), Clare Hall (1966), Fitzwilliam (1966), and Wolfson (1969). Robinson College opened in 1977.