A brief history of Cambridge
Cambridge has played a hugely important role in both UK and world history, evolving over the years to the global hub of learning and science we know today. Global pandemic notwithstanding, the city attracts millions of visitors every year and for lovers of history it is one of the best cities to visit in the UK. Our guide includes the most significant milestones in the history of Cambridge from 3,500 years ago to modern day.
The early years
As a settlement, Cambridge dates to prehistoric times with archaeological evidence dating back 3,500 years to the site now occupied by Fitzwilliam College. Further evidence of occupation through the Iron Age was found at Castle Hill, located on the northwest of Cambridge city centre.
This site at Castle Hill was later deemed to be of huge strategic importance by the Romans who invaded Britain in about AD 40. The Romans built a fort here as a military outpost and they also recognised the benefits the river crossing offered.
After the Romans had withdrawn from Britain in the early 5th century, the Anglo Saxons arrived from North of Germany. They renamed the area Grantabrycge or “Bridge over Granta” which was the name of the river at the time. The Anglo Saxons built the first bridge over the river, close to the site of Magdalene Bridge we see today. Over the years, this name evolved to become “Cam-Bridge”, thus giving the city its name.
The Vikings & Normans
After the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings came across in the 9th century. Their actual arrival was recorded in 875 and they established a port on the River Cam. This ensured a thriving river trade in the town and Cambridge remained a thriving in-bound port until the beginning of the last century. At this point Cambridge was a town of relative importance.
After the Vikings, the Anglo Saxons resumed power and it was the Saxons who constructed St Bene't's Church. Built in 1020 and one of several churches in Cambridge city centre, St Bene't’s church is one of the most historic buildings in Cambridgeshire. At 1000 years old, it is one of the oldest churches in England and is certainly the oldest of all the churches in Cambridge.
Cambridge was invaded by the Normans and in 1068, two years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror built a castle on Castle Hill. The castle was later used as a county jail up until 1842 and although the castle has long since gone, the mound it was built on is still there. Today, the mound offers a unique view of the city landscape.
In 1086 the population of Cambridge numbered approximately 2,000 and the town started to prosper, largely due to the river and the trade routes. In 1130, the Round Church was built and it is now one of the most popular churches in Cambridge for visitors. The church was originally built as a chapel for pilgrims crossing the river and is 1 of only 4 medieval, round churches still standing in England.
13th Century Cambridge
Cambridge is of course famous for its University, the 2nd oldest University in the English-speaking world. The University was established in 1209, a key milestone in the history of Cambridge with the first college, Peterhouse being founded in 1284. This was followed by Clare College in 1326 and Pembroke College in 1347. In 1348 and again in 1361 the Black Death swept across the UK and this resulted in the death of a third of all English clergy.
The colleges of Corpus Christi, Trinity Hall and Gonville and Caius were subsequently founded to train new clergymen. There are now 31 Cambridge Colleges located across the city with the most recent being Robinson College which was founded in 1977.
Great St Mary’s Church was the first university building where ceremonies and graduations took place before the colleges were built. Over the years it has been visited by Richard III, Elizabeth I, Cardinal Wolsey and Oliver Cromwell and it continues to be one of the most visited churches in Cambridge. The foundations of the church itself date back to 1010 and over the years it has been burnt down in 1290, rebuilt in 1351 and expanded in the late 15th and early 16th century.
Great St Mary’s church is one of 39 churches in Cambridge and the surrounding area. Indeed, if you are walking in the city centre, you are never more than 500 metres away from a church with Cambridge being home to some of the oldest churches in England.
Late Middle Ages to Georgian Cambridge
By the 15th century Cambridge was home to many different industries including leather and wool. In 1441, King Henry VI began the build of Kings College Chapel. However, it wasn't until 1544 and the reign of King Henry VIII that it was fully completed, a period of time that also encompassed the War of the Roses.
King's College Chapel is hugely popular and is a big reason why Cambridge is deemed to be one of the best cities to visit in the UK. It is the most popular place to visit in Cambridge today and is the finest example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture anywhere in the UK.
In 1610 a conduit bought water into the town, a significant milestone in its development. In 1630 Cambridge was struck by a severe outbreak of the plague, as were all towns in the country at the time. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, the town of Cambridge was controlled by an ex-student of Sidney Sussex College, Oliver Cromwell. As Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell had similar power to that of a monarch albeit with no crown and he ruled the UK between 1653 and 1658.
In 1653 Stagecoaches started to run from Cambridge to London and by 1728 the population had increased to 6,100, a figure that included 1,600 inhabitants of the university. In 1766, Addenbrookes Hospital opened in Cambridge, named after the man who funded its formation in his will, Dr John Addenbrooke. The Improvement Commissioners came to power in Cambridge in 1788 and their remit was to provide lighting and paving to the streets of the town. Gas lights were commonplace in Cambridge in 1823 with electricity being generated in 1893.
Victorian to modern era
By 1801 the population of Cambridge had grown to 10,000 and it was now considered to be a large town. In 1845, the railway joined up with Cambridge, thus connecting the town to London. This provided further impetus to industry and an increased prosperity to the town. In 1889, the Improvement Commissioners stepped down and the council assumed control of town matters. Towards the end of the 19th century, Cambridge started to make scientific instruments, an area of expertise it still retains on the world stage today.
By 1901 the population of Cambridge stood at 38,000 and it continued to increase at pace. During World War II, Cambridge became an important military centre for the East of England region with the city and most of its famous landmarks relatively unscathed from damage.
The University played its part during the war with both St Johns College and Trinity College hosting meetings of senior military leaders in preparation for the D-Day landings of 1944. More significantly, Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who studied at Kings College, is estimated to have saved 2 years of war time and 14 million lives through his work in cracking the Enigma code.
In 1951, the historical impact and status of Cambridge was recognised and it was granted its city charter. This was despite Cambridge not having a cathedral, the traditional requirement for city status. At this point the population of Cambridge was 91,000.
In 1992, Cambridge acquired another University when Anglia Polytechnic became Anglia Polytechnic University. This was subsequently renamed Anglia Ruskin University in 2005. By 2021, the population of Cambridge has swelled to an estimated 145,000 with Cambridge still hugely influential on the world stage and continuing to shape global affairs to this day.
Travel through history
If you would like to experience the history of Cambridge, then why not punt and walk your way through history by taking our virtual tour. As you explore one of the best cities to visit in the UK, our expert tour guides will bring the city and its rich heritage to life.