The History of Cambridge
Like so many of our historic centres, Cambridge was settled and developed thanks to its position at a river crossing point. The commercial benefits bestowed on the settlement thanks to the river transport links led to the establishment of religious foundations; these in turn offered fertile ground for, or even evolved into, the colleges constituting the University of Cambridge. That institution has long been a major employer in the city; and today companies spun out of it are creating wealth by exploiting knowledge coming out of the university.
A Bronze Age farm has been discovered within the city’s boundaries, showing that settlement of the area dates back at least 3500 years, as would be expected of a place with fertile land and a river for water, fish and transport. A Celtic Iron Age hill fort was created on what is now called Castle Hill.
It is thought a Belgic tribe settled the area before the Romans arrived in the middle of the 1st century AD; the Romans as with previous occupants choosing Castle Hill - the highest ground in the district - for their stronghold. Their settlement was known as Duroliponte, its garrison guarding the inland route from the North Sea via the Great Ouse and what is now the Cam ; simultaneously guarding the river crossing point of the Via Devana running between the major Roman towns of Colchester (Camulodunum) and Lincoln (Lindum), with other lesser routes like Akeman Street feeding the town as well. When the country was pacified this garrison town became a civilian settlement. Roman Roads can still be seen in the district, and even Roman tiles incorporated for example in the walls of St Peter’s Church .
When the Romans abandoned Britain in the early 5th century Duroliponte was occupied by the Saxons who named it Grantebrycge, i.e. Bridge over the Granta as the river was then called. The town in sub-Roman Britain seems to have waned in importance, regularly disputed between Mercians and Angles, rather than grown, though King Offa in the 8th century is thought to have built a bridge there as the Romans had before him. This decline was dramatically reversed when the Danes took control of the settlement in about 875AD.
Great sea-going traders, the Vikings made use of the river to transport goods in and out of the town, developing the Quayside area which became the focus of their Cambridge. They fortified the place with a ditch and rampart, but in the early 10th century it returned to Saxon control as they were driven out by Edward the Elder . The Vikings took revenge in 1010 when they burned the town to the ground, then retook the remnants in 1011. St Bene’t’s (Benedict’s) Church was built in 1025 as the town waxed again.
Within two years of the Norman invasion a wooden fortification had been constructed in Cambridge, a fair sized town in 1086 when the Domesday Book was compiled. Hereward the Wake fought his campaign of resistance in the fens around Ely and Cambridge, necessitating Norman fortification of the town. Cambridge merited a stone castle in the 12th century, and its then Templar links saw the building of the fascinating Holy Sepulchre round church in 1107.
The name of the town evolved in the Norman era, the Saxon Gratebrycge becoming variously corrupted into Grentebrigge and Cantabrigge, then eventually Cambridge. The river Granta, shorter and easier to pronounce, remained thus until it was thought sensible to dub it the Cam in accordance with the town’s name.
Economic prosperity increased in the Norman era as again the water link with Kings Lynn offered a route to export grain and import wine and other trade goods. With the consequent wealth religious houses such as Barnwell Priory (1092) and St Radegund’s Nunnery (1135) were founded, along with many churches paid for by prosperous merchants and nobles ensuring their salvation.
In 1200 the School of Pythagoras was founded – the burgeoning town doubtless needed such an institution for educational reasons and civic pride. In 1201 King John granted the place a charter, further evidence of its development. But the foundation of the university is rooted in a chance event, when in 1209 some Oxford students fleeing problems settled in the town. They were assigned to various religious houses, with no true structure to their studies or academic allegiance for some time. In 1226, however, they were formally organized with a chancellor at their head. These young scholars (generally beginning their studies at the age of 14 or 15) were exploited by landlords in Cambridge, leading Henry III to issue much resented decrees in their support – the Town and Gown rivalry was thus established even before the first college existed – Peterhouse founded in 1284 by the Bishop of Ely.
The Town and Gown friction regularly broke out into violence: in 1262 a riot ended with 16 townsfolk hanged; more such clashes occurred in 1304, 1322 and 1371, with other lesser contretemps between. The wealthy and powerful nevertheless continued to endow and found colleges in a massive expansion of the university through the 14th and 15th centuries. The nature of the town was fixed, and a further period of college building occurred in the 16th century as indeed it did again in the 19th and 20th.
During the Civil War Cambridge declared for Parliament, perhaps not surprising given one of its recent students was Oliver Cromwell (his head is reputedly buried somewhere in Sidney Sussex College). The university was a hotbed of Protestantism and then Puritanism, figures like Erasmus and Roger Ascham associated with it – it must be remembered that the place was officially a seminary still in this period; indeed fellows had to be in holy orders until 1871 (and in theory celibate). Though it is a sweeping generalisation, Cambridge was more associated with free thinking and science than its elder rival: Newton was a Cambridge man, for example; Watson and Crick solved the mystery of DNA there, not the first students to celebrate in The Eagle; and less gloriously Philby, Burgess and Maclean rebelled against the establishment of their day, albeit secretly.
Unlike Oxford Cambridge developed no major manufacturing industries to rival academia in economic significance; but of late the scientific discoveries and skills developed there have seen many companies established by students and lecturers, especially in the field of biotechnology, making the area Britain’s ‘Cellular Valley’ one day possibly outdoing Silicon Valley in the USA in wealth creation.
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