Historic Cambridge

The city of Cambridge owes a lot to its location and geology. The market place dates back to Roman and Medieval times as being the only part of town that was dry. Medieval Cambridge prospered because it was located on the River Cam. This river flows to the sea at King’s Lynn, which was a large and important port at that time. The Cam acted as an ‘artery’ and played an important role in the economic and demographic development of the city.  The representation of the Cam can be found on the coat of arms above the entrance of the Guildhall on Market Hill (see the photo below) where you can also see the oldest bridge on it: Clare’s Bridge.


How did Cambridge develop around its university to become the historic world-renowned place of learning?

The University of Cambridge had a rocky beginning: it was founded in 1209 by dissidents of Oxford University. The first college was Peterhouse founded in 1284 by the Bishop of Ely.

Great St Mary’s church has a central and very important role to play in the development of the University. At the beginning, it was the biggest place for official university gatherings, meetings and debates before moving to the Senate House in 1730. It was a civic center, a parish and a university church. Great Saint Mary’s was used as a starting point of a milestone system: there is a plaque at the base of the west tower that marks the starting point for distances from Cambridge. University officers were forced to live within 20 miles of Great Saint Mary’s and students 3 miles away from the University (despite the very demanding undergraduate courses).

Another fascinating characteristic of this church is its bells. The church is home to the university bells which ring every quarter of an hour with the ‘’Cambridge quarter’’, a very particular chime that was used later for Big Ben!

Additionally, Great Saint Mary’s church houses the oldest bell society in the UK, dating back to 1516.


Going further with historic Cambridge, we are going to develop a bit more on two of the 31 constituent colleges’ historical background: the royal and prestigious Trinity College and Gonville and Caius College.

Trinity College

The Great Gate is the main entrance to the college leading to the Great Court. A statue of the college founder, Henry VIII, stands above the doorway. In his hand, he holds a table leg instead of the original sword: myths tell us that it was switched by students. Beneath the founder’s statue are the coats of arms of Edward III, the founder of King’s Hall, and those of his five sons who survived to maturity, as well as William of Hatfield, whose shield is blank as he died as an infant, before being granted arms.

Being a royal college, Trinity has very large endowment with royal funds and land given by alumni: it is said that you can go from Cambridge to Oxford without leaving Trinity college’s land.

Gonville and Caius College

It was first founded by Edmund Gonville making it the fourth oldest surviving college. But when Gonville died, he left a struggling college with no money. By the 16th century, the college had fallen again into disrepair. In 1557, it was re-founded and refunded by Royal Charter by the physician John Caius. He extended the building, naming it Gonville and Caius.

Coming back from a trip to Italy, John Caius fancied doing some architecture at his college. He built 3 gates. Each gates represents the different stages of a person’s education at the college:

  • The gate of humility which you go through as an undergraduate as a sign of being humble;
  • The gate of virtue which you go through on your way to the library;
  • The gate of Honour: it is only opened for graduation and for the death of a fellow as it leads to the Senate House. This gate was the first classical edifice in Cambridge with rectangles, triangles and straight lines.

We would like to finish on an interesting anecdote: the “Night climbing club” has a forbidden tradition that is called the senate leap. Students jump between the turret of the Gonville and Caius building and the Senate House (on the left in the photo).



(By Vanila Alfassa, Dorian Durand-Bidaou and Jade Hoang)


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