Settlements have existed around the Cambridge area since prehistoric times. The earliest clear evidence of occupation is the remains of a 3,500-year-old farmstead discovered at the site of Fitzwilliam College. Archaeological evidence of occupation through the Iron Age is a settlement on Castle Hill from the 1st century BC, perhaps relating to wider cultural changes occurring in southeastern Britain linked to the arrival of the Belgae.
The principal Roman site is a small fort (castrum) Duroliponte on Castle Hill, just northwest of the city centre around the location of the earlier British village. The fort was bounded on two sides by the lines formed by the present Mount Pleasant, continuing across Huntingdon Road into Clare Street. The eastern side followed Magrath Avenue, with the southern side running near to Chesterton Lane and Kettle's Yard before turning northwest at Honey Hill. It was constructed around AD 70 and converted to civilian use around 50 years later. Evidence of more widespread Roman settlement has been discovered including numerous farmsteads and a village in the Cambridge district of Newnham.
Following the Roman withdrawal from Britain around 410, the location may have been abandoned by the Britons, although the site is usually identified as Cair Grauth listed among the 28 cities of Britain by the History of the Britons. Evidence exists that the invading Anglo-Saxons had begun occupying the area by the end of the century. Their settlement – also on and around Castle Hill – became known as Grantebrycge ("Granta-bridge"). (By Middle English, the settlement's name had changed to "Cambridge" and the lower stretches of the Granta changed their name to match.) Anglo-Saxon grave goods have been found in the area. During this period, Cambridge benefited from good trade links across the hard-to-travel fenlands. By the 7th century, the town was less significant and described by Bede as a "little ruined city" containing the burial site of Etheldreda. Cambridge was on the border between the East and Middle Anglian kingdoms and the settlement slowly expanded on both sides of the river.
The arrival of the Vikings was recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 875. Viking rule, the Danelaw, had been imposed by 878 Their vigorous trading habits caused the town to grow rapidly. During this period the centre of the town shifted from Castle Hill on the left bank of the river to the area now known as the Quayside on the right bank. After the Viking period, the Saxons enjoyed a return to power, building churches such as St Bene't's Church, wharves, merchant houses and a mint, which produced coins with the town's name abbreviated to "Grant".
In 1068, two years after his conquest of England, William of Normandy built a castle on Castle Hill. Like the rest of the newly conquered kingdom, Cambridge fell under the control of the King and his deputies.
The first town charter was granted by Henry I between 1120 and 1131. It gave Cambridge monopoly of waterborne traffic and hithe tolls and recognised the borough court. The distinctive Round Church dates from this period. In 1209, Cambridge University was founded by students escaping from hostile townspeople in Oxford. The oldest existing college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284.
In 1349 Cambridge was affected by the Black Death. Few records survive but 16 of 40 scholars at King's Hall died. The town north of the river was severely affected being almost wiped out. Following further depopulation after a second national epidemic in 1361, a letter from the Bishop of Ely suggested that two parishes in Cambridge be merged as there were not enough people to fill even one church. With more than a third of English clergy dying in the Black Death, four new colleges were established at the university over the following years to train new clergymen, namely Gonville Hall, Trinity Hall, Corpus Christi and Clare.
In 1382 a revised town charter effects a "diminution of the liberties that the community had enjoyed", due to Cambridge's participation in the Peasants' Revolt. The charter transfers supervision of baking and brewing, weights and measures, and forestalling and regrating, from the town to the university. King's College Chapel, was begun in 1446 by King Henry VI. The chapel was built in phases by a succession of kings of England from 1446 to 1515, its history intertwined with the Wars of the Roses, and completed during the reign of King Henry VIII. The building would become synonymous with Cambridge, and currently is used in the logo for the City Council.
was the first college to be founded in the University of Cambridge.
Following repeated outbreaks of pestilence throughout the 16th Century, sanitation and fresh water were brought to Cambridge by the construction of Hobson's Conduit in the early 1600s. Water was brought from Nine Wells, at the foot of the Gog Magog Hills, into the centre of the town.
Cambridge played a significant role in the early part of the English Civil War as it was the headquarters of the Eastern Counties Association, an organisation administering a regional East Anglian army, which became the mainstay of the Parliamentarian military effort before the formation of the New Model Army. In 1643 control of the town was given by Parliament to Oliver Cromwell, who had been educated at Sidney Sussex College. The town's castle was fortified and garrisoned with troops and some bridges were destroyed to aid its defence. Although Royalist forces came within 2 miles (3 km) of the town in 1644, the defences were never used and the garrison was stood down the following year.
In the 19th century, in common with many other English towns, Cambridge expanded rapidly, due in part to increased life expectancy and improved agricultural production leading to increased trade in town markets. The Inclosure Acts of 1801 and 1807 enabled the town to expand over surrounding open fields and in 1912 and again in 1935 its boundaries were extended to include Chesterton, Cherry Hinton, and Trumpington.
The railway came to Cambridge in 1845 after initial resistance, with the opening of the Great Eastern Railway's London to Norwich line. The station was outside the town centre following pressure from the university to restrict travel by undergraduates. With the arrival of the railway and associated employment came development of areas around the station, such as Romsey Town. The rail link to London stimulated heavier industries, such as the production of brick, cement and malt.
From the 1930s to the 1980s, the size of the city was increased by several large council estates. The biggest impact has been on the area north of the river, which are now the estates of East Chesterton, King's Hedges, and Arbury where Archbishop Rowan Williams lived and worked as an assistant priest in the early 1980s.
During the Second World War, Cambridge was an important centre for defence of the east coast. The town became a military centre, with an R.A.F. training centre and the regional headquarters for Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire established during the conflict. The town itself escaped relatively lightly from German bombing raids, which were mainly targeted at the railway. 29 people were killed and no historic buildings were damaged. In 1944, a secret meeting of military leaders held in Trinity College laid the foundation for the allied invasion of Europe. During the war Cambridge served as an evacuation centre for over 7,000 people from London, as well as for parts of the University of London.
Cambridge was granted its city charter in 1951 in recognition of its history, administrative importance and economic success. Cambridge does not have a cathedral, traditionally a prerequisite for city status, instead falling within the Church of England Diocese of Ely. In 1962 Cambridge's first shopping arcade, Bradwell's Court, opened on Drummer Street, though this was demolished in 2006. Other shopping arcades followed at Lion Yard, which housed a relocated Central Library for the city, and the Grafton Centre which replaced Victorian housing stock which had fallen into disrepair in
the Kite area of the city. This latter project was controversial at the time.
The city gained its second University in 1992 when Anglia Polytechnic became Anglia Polytechnic University. Renamed Anglia Ruskin University in 2005, the institution has its origins in the Cambridge School of Art opened in 1858 by John Ruskin. The Open University also has a presence in the city, with an office operating on Hills Road.