By the late 12th century, the Cambridge area already had a scholarly and ecclesiastical reputation, due to monks from the nearby bishopric church of Ely. However, it was an incident at Oxford which is most likely to have led to the establishment of the university: two Oxford scholars were hanged by the town authorities for the death of a woman, without consulting the ecclesiastical authorities, who would normally take precedence (and pardon the scholars) in such a case, but were at that time in conflict with King John. The University of Oxford went into suspension in protest, and most scholars moved to cities such as Paris, Reading, and Cambridge. After the University of Oxford reformed several years later, enough scholars remained in Cambridge to form the nucleus of the new university. In order to claim precedence, it is common for Cambridge to trace its founding to the 1231 charter from King Henry III granting it the right to discipline its own members (ius non-trahi extra) and an exemption from some taxes; Oxford was not granted similar rights until 1248.
A bull in 1233 from Pope Gregory IX gave graduates from Cambridge the right to teach "everywhere in Christendom". After Cambridge was described as a studium generale in a letter from Pope Nicholas IV in 1290, and confirmed as such in a bull by Pope John XXII in 1318, it became common for researchers from other European medieval universities to visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.
Foundation of the colleges
The colleges at the University of Cambridge were originally an incidental feature of the system. No college is as old as the university itself. The colleges were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments, called hostels. The hostels were gradually absorbed by the colleges over the centuries, but they have left some traces, such as the name of Garret Hostel Lane.
Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse, Cambridge's first college, in 1284. Many colleges were founded during the 14th and 15th centuries, but colleges continued to be established until modern times, although there was a gap of 204 years between the founding of Sidney Sussex in 1596 and that of Downing in 1800. The most recently established college is Robinson, built in the late 1970s. However, Homerton College only achieved full university college status in March 2010, making it the newest full college (it was previously an "Approved Society" affiliated with the university).
In medieval times, many colleges were founded so that their members would pray for the souls of the founders, and were often associated with chapels or abbeys. The colleges' focus changed in 1536 with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII ordered the university to disband its Faculty of Canon Law and to stop teaching "scholastic philosophy". In response, colleges changed their curricula away from canon law, and towards the classics, the Bible, and mathematics.
Nearly a century later, the university was at the centre of a Protestant schism. Many nobles, intellectuals and even commoners saw the ways of the Church of England as too similar to the Catholic Church, and felt that it was used by the Crown to usurp the rightful powers of the counties. East Anglia was the centre of what became the Puritan movement. In Cambridge, the movement was particularly strong at Emmanuel, St Catharine's Hall, Sidney Sussex and Christ's College. They produced many "non-conformist" graduates who greatly influenced, by social position or preaching, some 20,000 Puritans who left for New England and especially the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the Great Migration decade of the 1630s. Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War and head of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660), attended Sidney Sussex.
Mathematics and mathematical physics
Examination in mathematics was once compulsory for all undergraduates studying for the Bachelor of Arts degree, the main first degree at Cambridge in both arts and sciences. From the time of Isaac Newton in the later 17th century until the mid-19th century, the university maintained an especially strong emphasis on applied mathematics, particularly mathematical physics. The exam is known as a Tripos. Students awarded first-class honours after completing the mathematics Tripos are termed wranglers, and the top student among them is the Senior Wrangler. The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos is competitive and has helped produce some of the most famous names in British science, including James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin and Lord Rayleigh. However, some famous students, such as G. H. Hardy, disliked the system, feeling that people were too interested in accumulating marks in exams and not interested in the subject itself.
Pure mathematics at Cambridge in the 19th century achieved great things, but also missed out on substantial developments in French and German mathematics. Pure mathematical research at Cambridge finally reached the highest international standard in the early 20th century, thanks above all to G. H. Hardy, his collaborator J. E. Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan. In geometry, W. V. D. Hodge brought Cambridge onto the international mainstream in the 1930s.
Although diversified in its research and teaching interests, Cambridge today maintains its strength in mathematics. Cambridge alumni have won six Fields Medals and one Abel Prize for mathematics, while individuals representing Cambridge have won four Fields Medals.
After the Cambridge University Act formalised the organisational structure of the university, the study of many new subjects was introduced, such as theology, history and modern languages. Resources necessary for new courses in the arts, architecture and archaeology were donated by Viscount Fitzwilliam, of Trinity College, who also founded the Fitzwilliam Museum. Between 1896 and 1902, Downing College sold part of its land to build the Downing Site, with new scientific laboratories for anatomy, genetics and Earth sciences. During the same period, the New Museums Site was erected, including the Cavendish Laboratory, which has since moved to the West Cambridge Site, and other departments for chemistry and medicine.
The University of Cambridge began to award PhD degrees in the first third of the 20th century. The first Cambridge PhD in mathematics was awarded in 1924.
In the First World War, 13,878 members of the university served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching, and the fees it earned, came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the university first received systematic state support in 1919, and a Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the university (but not the colleges) should receive an annual grant. Following the Second World War, the university saw a rapid expansion of student numbers and available places; this was partly due to the success and popularity gained by many Cambridge scientists.
The university was one of only two universities to hold parliamentary seats in the Parliament of England and was later one of eight represented in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The constituency was created by a Royal Charter of 1603 and returned two members of parliament until 1950, when it was abolished by the Representation of the People Act 1948.
The constituency was not a geographical area. Its electorate consisted of the graduates of the university. Before 1918 the franchise was restricted to male graduates with a doctorate or MA degree.
For many years only male students were enrolled into the university. The first colleges for women were Girton College (founded by Emily Davies) in 1869 and Newnham College in 1872 (founded by Anne Clough and Henry Sidgwick), followed by Hughes Hall in 1885 (founded by Elizabeth Phillips Hughes as the Cambridge Teaching College for Women), Murray Edwards College (founded by Rosemary Murray as New Hall) in 1954, and Lucy Cavendish College in 1965. The first women students were examined in 1882 but attempts to make women full members of the university did not succeed until 1948. Women were allowed to study courses, sit examinations, and have their results recorded from 1881; for a brief period after the turn of the twentieth century, this allowed the "steamboat ladies" to receive ad eundem degrees from the University of Dublin.
From 1921 women were awarded diplomas which "conferred the Title of the Degree of Bachelor of Arts". As they were not "admitted to the Degree of Bachelor of Arts" they were excluded from the governing of the university. Since students must belong to a college, and since established colleges remained closed to women, women found admissions restricted to colleges established only for women. Darwin College, the first wholly graduate college of the university, matriculated both men and women students from its inception in 1964 – and elected a mixed fellowship. Of the undergraduate colleges, starting with Churchill, Clare and King's Colleges, the former men's colleges began to admit women between 1972 and 1988. One of the female-only colleges, Girton, also began to admit male students from 1979, but the other female-only colleges did not do likewise. As a result of St Hilda's College, Oxford, ending its ban on male students in 2008, Cambridge is now the only remaining United Kingdom university with female-only colleges (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish). In the academic year 2004–5, the university's student sex ratio, including post-graduates, was male 52%: female 48%.
Myths, legends and traditions
As an institution with such a long history, the university has developed a large number of myths and legends. The vast majority of these are untrue, but have been propagated nonetheless by generations of students and tour guides.
A discontinued tradition is that of the wooden spoon, the 'prize' awarded to the student with the lowest passing honours grade in the final examinations of the Mathematical Tripos. The last of these spoons was awarded in 1909 to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, an oarsman of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of St John's College. It was over one metre in length and had an oar blade for a handle. It can now be seen outside the Senior Combination Room of St John's. Since 1908, examination results have been published alphabetically within class rather than in strict order of merit. This made it harder to ascertain who was "entitled" to the spoon (unless there was only one person in the third class), and so the practice was abandoned.
Each Christmas Eve, BBC radio and television broadcasts The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sung by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The radio broadcast has been a national Christmas tradition since it was first transmitted in 1928 (though the festival has existed since 1918). The radio broadcast is carried worldwide by the BBC World Service and is also syndicated to hundreds of radio stations in the US. The first television broadcast of the festival was in 1954.