With its unforgiving natural landscape and a brutal history at in the crossfire of warring factions, Cambridge initially seemed an unlikely contender for an internationally influential city. The Romans, who founded the town in the 2nd Century AD (calling it Duroliponte, or “The Fort at the Bridge”),  struggled so much with the marshy fenland and the vicious East Anglian Celts that they attempted to use stilts to wade into battle – only to be cut down and slaughtered by their opponents. With much of the local population illiterate and little way of keeping official records, the name changed repeatedly over the years, to Grentebrige, then to Cantebrigge, before settling on Cambridge.

Although long since rebuilt, today’s Magdalene (pronounced Maud-Lin) Bridge still stands in place of one built by King Offa, a bellicose Mercian with ambitious plans for growth. During the  expansion of Mercia, Offa built a dyke stretching from Wales to Suffolk, part of which is still in place in nearby Newmarket. As well as a beautiful place for a walk, the stretch offers fantastic views over the Rowley Mile Race Course and a great place to sit and listen to the venue’s open air concerts on summer weekends.

Watching the punts float lazily by from Clare Bridge today, it’s hard to picture Viking warships towering over the river Cam. But, under Dane rule, Cambridge became a key trading post for the Vikings, whose longboats rowed across the English channel, up the Uze and into the Cam.  However, having growing consistently throughout the 11th Century, the brash entrepreneurialism that can come to define the city was abruptly stamped out by the Norman invaders. Crushed and divided, England was dragged under feudal rule.

Founding of Cambridge University

In 1209, a group of Parisian scholars were forced to abandon the University they had founded in Oxford just five years before. Allegedly, an accident during Sunday long bow practice (a basic military service requirement of all men in England) led to death of a local woman and, accused of murder, the men where chased out of town. Seeking refuge, some fled to Canterbury, others to Northampton. Some, to a place where they thought they would never be found: a Benedictine Chapel in a remote patch of fenland, surrounded by the chaos of a long, bitter war between the monarchy and Matilda and Stephen, challengers to the throne. This, of course, was Cambridge.

At this time, Canterbury was the primary seat of Catholic power in Britain, but the two fledgling universities began to gain traction, as more and more colleges were set up to educate both religious and civil servants.

By the spring of 1349, however, England was bracing itself to meet a new and terrible threat that they had watched, helplessly, sweep across Europe and now through France: The Black Death. Fearing anarchy, charismatic leader Edward III ordered graveyards to be constructed and preparations to be made both for slowing the spread of the disease and for giving its millions of victims a Christian burial. Four months of unrelenting rain and failed crops, however, overturned their efforts. Weak and malnourished, the people died in their droves, with 50% of urban populations wiped out, political structures collapsing and parts of the country sent back into the Iron Age. In the dynastic feuds that would follow – and which dominated Britain for the next century – university colleges would take on a new importance. Warring Lancastrians and Yorks rushed to found colleges of monks and lawyers, who would pray for their souls and, of equal importance, draft laws to consolidate their rule.

Political Tussles

In 1485, Henry Tudor emerged victorious from the Battle of Bosworth Field, establishing himself as King Henry VII of England and restoring some  stability to a country torn apart by war. Perceiving that the country was in need of a legislative overhaul, his extraordinarily influential mother, Margaret Beaufort,  founded the Cambridge colleges St. John’s and Christ’s to educate the lawyers needed for this purpose. Her gift of a chest of silver coins also allowed Kings’ College Chapel, which had lain unfinished for four decades as the war raged on, to be completed at last – a powerful symbol that a new era of peace and rebuilding had begun.

It didn’t last long. Having declared himself Supreme Head of the English Church in 1534, Margaret’s grandson Henry VIII embarked on a bloody and comprehensive campaign of destruction and theft of Catholic monasteries, land and property. As an intrinsic part of the Catholic educational apparatus, both Cambridge and Oxford University were under threat. Thankfully, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Catherine Parr, intervened by persuading her husband to establish his dominance by building a college far larger and grander than any built before. He did so by uniting two existing colleges and a friar into a new entity: Trinity College, arguably the university’s most famous college, not least for producing 90 Nobel Prize winners since 1904.

However, it was through his patronage, rather than his productivity, that Henry VIII inadvertently succeeded in changing the direction of the university forever. With his support, a scholar named Erasmus of Rotterdam was able to take up a place at Queen’s College – where he introduced the study of Greek, humanist ideas and and a revival of classical philosophy. In the coming years, the University of Cambridge would develop well beyond the traditional fields of religion and law, becoming a hotbed for philosophical and scientific exploration, as well as with some rather unusual lines of study John Dee, the famous alchemist and occultist, began his studies here during the 16th century.

Cambridge’s influence grew steadily. Elizabeth I was educated by St John’s scholars, albeit not on site, which was a strictly male-only environment at this time. Later, she would grant Cambridge Colleges to make private investments. – a decision which would eventually prove to safeguard their survival. Investments made as a result of this decision have seen many colleges garner enormous wealth over the centuries; Trinity is one of the richest landowners in the UK, with an investment portfolio encompassing Felixstowe harbour, the 02 Arena and a 50% share in the Tesco supermarket chain. Its smaller, older neighbour, Trinity Hall, was the first Oxbridge college to own a bank.

In the early 17th Century, civil war erupted again – and this time, the Oxbridge universities were pitted against each other directly. Led by Oliver Cromwell, a local boy who had also attended Sidney Sussex college, the feud saw King’s College turned into a garrison for anti-royalists, whilst Charles I held his council at Oriel College, Oxford, and dined at Christchurch. With East Anglia a parliamentary stronghold, royalist forces were forced back just two miles from Cambridge, and all but one bridge (Clare Bridge) over the Cam blown up to protect the city from invaders. Having been passed around and secretly traded after his body was posthumously hung, drawn and quartered, Oliver Cromwell’s head is now buried in a secret location in the grounds of Sidney Sussex.

Rising Stars

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, it might be expected that Cambridge’s prospects would decline in comparison to Oxford, its royalist rival. In fact, colleges such as Trinity aggressively sought to expand their land and financial power, both in the UK and overseas, as the university seized the opportunity to grow  independently.

Over the coming centuries, intellectual as well as financial independence helped to foster some of the greatest minds in history. Towards the end of Charles II’s reign, an impoverished student took up  a scholarship at Trinity, where he survived on wealthier students’ food scraps and studied by shards of candlelight under their doors. This dedicated young scientist, whose world-changing  Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, was, of course, Isaac Newton.

Rifts with the political elite were not permanent. The diarist Samuel Pepys, who studied at Magdalene College, travelled to France with Charles II during the restoration and was later responsible for reforming the British navy. In the coming centuries, as the navy gained power and British trade routes and colonialism expanded, Cambridge’s role expanded too, as it became influential in legislating an Empire on which the “sun never set”.

The influx of wealth created by British imperialism also led to the emergence of a moneyed middle class and with it, a higher proportion of university students. Colleges began employing famous architects for elaborate building projects, developing more distinct personalities, identities, and specialisms, and to export their academic ideas to the rest of the globe.

Increasingly, artistic as well as scientific thought were fostered by the university environment, with new ideas and movements originating here. The Romantic poets Wordsworth and Tennyson both studied at Cambridge, as did Byron – although his flair for the avant-garde soon proved too much for his professors. Obsessed with animals, Byron kept 140 species of pet in his house overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, including a Newfoundland crossed with a wolf, called Botswain. Trinity College was less accommodating, stating at the end of his first year that he was not to bring any tame pets back with him in his second year. To spite them, he returned with a wild bear, instead – but was expelled before the year was out for expressing “unpatriotic” views on Napoleon Bonaparte.

In fact, Bonaparte’s nemesis, William Pitt the Younger, was also a Cambridge alumnus, having studied at Pembroke College. During his time there, he befriended a St. John’s student of far more humble origins: William Wilberforce, the son of a landowner from Hull. Wilberforce’s gift for rhetoric led Pitt to encourage him to enter politics; happily, he took the advice, becoming a leader in the successful campaign to abolish the slave trade.

50 years after Wilberforce matriculated, aged just 17, a seemingly less promising Edinburgh dropout took up Geology at Christ’s College. Despite suggestions he should drop out of academia altogether, Charles Darwin succeeded in raising the funds for his now infamous Voyage of the Beagle – laying the foundation for his seminal work, The Origin of Species, written 25 years later. His findings, many of which are collected together in the Museum of Earth Sciences in Cambridge, would change science, philosophy, and society forever, challenging central tenets of the Enlightenment that elevated man above all his fellow creatures, and placed him at the centre of the universe.

Modern Evolution

This spirit of intellectual interrogation continued well into the 20th Century. One group of university friends that included Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rupert Brooke, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and later Alan Turing formed an intimate secret society called the Libertines which, over long walks and late night chats, developed modes of thought that would profoundly influence modern Western thought. Their ideas shaped fields as diverse as philosophy, computing, literature and economics.

Cambridge was, thankfully, spared destruction during the first and second world wars, not least because by this time it was so surrounded by RAF bases that any attack by the Luftwaffe would have been like flying into a hornets’ nest. It did, however, do its part for the war effort. Gold and silver was stripped out of the city’s treasures for melting down in Welsh mine shafts and so much glass taken from the windows of King’s College Chapel that, when restoration later began, it took four years to replace. The war effort was also bolstered by the work of Cambridge alumnus Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine.

Tragically, despite having made one of the greatest contributions of all to the defeat of the Nazis through his spectacular success in deciphering coded German messages, Alan Turing later found himself shunned and persecuted for his homosexuality, eventually driven to suicide by his former colleagues.

A very personal remnant of WWII can still be seen on the roof of Cambridge pub The Eagle, where the pilots who where stationed in the city would scrawl messages to their loved ones before leaving on raids. Many, of course, never returned. In 1953, The Eagle also set the stage for one of the most important moments in history, when Crick and Watson chose the pub to announce that they had discovered DNA, the secret of life.

Although the city’s fame has long been dominated by academia, over the past four decades Cambridge has increasingly drawn attention for achievements beyond the university walls. World famous band Pink Floyd formed here in the 1960s, with Grantchester Meadows inspiring early songs and The Anchor pub boasting Syd Barrett as a one-time regular. In 1976, the Science Park was founded to foster commercial innovation;12 of the companies situated here are now reportedly worth over £1bn, with two worth more than £10bn each – earning Cambridge the new nickname of “Silicon Fen”.

The local population of Cambridge, outside of the university, is the most educated in Europe, with one quarter of people here having a degree. Average wages, too, are amongst also the highest in England. The booming tourism and technology sectors mean that the city is in a period of rapid growth, with a number of building and development projects as well as an extra train station in Chesterton now underway to cope with the demand.

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Things to do in Cambridge: a complete guide to Cambridge restaurants, museums, art, cinema, theatre, events and festivals, as well as free things to do in one of the UK's most thriving and beautiful cities.