The University of Cambridge celebrates its 800th birthday in 2009, and its eventful eight centuries are inextricably linked to the history of England, and even thanks to some of the earth-shaking discoveries made here, also of worldwide import.
First a Roman fort and then a Saxon settlement, Cambridge was little more than a rural backwater until 1209, when the university town of Oxford exploded in a riot between townspeople (‘town’) and scholars (‘gown’), forcing a group of students to quit while their heads were still intact and move to Cambridge to found a new university. The plan was for tutors and students to live together in a community, much as a monastery. This collegiate system, unique to Oxford and Cambridge, came into being gradually, and the first Cambridge college, Peterhouse, was founded in 1284.
More colleges followed from the 14th century, founded by all manner of great and good: royalty, nobility, church figures, statesmen, academics, trade guilds and anyone rich enough to court the prestige that their own institution offered. All the colleges were for men only, until in 1869 and 1871, women were finally allowed to study here with the founding of women-only Girton and Newnham Colleges. However, the girls had to wait until 1948 to actually graduate.
The honour roll of famous graduates reads like an international who’s who of high achievers, and a list of their accomplishments could fill several libraries. The discovery of DNA, theories of gravity and evolution: all by Cambridge students. Since 1904, the university has produced 81 Nobel Prize winners (more than any other institution in the world), 13 British prime ministers, nine archbishops of Canterbury, an immense number of scientists, and a healthy host of poets and other scribblers…and this is but a limited selection. Today the university remains at the top of the research league in British universities, and in the top three worldwide, and international academics have polled it as the top university in the world for science.