5 Things You May Not Know About Cambridge

Updated on March 7, 2018

The City of Cambridge

Cambridge is well known, in both Great Britain and throughout the world, for its highly respected University that is currently ranked third in the world. Cambridge, despite not having a cathedral, was granted a city charter in 1951 and is located in the south-east of England in the region of East Anglia and within the county of Cambridgeshire. Though the University is arguably one of Cambridge’s best known features, settlement in the Cambridge area has a long history that stretches back to the Iron Age. This article looks at five interesting things from Cambridge’s history that you may not have heard before.

The River Cam
The River Cam | Source

1. Bridge Over the River Cam?

What came first the river or the settlement? Over the centuries there have been a variety of settlements in the Cambridge area. There is evidence of both a 3,500 year old farmstead and the archaeological evidence of an Iron Age settlement. The first record we have of a named settlement, however, is a Roman settlement. The Romans arrived in the mid-1st century AD and built a settlement on Castle Hill. This Roman stronghold was called Duroliponte and remained in use until the Romans left Britain in the 5th century. After the departure of the Romans, the Saxons moved into the settlement and renamed it ‘Grantebrycge’ which meant ‘bridge over the river Granta’. Why then, if the settlement was built on the river Granta, is the river today known as the river Cam? Over the course of the Norman period, the town became known as Grentebrigge and later, Cantabrigge, place names that were possibly easier to pronounce. The river, however, remained the Granta. Over the years the name of the settlement eventually morphed from Cantabrigge into Cambridge. Eventually, in a bizarre etymological twist, the river was renamed the ‘Cam’ to fit in with the town’s new name.

Bedels from Cambridge, 1815 (Bedels are administrative officials)
Bedels from Cambridge, 1815 (Bedels are administrative officials) | Source

2. Town v. Gown

Today Cambridge is one of England’s eminent university towns, but the relationship between the University and the rest of the city has not always run so smoothly. The conflict between a town or city and the university is often referred to as ‘town vs. gown’ in a reference to the gowns worn by students, especially those from Cambridge and Oxford. What you may not know is that the roots of the University of Cambridge can be found in town vs. gown conflict in Oxford. According to Roger of Wendover, a monk from St. Albans, in the early 13th century a clerk from Oxford was involved (either intentionally or accidentally) in the death of a woman and fled the city. The authorities, as a result of their search for the clerk, arrested three other clerks that the accused had rented a house with and put them in prison. Within a few days the three clerks were hanged on the orders of King John. This incident led to large numbers of both masters and pupils leaving Oxford and taking up their studies in Cambridge.

Peterhouse College - the oldest college at the University
Peterhouse College - the oldest college at the University | Source

Despite the relocation to East Anglia, the University that was formed in Cambridge still came into conflict with townspeople throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. The townspeople felt that the students caused too many disturbances and the students believed the citizens of Cambridge were overcharging for rent and food. The townspeople and local authorities also resented the amount of power that had been awarded to the University. The University was able to regulate bread, ale, fuel and candles. King Henry III intervened in 1231, forbidding the townspeople from overcharging students on rent. The animosity remained, however, and there were several clashes between town and gown throughout the 13th and 14th century. Times did change though, and the relationship between the city and the university is now very good.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell | Source

3. The Head of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, best known for his involvement with the English Civil War and his role as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, has a number of ties with Cambridge. He was educated at Sidney Sussex College at the University of Cambridge and later became the Member of Parliament for the city. One of his ties with the area that may not be so well known is the fact that Cambridge is the location of a secret unmarked grave. When Cromwell died, most likely of septicaemia, in 1658 he was buried in Westminster Abbey after an extravagant funeral. Three years later, after Charles II was restored to the throne, his body was exhumed and given a posthumous execution. The body was hanged in chains and then beheaded at Tyburn. The head was displayed on a spike for almost 25 years until a storm broke the pole and the head fell to the ground where it was stolen away.

Sidney Sussex College
Sidney Sussex College | Source

The skull passed through the hands of private collectors for many years until it was inherited by Horace Wilkinson. Wilkinson wanted to give the skull a proper burial and contacted the University of Cambridge. The head was buried in March 1960 in a secret location close to the antechapel in Sidney Sussex College with only a few witnesses. The burial was not announced until 1962 and the exact location is still a secret to this day. There is some debate over whether or not the skull belonged to Cromwell, or even whether the body that was exhumed was even his. There is some belief that his body was reburied in several different locations to protect it from royalists wanting revenge. However, most evidence points to the fact that the skull buried in Cambridge is that of Oliver Cromwell.

4. Football Rules

Neville's Court, Trinity College
Neville's Court, Trinity College | Source

As well as ties with 17th century political figures, Cambridge also has links to the development of football. It cannot be claimed that Cambridge invented football, as evidence of football in England dates back to the 8th century, but the city and the University in particular did have an influence on the formation of official football rules. Members of the University and representatives from Harrow, Rugby and Eton, among other prestigious schools, met at Trinity College in 1848. At this meeting the Cambridge Rules were drawn up. These new rules included an early form of the offside rule and also had provisions for goal kicks, throw-ins and forward passes. The idea behind it was to formulate a set of rules for students from different schools and universities who previously had all played to different rules. The rules did not really catch on outside of public schools and universities, but as one of the first formulated sets of rules, they had an important influence on the creation of the modern rules for football drawn up in 1863 by the Football Association.

Buildings in the Cambridge Science Park
Buildings in the Cambridge Science Park | Source

5. Silicon Fen & the Cambridge Phenomenon

Finally, a more modern fact about Cambridge that you may not be aware of is the city’s reputation and influence in the technology sector. Cambridge has developed a strong technological industry and has come to be referred to as ‘Silicon Fen’. The name is both a reference to ‘Silicon Valley’ in America and the fenland around the city of Cambridge. The presence of the University and the lack of any major rival manufacturing industries in the city have led to the creation and development of a number of high-tech businesses, many with a focus on electronics and biotechnology. The businesses are often started up by academic staff, university graduates or students mainly because the University’s research facilities and its generous attitude to intellectual property rights have promoted a good atmosphere for new business opportunities. The area is now seen as Britain’s ‘cellular valley’ and is home to between 1,000 and 3,000 (usually small) technology companies that generate millions in revenue. This development of the high-tech industry in the area is known as the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon’ and has been going since the 1960s.

Where is Cambridge?

A markerThe City of Cambridge -
Cambridge, UK
get directions

Questions & Answers

    Comments & Questions

    Submit a Comment

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 5 years ago from India

      Hey this is a good hub. Thanks for sharing :)