The Origin of Cambridge University

Anglo-Saxon Cambridge <- Introduction -> The Town Charter
There is no record of a definitive foundation of the University. It probably grew naturally out of schools, as was usual for early universities.

Schools were usually for supplying the Church with literate recruits and were often sponsored by the Church. Scholars would form a guild for mutual protection and advantage, much like merchants, and this would be called a university, meaning simply a community.

Oxford University was formed in this way in the latter twelfth century, much like Paris (1119) and Bologna (1088). There is no firm date but it seems to be recognisably functioning by about 1190.

The chronicler Roger of Wendover recorded the following event. In 1209 an Oxford student apparently killed a woman and in revenge a mob of townsmen seized two or three other students and hung them, apparently with the King's blessing. At this time the King was in dispute with the Pope over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope had excommunicated the King. This meant that the Church was in a weak position and could not insist on the normal rights of the clergy such as the right to try clerks in holy orders. The University suspended its operations, probably out of fear as much as a protest, and its members dispersed, notably to Reading (being convenient), Cambridge and Paris.

Once the dispute was resolved and a new Archbishop appointed, the Church imposed a heavy penalty upon the town, part of which was an annual fine which lasted until 1984.

There is no documentary clue as to why some came to Cambridge. It is likely there were appropriate schools here already - ones of advanced study - but there were many towns with such at that time, particularly Northampton (which nearly rivalled Oxford), Lincoln, York, London, Hertford and Exeter. It does seem from recent research that at least some of them were originally from Cambridge or the surrounding area.

Some of the early papers of the university (and perhaps some precursors) were destroyed in a riot by townsmen in 1381 (or possibly a smaller one in 1385), which may explain the lack of early documentation. However enough early charters do survive to suggest that there is no missing charter creating a University before 1209.

The Black Book of New College, Oxford, records the existence of a Chancellor by 1226.

King Henry III was wholly in favour of the University and probably granted its first charter (which hasn't survived). He'd invited students from the University of Paris to come to England after disturbances in 1229. In 1231 he intervened in town versus gown troubles, one side saying there were many rebellious youths claiming to be scholars but not, and the other saying that townspeople were charging exorbitant rates in inns and lodging-houses. He ordered that lodging-house charges be supervised (as was customary in a University) by two Masters and two honest townsmen called Taxors. This system survived until 1856.

In 1233 the Chancellor and the Bishop of Ely successfully petitioned Pope Gregory IX for absolution to be granted by the Bishop, saving a long journey to Rome by offending students, and for students to be tried only by courts within the Diocese of Ely so long as they were prepared to be tried by the Chancellor or the Bishop.

After a period of disturbances around 1262, some scholars left for the newly-established university at Northampton, along with some from Oxford. King Henry III had approved its formation in 1261. In 1264 the King laid siege to Northampton (as part of the baron's rebellion) and was opposed by students of the University, so the University's licence was revoked. Also bishops were opposed to it and persuaded the King to ask the scholars to return to their former places.

The Bishop of Ely, Hugh de Balsham, decided to have some scholars join the monks in his Hospital of St John but they didn't mix well, so in 1284 he moved the scholars to two houses near St Peter's church, thereby founding St Peter's House, the first college.

A Papal decree in 1318 confirmed the University was a studium generale, authorising its doctors to teach anywhere, and exemption from the spiritual authority of Bishop and Archbishop. Oxford never received this papal recognition, possibly due to the taint of the Wyclif heresy.

A studium generale had an international reputation & membership whereas a studium particulare had local students only.

Anglo-Saxon Cambridge <- Introduction -> The Town Charter
Cambridge : History