Early History of the University of Cambridge

Early History of the University of Cambridge

October 14, 2019 17 By Stanley Isaacs


So that’s how Cambridge got founded right? Well, not quite, for example not all students
and faculty left to Cambridge from Oxford, a large portion of them went to the much closer
town of Reading where they hoped to wait out until the University of Oxford reopened. So that begs the question of why did some
students and faculty decide to relocate all the way east to Cambridge? Well, turns out not even the geniuses that
came out of the University of Cambridge for the past 8 centuries could figure out a definitive
answer to this question. However, there are a couple of details that
may shine some light on this. For one Cambridge was a well established town
in England gaining its charter in the early 12th century, it also was quite wealthy due
to it being the center for trade in the Fenlands ever since the Viking era and had a legal
monopoly over all waterborne traffic. This combined with the fact that around it
there where numerous religious establishments (Ely Cathedral, Crowland Abbey, Barnwell Priory)
which are vital for the creation of a medieval university, it seems like Cambridge as a town
was a very good candidate for the formation of a second English studium generale. But this still doesn’t explain why the masters
and students from Oxford traveled so far east when a much closer town of Northampton, was
arguably an even better fertile ground for the creation of a university than Cmabridge
was. Maybe we have to look at it from the point
that these people leaving Oxford didn’t want to establish a new university, but if
they didn’t want to establish a new University and just wait until Oxford was reopened, why
not go to Reading with all the other students and faculty or any other much closer town
to Oxford than Cambridge. To answer that we have to look at the people
that actually came to Cambridge from Oxford. Turns out that at least three masters that
taught at Oxford where from Cambridge, the most notable of which was John Grim a “master
of the scholars” at Oxford, which is a fancy way of saying that he was the chancellor of
the University of Oxford before the suspension. So it might as well have been that the masters
simply went back home to wait out the suspension of the University of Oxford, with some students
and other faculty members following them along as to establish a temporary colony where masters
could continue to teach and students could continue to learn. Then after the 5 year suspension of Oxford
ended many of the students and faculty returned, but not all. Why didn’t everyone return back to Oxford
is another question there isn’t a good answer to. It is probably a combination of several possible
factors, including better prices for housing that could be gotten thanks to the contact
of the several masters that were from Cambridge, the aid given by the local bishop of Ely and
the fact that the university had a high future possibility for endowment as the city had
a thriving merchant community and a Jewish community that could give out potential loans. Plus over the course of the 5 years as masters
taught in the town, the University of Oxford colony at Cambridge attracted many new students
and faculty from Eastern England as many of these people didn’t want to travel all the
way to Oxford. All these factors, resulted in that the masters
and students which decided to stay at Cambridge after Oxford reopened, quickly established
a growing center of higher education. This center was then boosted in population
by the establishment of the Franciscans house in 1225. After that, only 6 years later the University
of Cambridge was officially founded receiving a royal charter from Henry 3rd, which allowed
the university to officially act as an independent legal corporation within the town. Funnily enough even though the University
of Oxford acted as an independent entity for almost a century now it didn’t receive its
royal charter until 1248, 17 years after Cambridge, so as royal charters are concerned Cambridge
is technically older than Oxford. During the 1250s a new problem started to
emerge not just in Cambridge but also at Oxford. This problem was a tribelistic division of
the student and faculty predicated on geographical differences. Meaning the northerns hated the southerners
and vice versa, at Cambridge this culminated in the 1260 riots were Southerners attacked
the Northerners who promptly retaliated. After this the northerners from both universities
left for Northampton where they started to set up their own University, which by the
way is technically the third ever University founded in England. But these northerns made a giant mistake,
they involved themselves heavily with the Second Barons’ war against Henry the 3rd
who besieged Northampton and won. He promptly dissolved the new university and
banned any new establishment of a university in Northampton ever again which by the way
had to be officially repealed in 2005 so the current University of Northampton could exist. With this defeat the northern students returned
back to their respective Universities at Cambridge and Oxford. To avoid something like this ever happening
again Cambridge and Oxford both imposed an oath that they will not let anyone establish
any new universities in England or let any masters teach anywhere in england outside
of the two already existing universities. Which is by the way the reason why no new
English University was established until the 19th century. When it came to student and faculty housing
at Cambridge, early on most housing was provided by hostels and also some halls. Now yes these where the cheapest accommodation
in the city, but they weren’t as bad as you’re picturing. Some of the largest hostels had their own
halls, chapels, libraries and even galleries. Plus they were to the dismay of the townspeople
what we would now call rent controlled by the decree of the king, meaning no price gouging
could happen. Later on just as with Oxford halls these Cambridge
hostels would either die out or evolve into today’s colleges. The life in these early colleges and hostels
wasn’t as peaceful as one may think. Many of these institutions were heavily divided
depending on the subject, meaning one hostel may have only had arts students/masters while
another had only law students/masters. These divides resulted in even more tribalism
than already present at the University and fights amongst different hostels and colleges
was a common occurrence on the streets of Cambridge. For example in 1500 a short account speaks
of a 2 day battle between a Hostel and the Christ College, all while St Clement’s Hostel
decided to join in, picking a fight quote “against all comers”, because why not. In another similar instance in 1521 the scholars
of Garret Hostel today part of Trinity College decided with some other hostels to organize
a raid against Gonville Hall today part of Gonville & Caius College. During their initial attack they were unable
to penetrate in to the hall and so proceeded to start a fire at the west gate of the hall,
hoping to burn down the gate. This plan proved effective and they stormed
the Hall where they looted the premises and drank all the liquor they could find, whatever
liqueur they were unable to finish they simply poured out. The colleges and hostels also had a prevalent
culture of hazing amongst the members. For example a punishment for breaking the
hostels rules may have involved something called sconcing. Where the accused would be forced to drink
from a large vessel called the sconce pot that could have been as large as 2.1 liters
and filled to the brim with beer. However sometimes to mess with the people
the beer would be salted or the pot would be filled with other kinds of unsavory liquids. If the accused finished the pot in one go
he wouldn’t have to pay a fine for breaking the rules, however if he didn’t, he either
paid the fine or was forced to pay for the entirety of the drink in the vessel. Even though sconcing was initially used as
a punishment later on it involved in to a more of a drinking game which is still allegedly
practiced in some university circles today. Going in to the 14th century there isn’t
that much we know about the university other then that it expanded in scope and many new
colleges were established. Up until now outside of the hostels there
was just one college at cambridge and that was the Peterhouse, but in the 14th century
the number of colleges expanded drastically, going from only one college in 1320 to 8 colleges
in 1352. This growth would however be stopped just
as in Oxford by the black death and its frequent resurgences the following decades. It devastated Cambridge killing the entire
castle side of the river and as much as half of the towns population. However that wasn’t the only bad news for
Cambridge during this century. The emergence of the Black death and the death
that came with it created many socio economic and political changes across England most
of them favoring the lower classes. Obviously the aristocracy wasn’t happy with
this and tried everything they could to curb back these changes, in response the Peasants
rebelled all over England, starting what is now aptly named the Peasants’ Revolt. During this tumultuous time the Cambridge’s
town and gown problem reached its height. In 1381 as the rest of England was rebelling,
the townspeople decided it was time to deal with these annoying and pretentious students
and masters of the so called University of Cambridge. They gathered in a mob, elected leaders and
went on a rampage. First they looted and destroyed a house of
a high ranking master at the University and then they set their sites on the Corpus Christi
College. They looted the old court of the college and
burned any books, charters, and endowment papers they could find. The rioters then turned to assaulting other
properties of the University until they made their way to the Great St Mary’s church
where a common chest of the University was kept. They took the entire contents of the chest
including, papal bulls, university charters and many other documents. They did the same with another University
chest kept at the Carmelite friary. After two days of pillaging the University
all the documents and books gotten by the townspeople were promptly burned in ceremonial
bonfire set up in Market Square. This rioting along with the entire Peasants’
Revolt was eventually put down, but the damage was already done. Many books and documents were destroyed and
much of the university damaged. In fact it is mainly due to this 1381 riot
that we don’t know much about the early history of the University of Cambridge. Many documents were destroyed and therefore
it is hard to tell what actually happened at the University before the 14th century. None the less the townspeople were punished
by the king and the University received many new rights giving it a lot more control over
the town’s trade, politics and overall economy. To ensure that no riot in the future can grow
so strong as the 1381 did. That is where I will end this video. Hope you enjoyed my, somewhat continuation
of the Oxford video, I thought it might be interesting to look in to the University of
Cambridge history after finding out how interesting the Oxford History was. None the less I would officially love to thank
the staggering amount of you that came here from oversimplified, you tripled my subscriber
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