The University of Cambridge is rich in history – its famous Colleges and University buildings attract visitors from all over the world. But the University’s museums and collections also hold many treasures which give an exciting insight into some of the scholarly activities, both past and present, of the University’s academics and students.
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The University is one of the world’s oldest universities and leading academic centres, and a self-governed community of scholars. Its reputation for outstanding academic achievement is known worldwide and reflects the intellectual achievement of its students, as well as the world-class original research carried out by the staff of the University and the Colleges.
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Many of the University’s customs and unusual terminology can be traced to roots in the early years of the University’s long history, and this section of our website looks to the past to find the origins of much that is distinctive in the University of today.
Find out more
- Discover the earliest written records of the University
- Read about the medieval University
- Learn about the University’s move towards independence
- Read about the first University buildings
- Read about the University in the 16th century
- Read about the University in the 17th and 18th centuries
- Read about the University in the 19th and 20th centuries
- Read about the University’s history since 1945
A timeline of the University of Cambridge
Cambridge through the Centuries
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1200s | 1300s | 1400s | 1500s | 1600s | 1700s | 1800s | 1900s | 2000s
Year Event 1209 Groups of scholars congregate at the ancient Roman trading post of Cambridge for the purpose of study, the earliest record of the University. 1284 Peterhouse, the first college at Cambridge, is founded by the Bishop of Ely. 1347 Mary, Countess of Pembroke, founds Pembroke College. 1446 Henry VI, founder of Eton and of King’s College, Cambridge, lays the first stone of King’s College Chapel. 1503 Thomas Cranmer, aged 14, enters the newly-endowed Jesus College. 1511 Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, founds St John’s College. 1516 Erasmus, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, works on his translation of the Greek New Testament and on textbooks which were to become the staple of the ‘new learning’. His work led to him being considered the most important scholar of the Northern Renaissance. 1533 Thomas Cranmer ends his career in Cambridge to become the first post-reformation Archbishop of Canterbury. While in the post, he annuls Henry VIII’s marriages to Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn and divorces him from Anne of Cleves. He is also largely responsible for the Book of Common Prayer, the official directory of worship of the Church of England. 1546 Henry VIII founds Trinity College, Cambridge. 1584 The Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest-established press, begins its unbroken record of publishing every year until the present. 1600 Dr William Gilbert of St John’s publishes his ‘De Magnete’, a scientific work fundamental to the development of navigation and map making. 1625 John Milton enters Christ’s, where he studies until 1632. Five years later, on the death of his friend, Edward King, he writes Lycidas, recalling in pastoral terms their days together. 1627 John Harvard enters Emmanuel College as an undergraduate. He later emigrates to America and, in 1638, re-endows the college which now bears his name, at Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1628 William Harvey of Gonville and Caius College, publishes his celebrated treatise, ‘De motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus’, (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), describing his discovery of the mechanism of blood circulation. 1675 Charles II appoints John Flamsteed to the new post of Astronomer Royal. The following year, Flamsteed, educated at Cambridge, institutes reliable observations at Greenwich, near London, providing data from which Newton is later able to verify his gravitational theory. 1687 Isaac Newton publishes ‘Principia Mathematica’, establishing the fundamental principles of modern physics. 1704 The Plumian chair of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy is endowed by Thomas Plume of Christ’s. Subsequent incumbents include Roger Cotes, Sir George Biddel Airy, who was responsible for the first public observatory in Cambridge, James Challis, Sir George Darwin, son of the naturalist Charles Darwin, Sir Fred Hoyle and Sir Martin Rees. 1711 Richard Bentley, Regius Professor of Divinity from 1717, completes his edition of the Latin poet, Horace. His editing and interpretation of classical texts inspires all later generations of classics scholars. 1762 The University’s first Botanic Garden is endowed by Richard Walker of Trinity. 1776 Cambridge graduates, Thomas Nelson, Trinity and later of Virginia; Arthur Middleton, St John’s and later of South Carolina and Thomas Lynch, Gonville and Caius and also of South Carolina, are among the signatories of America’s Declaration of Independence. 1784 The Rt Hon William Pitt of Pembroke is elected MP for the University at the age of 25, a year after becoming Prime Minister. 1791 Wordsworth goes down from St John’s, later to become Poet Laureate. Just a few months afterwards, his great literary companion and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enters Jesus College. 1805 Lord Byron enters Trinity and starts writing his early satires and poems. 1806 Viscount Palmerston is elected to Parliament three years after entering St John’s, beginning a distinguished lifetime’s career in Government, much of it as an MP for the University. He served two terms as Prime Minister, the first of which saw his vigorous prosecution of the Crimean war with Russia in 1855. 1812 Charles Babbage, while an under-graduate at Peterhouse, has his first ideas for a calculating machine and later starts work on his ‘difference engine’, which he never completed but which heralds later inventions leading to the modern computer. 1829 Alfred Tennyson, Trinity under-graduate, is awarded the Chancellor’s medal for his poem, ‘Timbuctoo’. In 1850, he publishes his major poetic achievement, ‘In Memoriam’, the elegy mourning the death of his friend, Arthur Hallam, also of Trinity, and succeeds Wordsworth as Poet Laureate. 1829 also sees the staging of the first Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford, won by Oxford. 1831 Charles Darwin of Christ’s is recommended by Botany Professor John Stevens Henslow to join HMS Beagle as the naturalist on its scientific survey of South American waters. 1847 Prince Albert, Consort of Queen Victoria, is elected Chancellor and becomes an influential voice for reform. 1849 Thomas Babington Macaulay, Fellow of Trinity, publishes volumes one and two of his immensely popular ‘History of England’. 1851 The Natural Sciences Tripos is first examined, loosening the stranglehold of mathematics and classics on the syllabus, and opening the door to modern studies of the arts and sciences. 1869 Emily Davies and others found Girton College, the first residential university-level institution of higher learning for women. 1870 William Cavendish, seventh Duke of Devonshire, endows the University’s new Cavendish Laboratory for the study of experimental physics. Total cost: £8,450. 1871 James Clerk Maxwell returns to Cambridge as the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. Two years afterwards he publishes his ‘Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism’ and later outlines his theory of electromagnetic radiation, confirming him as the leading theoretical physicist of the century. 1888 Frederic William Maitland is appointed Downing Professor of the Laws of England. He remains the outstanding figure in the understanding of the Mediaeval History and Law of England. His work secures Cambridge as one of the world’s leading centres for the study of legal history. 1897 J.J. Thomson, Cavendish Professor of Physics, discovers the electron, laying the foundations for the whole of modern physics, including electronics and computer technology. In following years, inventors use his work to develop new devices such as the telephone, radio and television. 1899 Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf and Thoby Stephen meet as under-graduates at Trinity and form the nucleus of what was to become known as the Bloomsbury Group. 1903 Bertrand Russell, Fellow of Trinity, publishes ‘Principles of Mathematics’, the same year as G.E. Moore publishes his influential ‘Principia Ethica’. In 1913, Russell and A.N. Whitehead publish the even more influential `Principia Mathematica’. It is another four decades before Russell collects his Nobel prize for Literature. 1906 J.J. Thomson collects his Nobel prize for Physics for his work on the electron. 1907 Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India 1947-1964, enters Trinity. 1911 Ludwig Wittgenstein arrives in Cambridge from Vienna to study philosophy with Russell. The work of the two men, with Moore, transforms philosophy during the first half of the 20th century and makes Cambridge the most important centre for philosophical research in the English-speaking world. 1912 During a walk on the Backs, the young Lawrence Bragg has an idea that will lead to his discovery of the mechanism of X-ray diffraction. Three years later, he shares his Nobel prize for Physics with his father, W.H. Bragg. 1918 Following the Armistice, Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s, institutes the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, now broadcast worldwide from King’s College Chapel each Christmas Eve. 1927 George ‘Dadie’ Rylands becomes a Fellow of King’s. His career inspired generations of actors and directors including Derek Jacobi, Michael Redgrave, Daniel Massey, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Jonathan Miller. 1929 Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, Professor of Biochemistry, receives his Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine for discovering vitamins. It was his work which gave rise to the study of a new subject, biochemistry, and inspired Sir William Dunn’s trustees to endow the now world famous Sir William Dunn Institute of Biochemistry. 1932 The atom is split for the first time. The work, giving birth to the study of nuclear physics, is carried out by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, under the direction of Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. Their Nobel prize for Physics is awarded in 1951. In this year, F.R. Leavis, Lecturer in English, also publishes ‘New Bearings in English Poetry’. His distinctive style of literary and cultural criticism influences generations of students in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. 1933 Professor Paul Dirac receives his Nobel prize for Physics. One of the founding fathers of quantum theory, basic to physics, chemistry and mathematics, Dirac also suggested the existence of antimatter, the positron being the first antiparticle to be discovered. Positron Emission Tomography is today a vital technique in many areas of medical diagnosis. Roger Fry becomes the University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art. 1934 Flight Lieutenant Frank Whittle is sent to Cambridge as a mature student by the RAF and enters Peterhouse. He is encouraged to pursue his innovative idea of jet propulsion, patented three years earlier but ignored by the Air Ministry. The University Library moves to its new site across the River Cam, from where it expands to become the largest open access library in Europe and one of five national copyright libraries. 1936 John Maynard Keynes, Fellow of King’s, publishes the revolutionary ‘General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’, following his equally powerful ‘A Treatise on Money’ six years earlier. The Keynsian Revolution, as it became known, changes the view of how economies should be managed. As Bursar of King’s, Lord Keynes also initiated the Cambridge Arts Theatre. 1937 Dorothy Garrod becomes Disney Professor of Archaeology, the University’s first woman professor. Her notable excavations at Mount Carmel cast new light on the origin of our own species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and our links to Neanderthal man. 1941 The first aeroplane to be powered by one of Frank Whittle’s revolutionary new jet engines takes to the air. 1944 G.M. Trevelyan, Professor of Modern History, publishes his pioneering work, English Social History, a companion to his History of England, 1926. 1948 Women are admitted to formal membership of the University and permitted to graduate in the same manner as male students. The first honorary degree given to a woman is conferred upon the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. 1949 Maurice Wilkes develops the EDSAC, Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator, the first stored program digital computer to work successfully. 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson discover the structure of DNA, unlocking the secret of how coded information is contained in living cells and passed from one generation to the next – the secret of life. Their discovery opens the door to the study of an entirely new science – genetics. 1954 Dr Joseph Needham, Master of Gonville and Caius and already eminent in biochemistry, publishes the first volume of his ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, the start of a massive enterprise, vastly expanding our knowledge of China and its civilisation. 1955 Sylvia Plath, Marshall Scholar at Newnham, continues correspondence to her mother, later to be published in the book, ‘Letters Home’. 1958 Frederick Sanger of the University’s Department of Biochemistry, wins the first of his two Nobel prizes for Chemistry for determining the specific sequence of the amino acid building blocks which form the protein insulin. 1960 Sir Charles Oatley, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University’s Department of Engineering, leads a team which develops the first scanning electron microscope, arguably the most important scientific instrument to be developed in the last 50 years. The instrument is later adapted to write the masks for today’s electronic chips. 1962 Max Perutz establishes and directs the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, a notable example of close working relations between the University and other leading research establishments. Crick and Watson share the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for their discovery of the structure of DNA with Maurice Wilkins of the University of London. At the same ceremony, Max Perutz and John Kendrew share the Nobel prize for Chemistry for solving the three dimensional structure of proteins – the catalysts that perform most of the chemical reactions of life. 1968 Anthony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell make the most exciting recent observation in astrophysics by discovering pulsating stars or ‘pulsars’ using Cambridge’s Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory. Their work alters the course of modern cosmology. The new stars provide unique physics laboratories for studying matter in extreme conditions, stimulating research into many new areas of physics. Hewish collects the Nobel Prize for Physics eight years later, sharing it with Sir Martin Ryle, Astronomer Royal, whose technique of aperture synthesis had made many of the observations possible. 1975 Trinity College, under the guidance of Dr John Bradfield, Senior Bursar, founds England’s first science park on the outskirts of Cambridge. 1977 Installation of HRH the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh as Chancellor. 1980 Dr Frederick Sanger, Fellow of King’s, becomes the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes for Chemistry, this time for discovering how to determine the information encoded in DNA – DNA sequencing. 1982 Aaron Klug, of the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, collects his Nobel prize for solving complex three dimensional structures including viruses and RNA molecules. 1984 Ted Hughes of Pembroke College succeeds Sir John Betjeman as Poet Laureate. 1985 Cesar Milstein, fellow of Darwin College, collects his Nobel prize for his work on monoclonal antibodies, the original `magic bullets’. His method of producing unlimited supplies of highly specific antibodies opens a new route for attacking unwanted cells such as cancers – revolutionising all aspects of medicine from pure research to drug design. 1988 Professor Stephen Hawking, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, publishes his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’ one of the best selling scientific books of all time. He is already eminent for his work on black holes and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. 1989 The Cambridge Foundation is formed, with the aim of raising £250 million over ten years for research and development in the University. 1990 The Royal Greenwich Observatory relocates to Cambridge, confirming the city among the world’s leading centres for the study of astronomy and astrophysics. Its founder in 1676, John Flamsteed, also studied at Cambridge. The Institute of Management Studies is named the Judge Institute following an £8 million benefaction from the businessman, Paul Judge. Mr Simon Sainsbury gives £5 million to support the Institute the same year and Mr Peter Beckwith pledges £1 million the following year. 1993 The Royal Commonwealth Society Library moves to Cambridge. The Granta Backbone Network is completed, providing the University with on line computer links across Cambridge via a network of fibre optic cables running under the streets of the mediaeval city. The project allows the University to become an early site for connection to SuperJANET and the Internet. 1995 Professor Sir Martin Rees, Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, 1973-91, and a Royal Society research professor at Cambridge, follows in the footsteps of many of his predecessors by taking up his appointment as Astronomer Royal. The University mounts ‘Foundations for the Future’, the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, marking the achievements of Cambridge University. 1996 H.M. The Queen visits Cambridge to open the new Law Faculty and Judge Institute of Management Studies buildings. The Institute of Biotechnology is awarded the Queen’s Award for Technology for its work on protein purification. Professor James Mirrlees is awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. 1997 Professor Michael Pepper and his team discover a new standard for electric current. The Cavendish Laboratory marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the electron. Mrs Molly Maxwell becomes Cambridge’s oldest graduate at the age of 105. 1998 A special ceremony at the Senate-House marks the 50th Anniversary of women gaining full membership of the University. 1999 Cambridge-MIT Institute set up to improve entrepreneurship in Britain. Cambridge Scientists identify gene causing diabetes and high blood pressure. 2000 Development begins on West Cambridge Site. Gates Scholarships go live. $210 million endowment to provide international scholarships in perpetuity. 2001 Launch of the new Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Britain’s first Park & Cycle facility opens on the University’s West Cambridge Site. Opening of the new BP Institute at Madingley Road, Cambridge. 2002 The William H Gates building opens, the first on the University’s major new science and technology West Cambridge site. 2003 Professor Alison Richard becomes Vice-Chancellor. Work starts on a £42 million state-of-the-art cancer research facility, which will create the largest concentration of researchers in Europe. 2004 Fitzwilliam Museum unveils a £12 million transformation, creating the new Courtyard Development and purpose built education rooms. Opening of the Faculty of English Building on the Sidgwick Site and the University’s first ever purpose-built staff accommodation at West Cambridge. 2005 Opening of the Institute of Criminology building on the Sidgwick Site and the Faculty of Education building on Hills Road. H.M. The Queen visits Cambridge to open the Centre for Mathematical Sciences and attend the Quincentenary celebrations at Christ’s College. The University launches its 800th anniversary appeal to raise £1 billion by 2012. 2006 The University announces the formation of its first Investment Board to advise it on all matters relating to its endowment, and the appointment of its first Chief Investment Officer. The Registrary of the University celebrates 500 years of history, one of the longest continuously-held offices in UK higher education. The £14 million new home for the Electrical Engineering Division of the Department of Engineering is opened at West Cambridge. 2007 Her Majesty the Queen opens the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus next to Addenbrooke’s Hospital. A day of celebrations marks the thirty years that Prince Philip has served as Chancellor of the University. 2008 Cambridge Assessment (formerly known as the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate) celebrates its 150th anniversary. 2009 The University of Cambridge celebrates its 800th anniversary. 2010 Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz becomes Vice-Chancellor. 2013 Development begins at North West Cambridge. The Institute of Continuing Education celebrates its 140th anniversary. 2015 The University of Cambridge Primary School, the first primary University Training School in the UK, opens for its first pupils. 2016 The University Library celebrates its 600th anniversary. The Fitzwilliam Museum celebrates its 200th anniversary. 2018 Professor Stephen J Toope becomes Vice-Chancellor. The University Library’s £17m Library Storage Facility opens in Ely. The Cambridge-Africa Programme celebrates its 10th anniversary and now supports research in Africa with 50 partner institutions across 18 countries.