The history of Cambridge has more to offer than just its university status. Although pre-Roman material has been found it is believed that it main phase of settlement began in Roman times, establishing a port and a castle along the important river trade route from King’s Lynn to London. Not a great deal of the castle remains visible apart from here and there in the city (Cambridge was not granted city status until 1954) where its components have been reused over the ages


In the time of the Anglo-Saxons parts of the river portage game under Viking rule and that area became know as GrantaBridge, In their turn the Normans decided to re build on the castle site in 1068 to fortify the city against the followers of, for example of  Hereward the Wake who was then defying Norman policy close by at Ely.


Saxon Cambridge


In the Bronze Age and the Iron Age there were settlements on the site of Cambridge. Then in the 1st century AD the Romans built a fort on Castle Hill. However this fort was abandoned at the beginning of the 5th century AD as the Roman Empire declined.

The modern city of Cambridge was founded in 875 when the Danes conquered Eastern England. They created a fortified town called a burgh (from which we derive our word borough) on the site. Cambridge would have been surrounded by a ditch and an earth rampart probably with a wooden palisade on top.

In the 10th century Cambridge was captured by the Saxons. However in 1010 Cambridge was burned by the Danes. That was an easy task when all the buildings were of wood with thatched roofs. On the other hand if Cambridge was burned it could be easily rebuilt.

By the 10th century Cambridge was flourishing and it had a mint. It was also the administrative centre for the area and so it was a town of some importance, although it would seem tiny to us.

By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 Cambridge probably had a population of about 2,000. By the standards of the time it was a medium sized town. Later in the Middle Ages the population of Cambridge probably rose to about 3,000.


In 1068 William the Conqueror visited Cambridge and ordered that a castle be built there. At first it was of wood but in the 12th century it was rebuilt in stone.

Medieval Cambridge prospered because it was located on the river Cam that in turn flowed into the Great Ouse. That river flows to the sea at Kings Lynn, which in the Middle Ages was a large and important town. In those days it was much easier and cheaper to transport goods by water than by land. The Cam acted as an ‘artery’ through the Fens. Grain from the land surrounding Cambridge was taken to Kings Lynn then transported by sea to London and exported to other parts of Europe.



Then in the 13th century friars arrived in Cambridge. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. In Cambridge there were Dominican friars (known as black friars because of their black costumes). There were also Carmelites (known as white friars) and Franciscans (known as Grey friars).


In 1654 a writer said Cambridge was situated in a low lying and dirty place. The streets, he said were badly paved and the air was infected by the fens.


In 1728 it was estimated that the population of Cambridge was 6,179. (There were also 1,599 inhabitants of the university). By the standards of the time Cambridge was a fair sized town.


Addenbrookes Hospital opened in 1766 after a man named Dr John Addenbrooke left money in his will for its establishment. In the early 19th century Addenbrookes became a school of medicine.



In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe said of Cambridge: ‘the trade of the town very much depends on them (the colleges) and the tradesmen may be said to get their bread by the colleges, and this is the surest hold the university may be said to have of the townsmen and by which they secure the dependence of the town and consequently their submission.’


In the early 19th century goods were still transported to and from Cambridge by river. Coal was brought to Cambridge and agricultural goods such as grain and butter were taken to Kings Lynn to be transported to London.