Philosophy students at the University of Paris, from a 14th-century manuscript. The collegiate system of the University of Paris is thought to have spread to Oxford and Cambridge in the 13th centuryauthor unknown / wikimedia commons

The story is one almost any resident of the city can recount. Some time in the early medieval era, a handful of Oxford scholars upped and left – perhaps in response to always having to use the shoddy park & ride to get anywhere of note – and moved to what was then a sleepy village in the Fenlands. They then came up with the best thing until sliced bread arrived: the University of Cambridge.

The story didn’t always go this way. For much of the 15th and 16th centuries, scholars at Cambridge had serious younger sibling syndrome: ‘How could those simpletons at Oxford have possibly beaten us to the punch?’ One scholar – John Caius (yes, of Gonville and Caius) – came up with the only palatable answer: they didn’t. What followed would become the greatest gaslighting competition in the two universities' histories. 

"Caius proposed that the University had been founded around 375 BC by Cantaber, an exiled Spanish prince”

In 1568, Caius proposed that the University had been founded in around 375 BC by Cantaber, an exiled Spanish prince. Banished from his home country, he had been hospitably received by King Gurguntius of the Britons, given the hand of his daughter in marriage, and with her the eastern part of Britain. The prince is then thought to have founded a city on the River Cante, where he placed and maintained a society of astronomers and philosophers brought from Athens. These scholars were later granted privileges by King Cassibelanus, though many were removed to Rome by Caesar following Cassibelanus’s defeat. The University declined dramatically after the Diocletianic Persecution of 303 AD – in which all Christian students had been massacred – before falling to ruin after the invasion of the Saxons. 

John Caius, Master of Gonville Hall (and master of gaslighting)author unknown / wikimedia commons

This appears to have remained the dominant history into the 17th century. The vice-chancellor, in an address in 1622, calls the University the “poor foster-children of Cantaber,” while an Edmund Eade of Caius College is recorded as having wished great prosperity to the whole Spanish nation, for having been the “mother to the founder of Cambridge.” 

This claim is, of course, ridiculous. The idea that Iron Age Britons were union-hacking or trying to put together an outfit for their Sidgwick Site runway show is one so comical as to not warrant any serious discussion. The only reason such ideas gained any traction is as a result of equally ludicrous stories coming out of Oxford: some scholars had suggested that the University of Oxford had been founded by Greek philosophers under the leadership of Brutus (a great-grandson of Aeneas, of Virgil’s Aeneid) after the Trojan War, approximately 3,200 years ago. Caius’s claim doesn’t appear nearly as absurd in comparison. 

"The supposed original charters were claimed to have been lost in 1430 - an academic misconduct case in the making."

Over the following centuries, many a historian attempted to present their own tale of the University’s legendary foundation. Copies of fictitious royal charters – attributed to King Arthur and King Cadwaladr – and fictitious papal bulls variously claimed the University’s existence in the 6th and 7th centuries. The supposed original charters were claimed to have been lost in 1430 – an academic misconduct case in the making. 

By the 19th century, these theories of medieval foundation largely superseded those of Caius. A historian writing in 1804 remarks that while the “supporters of its antiquity have affirmed that it was founded by Cantaber,” it “appears the honor of founding the University is due to Sigebert, King of the East-Angles, 630 years after Christ.” A historian in 1851 attributes this claim to Bede the Venerable, claiming that in the early half of the 7th century Sigebert established “a school in imitation of certain institutions for education which he had seen in France,” which is “presumed to have been fixed at Cambridge.” Sigebert was recognised as a benefactor of the University as recently as 1914. The University is then thought to have once again fallen into ruin, now on account of the Danish invasion of East Anglia, before having been refounded in 915 AD by King Edward the Elder.

A vintage University postcard from the 1910s/20s bearing the date of Edward the Elder’s supposed foundation of the University - 915ADAyushman Mukherjee for Varsity

There’s just one problem with this account. Some claimed that by the time of the Norman Conquest, the University was of sufficient repute to have attracted King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, as an undergraduate. However, there is no mention of a university in Cambridge – or of anything that may have suggested the existence of such an institution – in the Domesday Book of 1086. As the taxman knows all, it’s probably safe to assume that the university was not pre-Norman.


Mountain View

Oxbridge is what you make of it

We reach firmer ground in 1109, when, in a near biblical setting, four monks are said to have been teaching primitive sciences in a hired barn. Over the following century, the University grew gradually – attracting predominantly students from neighbouring monasteries – and may have been centred on Barnwell Priory, just beyond Midsummer Common. Our first smoking gun, however, is in 1209, when Roger of Wendover recounts the troubles between town and gown in Oxford. The rest is history. And, as a historian in 1864 remarks: “from this small fountain increased to a great river we behold all England made fruitful.”

So did those feet in ancient times walk upon Cambridge’s cobbled streets? Probably not. We have a long, storied history; but it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that it didn’t start in the Iron Age.