By the late 12th century, the Cambridge region already had a scholarly and ecclesiastical reputation, due to monks from the nearby bishopric church of
Ely. However, it was an incident at
Oxford which is most likely to have formed the establishment of the university: two Oxford scholars were hanged by the town authorities for the death of a woman, without consulting the ecclesiastical authorities, who would normally take precedence (and pardon the scholars) in such a case, but were at that time in conflict with
King John. The University of Oxford went into suspension in protest, and most scholars moved to cities such as
Cambridge. After the University of Oxford reformed several years later, enough scholars remained in Cambridge to form the nucleus of the new university.
 In order to claim precedence, it is common for Cambridge to trace its founding to the 1231 charter from
King Henry III granting it the right to discipline its own members (ius non-trahi extra) and an exemption from some taxes (Oxford would not receive a similar enhancement until 1248).
bull in 1233 from
Pope Gregory IX gave graduates from Cambridge the right to teach "everywhere in
 After Cambridge was described as a
studium generale in a letter by
Pope Nicholas IV in 1290,
 and confirmed as such in a bull by
Pope John XXII in 1318,
 it became common for researchers from other European
medieval universities to visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.
Foundation of the colleges
colleges at the University of Cambridge were originally an incidental feature of the system. No college is as old as the university itself. The colleges were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments, called hostels. The hostels were gradually absorbed by the colleges over the centuries, but they have left some indications of their existence, such as the name of Garret Hostel Lane.
Bishop of Ely, founded
Peterhouse, Cambridge's first college, in 1284. Many colleges were founded during the 14th and 15th centuries, but colleges continued to be established until modern times, although there was a gap of 204 years between the founding of
Sidney Sussex in 1596 and that of
Downing in 1800. The most recently established college is
Robinson, built in the late 1970s. However,
Homerton College only achieved full university college status in March 2010, making it the newest full college (it was previously an "Approved Society" affiliated with the university).
medieval times, many colleges were founded so that their members would
pray for the
souls of the founders, and were often associated with chapels or
abbeys. A change in the colleges' focus occurred in 1536 with the
Dissolution of the Monasteries. King
Henry VIII ordered the university to disband its Faculty of Canon Law
 and to stop teaching "
scholastic philosophy". In response, colleges changed their curricula away from canon law, and towards the
classics, the Bible, and mathematics.
Nearly a century later, the university was at the centre of a Protestant schism. Many nobles, intellectuals and even commoners saw the ways of the
Church of England as being too similar to the Catholic Church and felt that it was used by the Crown to usurp the rightful powers of the counties.
East Anglia was the centre of what became the
Puritan movement. At Cambridge, it was particularly strong at Emmanuel, St Catharine's Hall, Sidney Sussex and
 They produced many "non-conformist" graduates who greatly influenced, by social position or pulpit, the approximately 20,000 Puritans who left for New England and especially the
Massachusetts Bay Colony during the
Great Migration decade of the 1630s.
Oliver Cromwell, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War and head of the English Commonwealth (1649–1660), attended
Mathematics and mathematical physics
Examination in mathematics was once compulsory for all undergraduates studying for the Bachelor of Arts degree, the main first degree at Cambridge in both arts and sciences. From the time of
Isaac Newton in the later 17th century until the mid-19th century, the university maintained an especially strong emphasis on
applied mathematics, particularly
mathematical physics. The exam is known as a
 Students awarded
first-class honours after completing the mathematics Tripos are termed
wranglers, and the top student among them is the
Senior Wrangler. The
Cambridge Mathematical Tripos is competitive and has helped produce some of the most famous names in British science, including
James Clerk Maxwell,
Lord Kelvin and
 However, some famous students, such as
G. H. Hardy, disliked the system, feeling that people were too interested in accumulating marks in exams and not interested in the subject itself.
Pure mathematics at Cambridge in the 19th century had great achievements but also missed out on substantial developments in French and German mathematics. Pure mathematical research at Cambridge finally reached the highest international standard in the early 20th century, thanks above all to
G. H. Hardy and his collaborator,
J. E. Littlewood. In geometry,
W. V. D. Hodge brought Cambridge into the international mainstream in the 1930s.
Although diversified in its research and teaching interests, Cambridge today maintains its strength in mathematics. Cambridge alumni have won six
Fields Medals and one
Abel Prize for mathematics, while individuals representing Cambridge have won four Fields Medals.
After the Cambridge University Act formalised the organizational structure of the university, the study of many new subjects was introduced, such as theology, history and
 Resources necessary for new courses in the arts, architecture and
archaeology were donated by
Viscount Fitzwilliam, of
Trinity College, who also founded the
 Between 1896 and 1902,
Downing College sold part of its land to build the
Downing Site, comprising new scientific laboratories for
 During the same period, the
New Museums Site was erected, including the
Cavendish Laboratory, which has since moved to the
West Cambridge Site, and other
departments for chemistry and medicine.
The University of Cambridge began to award PhD degrees in the first third of the 20th century. The first Cambridge PhD in mathematics was awarded in 1924.
First World War, 13,878 members of the university served and 2,470 were killed. Teaching, and the fees it earned, came almost to a stop and severe financial difficulties followed. As a consequence the university first received systematic state support in 1919, and a
Royal Commission appointed in 1920 recommended that the university (but not the colleges) should receive an annual grant.
 Following the
Second World War, the university saw a rapid expansion of student numbers and available places; this was partly due to the success and popularity gained by many Cambridge scientists.
The university was one of only two universities to hold parliamentary seats in the
Parliament of England and was later one of eight represented in the
Parliament of the United Kingdom. The constituency was created by a
Royal Charter of 1603 and returned two members of parliament until 1950, when it was abolished by the
Representation of the People Act 1948.
The constituency was not a geographical area. Its electorate consisted of the graduates of the university. Before 1918 the franchise was restricted to male graduates with a doctorate or
For many years only male students were enrolled into the university. The first colleges for women were
Girton College (founded by
Emily Davies) in 1869 and
Newnham College in 1872 (founded by
Anne Clough and
Henry Sidgwick), followed by
Hughes Hall in 1885 (founded by
Elizabeth Phillips Hughes as the Cambridge Teaching College for Women),
Murray Edwards College (founded by
Rosemary Murray as
New Hall) in 1954, and
Lucy Cavendish College in 1965. The first women students were examined in 1882 but attempts to make women full members of the university did not succeed until 1948.
 Women were allowed to study courses, sit examinations, and have their results recorded from 1881; for a brief period after the turn of the twentieth century, this allowed the "
steamboat ladies" to receive
ad eundem degrees from the
University of Dublin.
From 1921 women were awarded diplomas which "conferred the Title of the Degree of Bachelor of Arts". As they were not "admitted to the Degree of Bachelor of Arts" they were excluded from the governing of the university. Since students must belong to a college, and since established colleges remained closed to women, women found admissions restricted to colleges established only for women. Darwin College, the first wholly graduate college of the university, matriculated both men and women students from its inception in 1964 – and elected a mixed fellowship. Of the undergraduate colleges, starting with Churchill, Clare and King's Colleges, the former men's colleges began to admit women between 1972 and 1988. One of the female-only colleges, Girton, also began to admit male students from 1979, but the other female-only colleges did not do likewise. As a result of
St Hilda's College, Oxford, ending its ban on male students in 2008, Cambridge is now the only remaining United Kingdom university with female-only colleges (Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish).
 In the academic year 2004–5, the university's student sex ratio, including post-graduates, was male 52%: female 48%.
Myths, legends and traditions
As an institution with such a long history, the university has developed a large number of myths and legends. The vast majority of these are untrue, but have been propagated nonetheless by generations of students and tour guides.
A discontinued tradition is that of the
wooden spoon, the 'prize' awarded to the student with the lowest passing honours grade in the final examinations of the Mathematical Tripos. The last of these spoons was awarded in 1909 to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, an oarsman of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of
St John's College. It was over one metre in length and had an oar blade for a handle. It can now be seen outside the Senior Combination Room of St John's. Since 1908, examination results have been published alphabetically within class rather than in strict order of merit. This made it harder to ascertain who was "entitled" to the spoon (unless there was only one person in the third class), and so the practice was abandoned.
Each Christmas Eve, BBC radio and television broadcasts
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sung by the
Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The radio broadcast has been a national Christmas tradition since it was first transmitted in 1928 (though the festival has existed since 1918). The radio broadcast is carried worldwide by the
BBC World Service and is also syndicated to hundreds of radio stations in the US. The first television broadcast of the festival was in 1954.