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The History of Cambridge

Cambridge is most famous for its historic university. However, Cambridge is far older than the university.

The original settlement was north of the river, on Castle Hill. There is evidence for pre-Roman activity in the area, but the Romans built the first town. It was a convenient crossing point of the river Cam, on the edge of the marshy fen land. The town was a port, since it was the head of the navigation of what was then known as the River Granta. The area by Magdalene Bridge is still known as Quayside(see right), although now it only has punts. St Peter's Church, halfway up Castle Hill, has pieces of Roman tiles in its walls.

In Anglo Saxon times, there was a settlement on Castle Hill, since it could be defended, and another close to St Benedict's Church, or St Bene't's as it's known in Cambridge. The tower of St Bene't's is Saxon (see left), which makes it the oldest building in Cambridge. The city at the time was called Grantabrycge. At one time it came under Danish rule. St Clement's Church is near Quayside, and this dedication is common in Danish settlements. The Great Bridge (later replaced by Magdalene Bridge) may have built by King Offa (756-793AD). It was the last river crossing until King's Lynn. Cambridge had good trading links to the Continent and a market, and became prosperous.


The Normans built a castle on Castle Hill in 1068. It was particularly important to fortify Cambridge, since Hereward the Wake was defying Norman rule in Ely. All that is left of the castle is Castle Mound (see right) and a few stones in the grounds of Shire Hall, off Castle Hill, belonging to Cambridgeshire County Council. If you climb to the top of the mound, you get a good view of Cambridge. It is the highest point of Cambridge, and allegedly, if you go north in a straight line, there is no higher ground until you reach the North Pole!

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (usually known in Cambridge as the Round Church) is one of only four round Norman church in England (see left). They were built by the Knights Templar. The round arches are typical of Norman church architecture. The Leper chapel on Newmarket Road is another Norman chapel.

By now, the town was known as Grentebrige or Cantebrigge. Eventually the name became Cambridge. However, the river was still called the Granta. Someone thought "Cambridge must be the bridge over the Cam, so the river should be called the Cam instead of the Granta", and so the river's name was changed! Upstream, where it flows through Grantchester, the River is still called the Granta. The Latin name for Cambridge is Cantabrigia, which is why degrees are called Cantab. This was not the Roman name for the town. The Roman settlement was called Duroliponte.


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