Punters on the River Cam
Modern day River Cam.

Nestled next to the River Cam, the Cambridge University of medieval England was a completely different institution than today. In its earliest days, the University had no private premises; it used community churches such as Great St. Mary’s and St. Benedict’s as sites for public ceremonies. Lodgings were located on private property, where students were frequently pushed out by landlords or abandoned.

During the late fourteenth century, the University was endowed with property and began construction on a group of buildings called the “Schools,” surviving today as the “Old Schools.” The first School to be finished was the Divinity School, where lectures on religious instruction were held. The Divinity School also housed the University’s chapel, library, and treasury. 

In the thirteenth century, most surrounding private land was acquired by the University, allowing new institutions called “Colleges” to be established. These Colleges were originally only allowed to be for the use of Law or Divinity students. Eventually, the Colleges opened their doors to undergraduates of different areas of study.

The earliest College was St. Peter’s (or Peterhouse), founded in 1284. In the following one hundred years, the Colleges of Michaelhouse, Clare, Pembroke, Gonville Hall, Trinity Hall, Corpus Christi, King’s, Queen’s, and St. Catharine’s were built. The Colleges began to dominate the culture of the University and a number of scholars were attracted to its culture, including Erasmus of Rotterdam. His innovations helped steer the University away from pure theological study to a more philosophically speculative course of education.

Aerial view circa fourteenth century of Cambridge University
Aerial view of Cambridge lands, circa 1690.
Illustration of the Corpus Christi College
Corpus Christi College

Following the English Reformation, Cambridge was a hotbed of religious controversy. Its Colleges each had their own culture and religious leanings; there were Catholic/Protestant tensions, as well as Protestant schisms. 

William Perkins engraving
William Perkins (1558-1602)

Cambridge was home to controversial public figures, including William Perkins, an extreme Calvinist preacher who earned his Bachelor’s in 1581, and was elected a fellow of Christ’s College in 1584. He was famous for his Puritanical sermons, and his success at the University stoked anti-Calvinist sentiment across the country.

This site’s central figure, Christopher Marlowe, attended Cambridge on a “poor boy’s” scholarship, entering Corpus Christi College in December 1580. Although Marlowe’s personal religious views remain ambiguous, no doubt he was exposed to much of the religious debate at the University. Marlowe earned his Bachelor’s in 1584, and after a leave of absence submitted his application for his graduate degree in 1587. It is unclear what Marlowe was up to during his leave of absence, but there is speculation he worked as a Spy for the Queen’s Privy Council in France during these years.

University of Douai illustration
University of Douai

Marlowe returned to Cambridge but he was not received warmly. He was charged by his College on counts of disorderly conduct, and more seriously on charges grounded in suspicions that he left “Cambridge for the University of Douai for good.” The University of Douai was a Catholic institution and the center of many plots against Queen Elizabeth. Marlowe presented a letter of amnesty from the Privy Council, and the University grudgingly obliged him with a graduate degree.

Today the University of Cambridge is home to 31 colleges yet retains its medieval feel in the architecture of the old colleges and parts of the town.

Cambridge University
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