Trinity College in winter
Cambridge was founded in 43AD by the Roman emperor Cantabrigensis, but remained a dull insignificant market town until the foundation of the university in 1134, at which point it became a dull insignificant market town, with a university.
It was founded by students advisedly fleeing Oxford, who promptly built an institution identical in every respect to the one they had just fled. The first college was Wendyhouse (founded 1078), which eventually decided it was really a men’s college inside a women’s body, and so became Peterhouse. Peterhouse has been exhibiting somewhat strange qualities ever since.
Eventually, the Peterhusians got bored with sleeping with each other (well, some did), and so decided to found another college to provide much-needed variety. This was Maudlin, renamed Magdalene in 1345 in order to avoid confusion with Maudlin, Oxford (which I am reliably told is something to do with a heretical cult who worshipped Mary Magdalene and women of similar morals). At this point, a central university body, known as the Old Schools because its members all went to Eton, was set up, but promptly disappeared without trace and hasn’t been seen or heard of since.
Mathematical Bridge, Queens’ College
There soon followed a rash of college foundations, including Queens’ (not to be refused with Queen’s, queens, or indeed The Queen), Kings, Parker-Bowles’ (renowned for its equestrian endeavours), Gonville and Keys (renamed Caius, [pronounced Girton], for a laugh in 1675), and Jesus Christ’s; so named when Lady Margaret Hall, a virginal lady who liked nothing better than knocking down nunneries to set up establishments of lusty young men, spilt hot sealing-wax at a crucial moment when the charter was drawn up.
Lady Margaret then founded St. Johns (pronounced Sinjun’s) as a tribute to the Queen, and sadly died before being able to enjoy the services of her latest foundation. Not to be outdone, Henry VIII founded Trinity with the proceeds of his Dissipation of the Monasteries, (well, some of them). This college became renowned for its vast land-holdings. It owns Basildon you know, it really does. And parts of Levenshulme. It is said that a Trinity undergraduate can walk from Cambridge to Cirencester without realising he’s left Great Court. This is the origin of the famous Great Court run, where undergraduates run round the court for days on end, looking for Cirencester.
Jesus Christ’s then split in two, with a splinter group claiming they’d go to Christ’s only over their dead bodies. This was the origin of Corpus Christi. There was then a lull until Emmanuelle was founded to produce soft-core pornography.
At this point, it was decided that there had been far too much change in general, so no further change occurred until the nineteenth century. At this point, two radical changes were proposed. One was that the University should become an educational institution, teaching undergraduates useful knowledge instead of the arcane and obsolete ritual into which it had sunk. Fortunately, this proposal was soon seen off, for fear it may prejudice the results of the Varsity match (a competition against Oxford involving student journalists trying to drink each other under the table), and the boat race.
The second proposal, even more daring, was that women be allowed to enter the hallowed portals of the University. This suggestion aroused much protest, but it also aroused many non-Kings fellows who rather felt like entering some hallowed portals themselves, and so it was agreed that women may be admitted to Cambridge, providing they stayed in Girton (a suburb of Oxford), and didn’t try getting any of those nasty ideas into their pretty little heads. Or getting degrees.
The twentieth century has been another time of great flux for the University, and several slight changes have been made over the course of the past hundred years. The women started creeping closer and closer to Cambridge, culminating in New Hall, visible on a clear day from the tower of Great St. Mary’s, (“Great St. Mary’s!” is a popular Cambridge cry of distress, as is “Christ’s Pieces!”). Finally, in the late 1970s and 1980s, most all-male colleges decided to admit women, providing they didn’t have the temerity to actually apply. Or try for a first.