Cambridge University & Town Administration

The Town Charter <- Introduction -> Town & Gown Rivalry
The town fought hard to get a charter making them independent of the sheriff. However in 1242 the King ordered the sheriff to accept requests from the Chancellor to imprison offending students, if the burgesses failed in their duty. In 1249 there was a major disturbance: the King countermanded the order to the Sheriff and sent two justices to investigate.

The town organised occasional tournaments, causing the Chancellor to petition the King to ban them as a distraction to the students, which he did each time, annoying the townspeople. The tournaments went ahead anyway, leading to fines levied on individuals and the town, causing further resentment towards the University.

The King came to Cantebrigge in 1267 with an army to quell rebellious barons in the Isle of Ely; after he left they raided the town. The earliest record of street rubbish collection in the country is when the King granted a charter for litter collection to the town whilst there. A year later he issued a comprehensive charter for the town and University which attempted to control crime, improve trading standards and keep the streets clean. The Chancellor was to be present at the bread and ale assizes to ensure fair quantities.

In 1269 the King again had to order the Sheriff to help the Chancellor whenever the bailiffs and burgesses were incompetent and negligent.

Another visit by the King in 1270 led to a three-way agreement which set up a group of scholars and burgesses bound by personal oath to uphold the peace, root out troublemakers and uphold the privileges of the University. This group came to be known as Great Congregation or Black Assembly and lasted for 600 years. The King also banned tournaments within five miles of the town. This time it was effective though probably because most knights then went on a crusade.

The Chancellor gained more power c1291: he complained to the King about the appalling state of the town streets and the King then made the mayor and bailiffs' expenditure of the pavage (a purchase tax for improving paving) auditable by the Chancellor. However very little paving got done and after about 40 years the town went back to making each householder responsible for his frontage.

In 1294 the King renewed his father's order to the Sheriff to support the Chancellor.

The University was granted the right in 1343 to try students in cases involving loans, purchases of food and various other matters and to punish townsmen for repeated offences regarding selling wine and food.

The Chancellor was granted sole control of foodstuffs for seven years from 1378, as the mayor and bailiffs had failed to hold the weights & measures assizes. After many months of build-up in 1381, there was a period of rioting and looting of University property, only partly related to the simultaneous Peasant's Revolt. University documents were seized by townspeople and burned. This resulted in the King in Parliament assigning full control of weights and measures to the University, including punishment with fines and collection of fees. The town's hard-won rights were suspended for a year in punishment.

Parliament was due to sit in Cambridge for 6 weeks in 1386 so the King ordered the Chancellor to clean up the streets in advance. Parliament met at Barnwell Priory and produced the Statute of Cambridge, making all urban sanitation the responsibility of the local mayor and bailiffs.

In the second half of the Fifteenth Century the University and Colleges acquired by gift and purchase more and more land from the surrounding fields. This was to have great significance later. Far from opposing this, townsmen contributed.

In 1492 the University devised a new weapon against offending townsmen: discommoning (commons were supplies). Persistently offending traders were declared as off-limits to students. This proved highly effective. It was used in addition to fines, excommunication and imprisonment.

The University and town used arbitration for the first time in 1502-3 to solve yet another disagreement over privileges, sponsored by the King's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Three of the King's legal officers arbitrated, with a bond of 500 marks from each side, resulting in a lengthy composition.

The Vice-Chancellor voluntarily renounced his right of excommunication in personal temporal cases in 1533, probably partly for the growing Protestant feeling and partly as discommoning was proving more effective.

The Act of Parliament for the dissolution of Colleges in 1545 was in the pattern of the dissolution of the monasteries and was aimed at colleges, chantries, hospitals, fraternities and guilds. The University managed to persuade King Henry VIII to appoint as commissioners the Vice-Chancellor, Matthew Parker, and two chaplains of the University, with no townsmen. They ensured the King left the Colleges untouched, essentially by a piece of creative accountancy showing they were all poor.

In 1561 Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burleigh), Secretary of State and Chancellor of the University, secured a new charter for the University which confirmed and increased the University's privileges. It now had total control over trading standards and licencing and exemption from all taxes, except for 10 per year paid to the Exchequer. It was exempt from military service and from various other State requisitions.

The charter was renewed in 1589, in an attempt to end quarrels such as over who was entitled to the protection of the University. There was a further renewal and extension in 1605, this time concentrating on illegal entertainments such as bull-baiting in Chesterton - the Vice-Chancellor could ban entertainments within five miles of Cambridge.

By the 1620s and 1630s a number of wealthier townspeople had purchased University privilege, exempting them from various taxes and requisitions such as poor relief. This put a heavy burden on the remaining people.

The Municipal Corporation, Highways and Weights & Measures Acts of 1835 made great reforms but all explicitly preserved the University's privileges. The University ensured the Railway Act of 1844 included clauses granting the University officers powers over University personnel's use of the station and trains. It also banned arrivals between 10am and 5pm on Sundays. Another act of 1844 prohibited any theatre within 14 miles of Cambridge - this remained in force for 50 years.

The Cambridge Award Act of 1856 was the result of several committees and it abolished a number of privileges, such as the compulsory oath for the town officials to protect the University's privileges and the power of the VC to licence public houses (but retaining the power to licence College bars, wine selling and entertainment). Responsibility for weights & measures went to the town magistrates. The VC's right to try all non-felony cases involving University members was also abolished. Most University property became assessable for rates. The VC retained the power to prohibit entertainments, except during the Long Vacation. The Council of the Senate replaced the old Caput. Fellows might marry. Professors were required to be resident.

The University became entitled to 6 members on the Borough council, out of 36, by the Local Government Act of 1889, which included yet another clause protecting the ancient rights of the University. However the University and Colleges, having charitable status, now had to pay 50% rates (100% from 1968). Representation ended in 1974.

After a series of widely-reported cases involving the Vice-Chancellor imprisoning alleged prostitutes in the Spinning House and subsequent legal proceedings, the University decided to cooperate in promoting an Act in 1894 abolishing the VC's powers over sentencing prostitutes (but not for arresting them) and in licencing entertainment.

Proctors still have the right to enter pubs and places of entertainment and the V-C still licences College & University bars, though that right is due for abolition under the 2000 White Paper on licensing reform.


The Town Charter <- Introduction -> Town & Gown Rivalry
Cambridge : History