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In 1209, in the aftermath of the hanging of two scholars for the murder of a local woman, the University of Oxford went into voluntary suspension and its scholars dispersed to Paris, Reading and Cambridge. Cambridge was no centre of studies, but its group included a local man, John Grim, possibly as their leader, who had held the office of Master of the Schools. He and several others were simply coming home, temporarily as they thought.

As the University grew it began to develop a system of self-governance, aspects of which are still features of Cambridge. The medieval statutes, for instance, were a living tradition, modified as organisational needs required and supplemented by custom. Their modern descendants continue to determine the way the University is organised and run. But academic processes were also subject to change. Before the advent of written examinations around the turn of the nineteenth century, verbal disputations formed part of the exercises for degrees.

Self-governance and academic activities have left a paper (or parchment) trail in the University Archives. The earliest records are charters of kings and bishops granting and confirming rights and privileges; that is to say, the University’s muniments, or defences, against a potentially hostile world. Of these, the earliest surviving is a Letters Patent of 1266 granting the Chancellor and Masters the right to a quinquennial assessment of the rents of houses in Cambridge occupied by scholars. The charters were stored in chests, together with other University property, first in the tower of Great St Mary's church, later in the Schools quadrangle.

From 1454 onwards, proposals for decision by the University’s governing body were recorded in a series of Grace Books. The Proctors had this duty at first, but in 1506 it passed to the newly created office of Registrary. He is the key figure for archival purposes; charged with keeping, as in compiling in registers, records of student enrolment or matriculation, admission to degrees, proceedings in both University courts including probate, annual audit of accounts, copies of official letters issued, elections to office, among a host of administrative business.

With the Victorian reforms of the University from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, recognisably modern series of records begin: minutes of the Council of the Senate, the new executive body, for instance, or of the General Board of Studies overseeing the University’s teaching mission.

The University Archives comprise the internal administrative records of the University and do not include records of the Cambridge Colleges which are in the keeping of College archivists. Despite the longevity of some of the records within the University Archives, the archives themselves are fairly recent arrivals at Cambridge University Library. Until 1972 when they were shipped over from the, by now, Old Schools in the town centre, the University’s records, ancient and modern, lodged with the officials whose work they documented and directed. In other words, in a decentralised University, the archives comprised the working library of the Registrary and his, still few, staff. Expanded accommodation at the University Library has allowed the transfer in recent decades of significant quantities of records generated by departments, faculties and schools, museums, research centres, botanic garden, observatory and other bodies which previously formed no part of the archives.

For a general introduction to the archives, see H.E. Peek and C.P. Hall, The archives of the University of Cambridge (Cambride: Cambridge University Press, 1962).

Catalogues of the University Archives are available to browse and search online as part of Janus, the internet resource for catalogues of Cambridge archives. In addition, see D.M. Owen, Cambridge University Archives: a classified list (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). There is further information on the history of Cambridge University, and how it works, on the University website.

For enquiries relating to the University Archives, contact Jacqueline Cox (jc10021@cam.ac.uk), Keeper of the University Archives.