The University of Cambridge: The archives

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The University of Cambridge: The archives', A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959), pp. 327-329. British History Online [accessed 24 June 2024].

. "The University of Cambridge: The archives", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959) 327-329. British History Online, accessed June 24, 2024,

. "The University of Cambridge: The archives", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, (London, 1959). 327-329. British History Online. Web. 24 June 2024,


The University's muniments (fn. 1) are by origin and by literal interpretation the documents with which it could support its claims of privilege. As such they were the object of attack by the townspeople in times of disturbance. They were burnt during a disturbance in 1261, (fn. 2) and in 1381 many were destroyed in the market-place whither the townspeople had carried them from the tower of Great St. Mary's church. (fn. 3) Thereafter they were moved from place to place until in 1836 they were deposited in the tower of the Pitt Press building. In 1893 a serious fire broke out in the top room of the tower, two stories below which the muniments were stored, but they were removed just in time. (fn. 4) In 1935 they were moved to the Old Schools, and in 1947 were placed in a group of rooms in the western quadrangle, near the University registry. (fn. 5) In 1949 an archivist and an assistant archivist were appointed with the aid of a sum given by the University Press; (fn. 6) in 1953 the posts of keeper and deputy keeper of the archives were established, and from 1954 the full cost of maintaining the archives was placed on the University Chest. These changes left the registrary, whose office was established by Grace in 1506, still ulti- mately responsible for the custody and arrangement of the archives. (fn. 7) At Oxford, on the other hand, there has been a separate office of keeper, and the archives have had a settled home since 1634. (fn. 8)

The earliest surviving document in the archives is one of 1266, being the oldest in the series which records privileges granted to the University. Many of the University's early charters, apparently including those of an earlier date than 1266, are said to have been burnt in 1381. A list of the charters and documents from 1266 to 1544 kept in the registry was published by H. R. Luard, the registrary, in 1876, and this list includes entries from a catalogue of 1420 for documents which had disappeared from the archives by 1876. (fn. 9) An early printed list, made about 1574, includes documents and registers in the registrary's keeping. (fn. 10)

The early statutes of the University were authorized by the University itself and recorded by the proctors. The earliest collection of statutes formed the Old Proctor's Book (or 'Fragmenta Vetera'), some of the folios of which were later removed and rebound in the Junior Proctor's Book. This collection was made about 1398, (fn. 11) possibly to replace documents lost in 1381, and subsequent statutes were added to it. Transcripts of the early statutes, made at various dates and preserved in the archives, include the Senior Proctor's Book (c. 1498), the Old Vice-Chancellor's Book (16th century), and the Black Parchment Book (early 16th century). The Elizabethan statutes of 1570 and subsequent codes derive their authority from the Crown. The most notable printed editions of the statutes at large are those of 1785 (fn. 12) and 1852. (fn. 13) The statutes produced by the University of Cambridge Commissioners under the Act of 1877 were published in 1882, and since then there have been frequent new editions, with supplements published between editions, of the statutes and ordinances. The archives contain, in addition to statutes and early grants, printed Acts of Parliament and Orders in Council relating to the University.

Until the establishment of the office of registrary in 1506 the proctors were also responsible for recording the administrative business of the University. The principal record of such business consists of the series of 'Grace Books', which extends from 1454 to 1870. From 1870 onwards the Grace Books are replaced by the Cambridge University Reporter, an official set of which is kept in the archives. Graces were originally granted, by the Senate, to individuals to exempt them from fulfilling the statutory obligations of the University, and since from the 15th century degrees increasingly became gratiosi rather than rigorosi (fn. 14) the Grace Books provide a sort of register of degrees. In the 16th century the use of graces was extended. Whereas they were originally granted for the benefit of individuals, they gradually came to serve more general purposes. The earliest sign of this change is apparently the Grace for the bedells of 1483–4, which is 'something between a grace and a statute'. (fn. 15) Grace Books A, B, [gamma], and [delta], covering the period 1454–1589, have been published. (fn. 16) Up to 1501 the Grace Books contain, in addition to graces, the accounts of receipts and expenditure made by the proctors to the congregation. From 1501 to 1544 Grace Book B (1488–1544) contains accounts only, the graces for that period being contained in Grace Books [gamma] (1501–42) and [delta] (1542– 89), and from 1544 there is a separate series of audit and account books. For a later period these include the accounts of various syndicates and trusts. An early set of indentures, accounting for the state of the chest at the annual audit, begins in 1363.

No records originating from the caput of the University survive, so that its activities are to be traced only in records from other sources. The minutes of the Council of the Senate, which has taken the place of the Caput since 1856, (fn. 17) are kept in the archives for the period up to 1901. The minutes of syndicates and committees begin in 1737, the first volume including the minutes of all syndicates then existing. Later volumes contain the minutes of separate syndicates, and some of these are retained by the syndicates concerned. Official letters and royal letters and mandates in the archives cover the period from the 16th to the 19th century. The archives also contain a number of ecclesiastical letters and decrees, and papers on University matters, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Two groups of records in the archives (fn. 18) relate to matriculations. First, there are the praelectors' lists, submitted to the registrary by the individual Colleges, which are very rough and usually undated. These survive from about 1589. Secondly, the registrary or his clerk compiled from these lists the matriculation registers which extend from 1544, when matriculation was instituted by statute, to the present. For the earlier years, however, these registers present some inaccuracies and omissions. The principal record of degrees conferred is in the graces listed in the Grace Books. From 1498–9 the graces for each degree are normally accompanied in the Grace Books by the Ordo senioritatis, which was later replaced by the printed tripos lists. (fn. 19) For the period 1491–8 miscellaneous lists of the Ordo survive. The names of graduates given in the Grace Books are supplemented by the supplicats (1568–1870), in which the College concerned certified to the Caput the candidate's qualifications and requested that the degree be conferred, and by the subscription books (1613– 1870), in which candidates for degrees (fn. 20) signified their assent to the declarations in the 'Three Articles'. The incorporation of a graduate of another university took the form of a grace, and until the 17th century was normally recorded in the Grace Books; from the 17th to the 19th century separate volumes record incorporations.

Many of the holders of University offices in the Middle Ages are recorded in the archives in various books of transcripts, notably in that made by Matthew Stokys, registrary, 1558–91. (fn. 21) The Junior Proctor's Book contains, in addition to statutes and miscellaneous memoranda, pages which have been used as a sort of autograph book by the proctors. The register of the admission of proctors covers the period 1720–1890. For the period from 1649 there are in the archives several miscellaneous books relating to professorships, prizes and scholarships.

The University's jurisdiction (fn. 22) in suits in which members of the University were involved is represented in the archives by the records of the ViceChancellor's court and the commissary's court. For the Vice-Chancellor's court there are Act Books (1552–1861), Exhibita (1559–1627), and Depositions (1591–1675); for the commissary's court, Act Books (1580–1746), Exhibita (1580–1692), and Depositions (1580–1640). The probate records of the ViceChancellor's court comprise wills (1501–1765), administration bonds (1541–1746), and inventories (1498–1744). A calendar of the wills, which were transferred to Peterborough Diocesan Registry under an Order in Council of 1857 (fn. 23) and restored to the University archives in 1956, was published in 1907. (fn. 24)

Documents relating to the University's dealings with the town up to the year 1605 are contained in a book in the archives entitled 'Burgus Cantabrigie'. The University, through the proctors, exercised the right of regulating certain aspects of the town's life: (fn. 25) there are court leet rolls and books for the period 1756–82, and in 1596 there begins a series of registers of the assize of bread, of spinning-house committals, and of licences to lodging-house keepers, victuallers, and others. The relationship of the University and the town was adjusted by Sir John Patteson's Award of 1855, (fn. 26) which together with some related papers is contained in two volumes in the archives. The University had courts for the fairs which were under its control: (fn. 27) the act books of the court of Sturbridge Fair cover the period 1562– 1855, and those of the Barnwell Fair the period 1583–1647.

Until recent times the University has owned very little real property in its own right. Nearly all the property which has been administered by the University for any length of time came into its hands as endowments of professorships, and there is in the archives a considerable number of documents, including maps, correspondence, court rolls, and rentals, relating to such estates. Some of these documents are of a much earlier date than the professorships or other special endowments to which the estates pertained: the court rolls of Ovington, a property belonging to the Rustat benefaction for the University library, begin in the reign of Edward III. Connected with these properties are the documents relating to Commissions of Sewers, which cover the period 1618–1827. Of the documents relating to property which did not form special endowments the most important are those which concern the University buildings, or the Old Schools. (fn. 28) The oldest of these is dated 1614, but they are mostly of the 19th century.

As a result, perhaps, of the disturbed history of the archives there were by the second half of the 19th century many miscellaneous documents, manuscript and printed, in haphazard order. Under the direction of H. R. Luard, registrary from 1862 to 1891, these were pasted into guard books, to which subsequent additions have been made. These volumes are arranged into 137 different subjects, some subjects filling more than one volume; many of the documents belong properly to one or other of the groups of documents described above; it appears that the earliest documents in the guard books are of the 16th century. Documents relating to the Colleges figure among the University archives, particularly in the guard books and among the papers concerning real estate which have been mentioned above.

Among the considerable number of miscellaneous collections of transcripts the most useful for the period up to the 16th century were made by the registraries Matthew Stokys (1558–91) and James Tabor (1600–45), (fn. 29) and by Robert Hare (d. 1611), who also gave to the University an earlier collection made by Thomas Markaunt, (fn. 30) Fellow of Corpus Christi College 1417–39. (fn. 31) The 'Liber Rerum Memorabilium' is the most notable among several other miscellaneous collections of the 16th century.

In addition to the Acts of Parliament, the Orders in Council, and the set of the Reporter, which have already been mentioned, the printed material in the archives includes a set of bound volumes of local newspaper cuttings, beginning in 1774, and numerous other printed papers relating to University affairs.


  • 1. Thanks are due to Miss Heather Peek, Deputy Keeper of the Archives, for the help which she gave to the writer of this section.
  • 2. See above, p. 152.
  • 3. See above, p. 8.
  • 4. Cambridge Chronicle, 10 Nov. 1893.
  • 5. Archives, vol. i, no. 5, p. 39.
  • 6. Ibid. 39–40.
  • 7. Statutes Univ. Camb. (1955), 28.
  • 8. Oxford Historical Register (1900), 44.
  • 9. C.A.S. Comm. iii. 385–403.
  • 10. Catalogus Cancellariorum, in M. Parker, De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae (1729 edn.).
  • 11. Comm. Doc. i. 306.
  • 12. Statuta Academiae Cantabrigiensis (Cambridge, 1785); not published—only 35 copies printed.
  • 13. Comm. Doc. i. 305 sqq.
  • 14. Cf. Grace Book A, ed. S. M. Leathes (Luard Memorial Ser. 1897), p. ix.
  • 15. Ibid., pp. ix, 185.
  • 16. Grace Book A, ed. S. M. Leathes (1897); Grace Book B, ed. Mary Bateson (in 2 pts., 1903 and 1905); Grace Book [gamma], ed. W. G. Searle (1908); Grace Book [delta] ed. J. Venn (1910).
  • 17. See above, p. 255.
  • 18. Most of the facts given in this paragraph are set out in more detail in J. and J. A. Venn, Matriculations and Degrees, 1544–1659 (1913), pp. ix–xvi, and in the preface to Venn, Alumni.
  • 19. See Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb., pp. 348 sqq.
  • 20. See above, p. 193.
  • 21. For list of registraries see Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb. 51.
  • 22. See above, pp. 152 sqq., 166.
  • 23. Lond. Gaz. 1857, p. 4275, in pursuance of Court of Probate Act, 1857, 20 & 21 Vic., c. 77; Camb. Univ. Repr. 1955–6, 802–3.
  • 24. Cal. of Wills proved in Vice-Chancellor's Ct. at Camb. 1501–1765 (Cambridge, 1907).
  • 25. See above, p. 157.
  • 26. See above, p. 253.
  • 27. See above, pp. 175, 188.
  • 28. See above, p. 312.
  • 29. For lists of registraries see n. 21, above.
  • 30. D.N.B.
  • 31. Venn, Alumni.