Horrible History

By Oxbridge Tours - Posted on 05 November 2014

To fully appreciate the experience of the Cambridge Ghost Tour, you may want to swot up on some local history. Today Cambridge is a world famous University town, but it has a long and horrid past spanning back to the 1st Century. Let’s track Cambridge’s journey through the shadows of time to discover some gruesome goings on…

Who: Romans

When: 1st century BC
What: Many roman farmsteads and graves have been discovered throughout the Cambridge area, with a whole village upturned in Newnham. As far as we can tell, the Roman settlers were pretty posh- a mass of oyster shells and fineware (snazzy pottery) are among some of the treasures recovered. Perhaps they were holding a May Ball all of their own...

Horrible Fact: The roman way of life was quite strange! There is evidence of using powdered mice brains for toothpaste and washing clothes in human urine, which was also used as mouthwash!
To get your fill of the macarbe, check out Cambridshire's most Haunted here.

Who: Vikings and Saxons

When: 875 AD
What: Arrival of the Vikings was recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle in 875. Within 3 years, the Viking ‘Danelaw’ was ruling practice. The Centre of the Viking town is thought to have been the area we now know as Quayside. Cambridge’s oldest church St Benet’s, dates from this period and was built by the Saxons in 1025, 15 years after the last recorded looting and burning by lovely Vikings in 1010.

Horrible Fact: Violence and bloodshed were a key part of Viking culture, but some men were feared more than others. ‘Beserkers’ (much like these two pictured left) were warriors who entered an uncontrollable, trance in battle, allowing them to show unparalleled strength and fury. These guys are the origin of the English phrase ‘to go beserk’.

Who: Medievals

When: 1068 AD
What: William the Conqueror visited Cambridge in 1068 and demanded a castle to be built upon Castle Hill (pic. right). The medieval town had a weekly  market and a yearly fair that would attract traders from all over the East of England. Cambridge flourished from it’s position on the river and began trading in goods such as wine, fish, salt and leather. In the 13th century, friars arrived in Cambridge to preach and the university was founded, before the town was devastated by the Black Death in the mid 14th century.

Horrible Fact: 40% of Cambridge’s population was wiped out by The Black Death and bodies were often dumped in mass graves that have been filled in and built over- so you never know what (or who) may be underneath you! To find out where the biggest mass grave lies, you’ll have to wait for your Cambridge Ghost Tour...


Who: Tudors

When: 1500’s AD
What: King’s and Queens’ colleges were founded by Henry VI and his wife respectively. The town’s friaries were closed by Henry VIII during the reformation as he finished work on Kings Chapel. Conduits brought clean water to Cambridge and the streets were formally cleaned, however, this wasn’t enough to stop the spread of the Plague, which hit again in 1630. In this period, most of the largest and richest colleges were founded, including St John’s and Trinity (pic. left).

Horrible fact: Tudor dentists used human feces mixed with honey to remove and treat rotting teeth. You can hear more about this, and another bizarre dental practice on the tour, or read about some of the other Cambridge Ghost Tour stories here.

Who: Royalists and Parliamentarians

When: 1643
What: Cambridge was the headquarters of the Parliamentarian military effort during the Civil war. Oliver Cromwell (pic. right), educated at Sidney Sussex college, took control of the town in 1643. In defence, the city’s castle was fortified and some bridges were destroyed. Luckily, Royalist forces only came within 2 miles and eventually the garrison stood down.

Horrible Fact: Charles I wore two shirts to his execution because he didn’t want to risk a shiver from the cold being interpreted as fear to approach the block, before his head was severed.


How are you feeling? See if you are ready to handle the Cambridge ghost tour by taking the Fear it or Not Quiz!

Up next...

Who: Victorians

When: 1845
What: The railway came to Cambridge in 1845 in the height of the industrial revolution, after much initial resistance. It was followed within 50 years by horse drawn trams in the centre (pic. below) and the first installations of electricity. The first girl’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, were founded in this period and women began attending the University.

Horrible Fact: Because of ‘unusual powers’ enjoyed by the University, the Vice-Chancellor headed a special ‘victorian police force’, with the power to detain and punish any young women in the town suspected of prostitution, regardless of evidence.

Check out some of the other stories that we couldn't fit on to the Cambridge Ghost Tour, in the Creepy Colleges Series here!