Cambridge Law - Then & Now

The History of Law at Cambridge

Legal study at the University of Cambridge began in the thirteenth century. The Faculty of Law was flourishing by the 1250s, and may date back to the origins of the University itself in the early thirteenth century.

Law has been studied at the University continuously since that time, though the formal study of English law – as opposed to Roman law and the canon law of the church – is a much more recent development.

While the Faculty of Canon law was closed by Henry VIII in 1535, study of Roman law continued, and only in the eighteenth century did English law begin to be taught in English universities. Before that time, the schools of English law were in London, in the inns of court, which emerged in the mid fourteenth century.

Formal teaching of English law began in Oxford in the 1750s, and in Cambridge the Downing professorial chair of the Laws of England was provided for in 1749 in the will of Sir George Downing, though protracted litigation over the will delayed establishment of the chair until 1800.

The modern undergraduate Law course, the Law Tripos, has its origins in reforms of the 1850s. Roman Law remains part of the course, but has been joined in the last century and half by a wide range of other subjects.


Legal study at the University of Cambridge began in the thirteenth century

In the period since the formal establishment of the teaching of English law in Cambridge the Faculty has included many scholars and teachers of renown, perhaps pre-eminent among them F.W. Maitland (1850-1906), Downing Professor of the Laws of England, one of whose students observed that his teaching and scholarship gave ‘an idea of the importance, of the significance, of the splendour’ of the study of law, such that it was impossible thereafter ‘to regard the law merely as a means of livelihood’. This is the tradition of legal study at the University of Cambridge, now eight centuries old, in which today’s Faculty of Law seeks to follow.

Original Law School