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The old Squire

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.

Original Law SchoolWhile 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.

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.

The new Faculty building

New Law SchoolThe Cambridge Law Faculty and the Squire Law Library are housed in a building which is both distinctive and successful and has been our home since 1995.

Designed by the already Sir Norman Foster, now Lord Foster, OM, in the early 1990s, it makes a bold contribution to the University’s Sidgwick site.

There are two magical times to approach the building: the first is the evening when the building blazes with light; the other is after fresh snow.  No wonder that one guest to Cambridge put the Law Faculty building as the second most wonderful building here - after King's College chapel.

The structure of the Law Faculty building is simple. A long building with an arch of glass to the north and solid sections beyond, which encases six floors, the lowest underground, and with a distinctive taper to a sharp west end. The top three floors provide the latest home for the Squire Law Library.

Teaching rooms are spread throughout the building, as are rooms for Faculty members and research students. A five-storey atrium dominates the prow and at lower ground level there is a cafeteria, and a large area for sitting and chatting. Wide and generous staircases run along the side of the atrium allowing easy movement between the floors and the casual informal interaction of people coming and going. Sometimes there is the excitement of watching the cleaners as they abseil their way down the great fritted glass windows.

New Law SchoolThe building was designed to bring all the Faculty teaching into one place – we had previously lectured on many different sites - and to support the never-ending increase and variety of teaching formats and resource needs. In all this we get full support from our highly-skilled administrative team.

The whole purpose is to enable all who come here to work to carry out their research and learning in an atmosphere of collegiality and intellectual challenge. In this it succeeds.

David Wills, Squire Law Librarian