1385/1386 – Founding

On 23 October 1385, Pope Urban VI approves the founding of the university in Heidelberg by Elector Palatine Rupert I. Instruction begins a year later on 18 October 1386 in three faculties: theology, jurisprudence and philosophy. Medicine follows two years later in 1388. The first rector is Marsilius von Inghen of the Netherlands; the first professors come from Paris and Prague.

1556-1617 – First Golden Age

After assuming power in 1556, Elector Palatine Otto Henry converts the university into a reformed protestant institution and in 1558 establishes new statutes that remain largely in force until 1786. The university enjoys a period of great prosperity. Esteemed as a centre of the European sciences and culture, the university's international appeal draws professors and students from all over Europe.

Charter of Heidelberg University from the 1st October 1386

1618-1652 – Destruction and Reopening

The university is hit hard by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Teaching is suspended several times. In 1623, the Bibliotheca Palatina, one of the most valuable collections of German manuscripts of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age, is carted to Rome in reparation for the war. The university reopens in 1652.

1688–1800 – Decline

The university’s arduous comeback after the Thirty Years’ War shatters with the complete destruction of Heidelberg by the troops of King Louis XIV in the Palatine War of Succession (1688-1697). The university remains closed until 1703. Finally, in 1712, the cornerstone is laid for a new university building, today's Old University. For numerous reasons, not the least of which is financial mismanagement, the university experiences a period of decline through the end of the century.

1803–1900 – Second Golden Age

In 1803 the university is acquired by Baden and reorganised as a state-financed academy following an edict of Charles Frederick of Baden. In 1805 it is named Ruperto Carola – a combination of the name of the university’s founder Rupert and Charles Frederick, Grand Duke of Baden. As a cosmopolitan and liberal university, Heidelberg enjoys its second golden age during the 19th century. Through the work of Robert Bunsen, Gustav Kirchhoff and Hermann Helmholtz, the natural sciences in particular reach a zenith.

1900–1923 – Women Admitted to Heidelberg University

Around the turn of the century, the Baden state government permits women to enter the university for the first time. In April of 1900, Georgine Sexauer from Karlsruhe is the first female student to enter her name in the Matriculation Register of Ruperto Carola. Finally, in the year 1923, Gertrud von Ubisch is the first woman to receive her professorship in Heidelberg.

1933–1945 – Decline during the National Socialist Era

With the rise to power of the National Socialists, 59 of 214 Heidelberg academics are expelled and disenfranchised for “racial” or “political” reasons. In a move that symbolises the malevolence of the period, the sculpture of Athena and the inscription “Dem lebendigen Geist” (To the Living Spirit) are removed from above the portal of the New University in 1936. They are replaced with an oversized eagle and the words “Dem deutschen Geist” (To the German Spirit).

1946–1967 – Reopening and Expansion

After the end of the war, instruction resumes gradually. The first rector of the post-war period is the surgeon Karl Heinrich Bauer. The university now begins to spread out over three campuses: in the Old Town (humanities), in Bergheim (medicine), and, beginning in the 1960s, in Neuenheimer Feld (natural sciences, medicine).

1968–1974 – Overcrowded University and Student Riots

This period is characterised by increasing student numbers and a progressive differentiation of the disciplines. After the student riots that marked this era, the university is given a new basic order in 1969. The five faculties are temporarily divided into sixteen (the number is reduced to twelve in 2002).

1975–2005 – Expansion and Internationalisation

Heidelberg University succeeds in enhancing its outstanding reputation and the related attractiveness for international students, doctoral candidates and researchers. 2002 sees the opening of the Heidelberg Center Latin America in Santiago de Chile, the first of now four centres abroad of Ruperto Carola in South Asia, North and Latin America, and Japan.

2006–2018 – Excellence Initiative

Heidelberg University is successful with all six proposals in the two rounds of Germany’s Excellence Initiative in 2006/2007 and 2012. It receives funding for its institutional strategy “Heidelberg: Realising the Potential of a Comprehensive University”, two Clusters of Excellence and three graduate schools. From October 2010 to October 2011 the university celebrates its 625th anniversary true to its motto Zukunft. Seit 1386 (The Future. Since 1386).

Since 2019 – Success again as a University of Excellence

With its institutional strategy “The Comprehensive Research University – Heidelberg: The Future since 1386” and two Clusters of Excellence, the university holds its own in the Excellence Strategy of the Federal and State Governments and is one of the group of ten Universities of Excellence and one Excellence Alliance in Germany to receive funding from 2019. On 1 October 2021, the Faculty of Engineering Sciences is founded as the university’s thirteenth faculty