Saint Bene’t’s Church is the oldest building in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
An anonymous 19th century ballad, The Freshman and the Dean, is a reminder of how Cambridge undergraduates were expected to “keep” chapel twice on Sundays four times during the week:
It was a fast Freshman who slumbering lay
At a quarter to eight by the right time of day,
Yet still did he slumber, nor heeded the bell,
Which so early did ring him to morning Chapel.
Yes, time flies away and such changes it brings.
That it’s hard to believe in the Oneness of things!
For an acorn grown old as an oak may be seen.
And a Freshman himself may some day be a Dean!
There’s a hurrying of Gownsmen, their Chapels to keep,
But this gay gallant Freshman lay soundly asleep;
The psalms were all sung and the prayers were all said,
But this fastest of Freshmen lay fast in his bed !
’Twas past ten o’clock, when our hero at last
Was leisurely taking his morning repast.
When a neat “billet-doux” from the Dean did arrive,
Requesting his presence at quarter past five.
“How now, Mr Newman, this must not go on,
Sunday morning Chapel is a sine qua non
In the future don’t give me occasion to speak,
But keep two on each Sabbath and four in the week.”
“Mr Dean,” said our Freshman, “I'm in your bad books,
But I’m sure that my fault’s not so bad as it looks,
For to Chapel each morning in spirit I go,
Though my body sleeps snugly in bed as you know.”
“Oh, if that be the case,” said the Dean with a frown,
“You are free. Sir, (in spirit) to roam through the town.
But remember, or treatment more stringent awaits,
That your body, this week, will keep snug within Gates.”
This moral, my friends, you may all take to heart.
In your dealings with Dons, it don’t pay to be smart;
For, ’though briefly you score in an elegant way.
They’ve a card up their sleeve when it’s their turn to play!
During this week, I have been attending chapel in Sidney Sussex College most evenings. But I could not say any morning that “my body sleeps snugly in bed.” I’ve been skipping out of Sidney Sussex most mornings to attend the Daily Eucharist at 8 a.m. in Saint Bene’t’s, a short walk away at the corner of Bene’t Street and Free School Lane.
Tucked into a corner of Corpus Christi College, Saint Bene’t’s is beautiful and ancient church, appreciated by many for its history and architecture. The name of the church may have inspired the setting for Susan Howatch’s third set of three novels – the Saint Benet’s Trilogy – although the novels are is set in the fictional Saint Benet’s Church in London in the 1980s and 1990s.
But this church is also an oasis of calm in the middle of the university and the city. There are many other historic and notable Anglican churches nearby – Saint Botolph’s, Saint Edward’s, Great Saint Mary’s and Little Saint Mary’s – to say nothing of the chapels of the many Cambridge college. But there is something special and something deeply spiritual about Saint Bene’t’s.
The interior of Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The oldest building in Cambridge
Saint Bene’t’s is an ancient parish church, the oldest building in Cambridgeshire, and has been a place of Christian worship for almost 1,000 years. This is an Anglo-Saxon foundation dating from around 1020, when Canute was King of England. The church is dedicated to Saint Benedict, yet, despite of its name, St Bene’t’s was never a monastic place of worship, and has been a parish church from the very beginning.
The Saxon tower was probably completed around 1033. The tower has distinctive “long and short” corner dressings of Barnack stone, and the bell opening is carved from a single stone. All four original Saxon cornerstones or quoins can still be seen inside the church, along with the magnificent Saxon arch. The round holes in the tower are said to have been made to encourage owls to nest and catch mice.
Although the tower may have been built to hold bells from the beginning, the earliest record of bells in the tower only dates from the 13th century – when the bell of St Bene’t’s was used to call students to special lectures and to examinations.
The rector of the day, Alan, complained about this in 1273, but the Bishop of Ely persuaded him to allow the bell to be used “in a civil and honest way.” After that, the parish clerk was paid an annual fee of 6s 8d for ringing the bell to call the students.
The arcading separating the nave and the south aisle dates from around 1300. To the south or right of the altar, are two curved ogee arched recesses dating from the 14th century. One arch houses the sedilia or seats for the officiating clergy – the priest, deacon and subdeacon; the other arch once held the piscina, the shallow basin used for washing the Eucharistic vessels and for the disposal of water used sacramentally, with a drain direct to the earth.
Close to Corpus Christi
Blind recesses on the south side of the transept in Saint Bene’t’s … they once opened into a room that is now part of Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
In the 14th century, the church was used by some of the Cambridge guilds, and in 1352 the Guild of Corpus Christi, which met at Saint Bene’t’s, joined with the Guild of Saint Mary, which met at Great Saint Mary’s Church, the University Church, to found the College of Corpus Christi.
For many decades after the foundation of Corpus Christi, the college had no chapel, and the members worshipped at neighbouring Saint Bene’t’s Church. Saint Bene’t’s was used as the college chapel for many years and the two still have strong links. Tiny peepholes in a wall at the east end of the south aisle indicate a 16th century staircase leading to an upper room. The staircase is now blocked off, and the upper room is part of Corpus Christi College.
The Pelican, the symbol of Corpus Christi College, on a hassock in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The association between the church and the college was so strong that Corpus Christi was popularly known as Bennet College, and in the early 16th century a gallery was erected connecting Old Court and the church.
On the floor near the staircase is a brass to Richard Billingford, DD, Master of Corpus Christi and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who died in 1432. He wears a doctor’s cap, and the robe called a cappa clausa, which is still used for some university ceremonies.
Last year, for the first time since probably the 16th century, the Corpus Christi Day procession took place from Saint Bene’t’s to Corpus Christi College.
The bells of Saint Bene’t’s
In 1553, the church had “thre great Belles and one Sanctus Bell.” The oldest surviving bell in the church is the second, dated 1588. The third bell, dated 1607, bears the inscription: “Of all the bells in Benet I am the best, and yet for my castings the parish paid lest.”
The bells continued to be used for summoning to “ye schooles ... acts, clearums, congregations, lecturs, disses, and such like,” according to a receipt for a fee of 6s 8d dated 1624.
However, by 1650 the bells were “much out of frame and almost become useless.” In 1655, the churchwardens appealed for money to repair the bells. The university gave 30 shillings, with the caveat that it was a free gift was not to be regarded as setting a precedent. Corpus Christi College also gave money. Today there are six bells, dated 1663, 1588, 1607, 1825, 1610 and 1618.
Rebuilding and retention
The Victorians rebuilt the chancel and the chancel arch in the 19th century, adding new clerestory windows and a new roof, as well as widening the north and south aisles. The north and east walls of the chancel were rebuilt in their original positions, but the south wall, which may be part of the original Saxon church, was retained.
Some of the items of historical interest that have been retained in the church include a 13th century coffin lid, a late mediæval iron-bound chest, a funeral bier, refectory table and bench from the 17th century, and an 18th century fire hook for pulling burning thatch from the roof.
There is also a modern icon of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – the church was staffed by Franciscans for 60 years from 1945 to 2005 – as well as a crucifix carved by a sister of the Community of Saint Clare, and ‘The Passion,’ a modern sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta.
Since 1578, there have been 73 incumbents at St Bene’t’s and 52 of these have been members of Corpus Christi. Most did not stay long, perhaps because there was no rectory and they had to move elsewhere when they married. Many had distinguished careers, including eight who became masters of Corpus Christ College, four who became bishops and two who became archbishops.
Those former vicars include Michael Ramsey, who was here in 1938 and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He is still remembered fondly, and the Ramsey Rooms, created at the west end of the south aisle in 2002, beside the tower, are used for Sunday School and other meetings.
The most recent Vicar of Saint Bene’t’s was the theologian, writer and broadcaster, the Revd Angela Tilby, who has also been a tutor in Church History at Westcott House on Jesus Lane. She had been vicar from 2007, and she spent her last Sunday in the church earlier this month on 3 July before leaving to take up a new position as a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
The church continues the rhythms of common daily prayer today, with the Eucharist at 8 a.m. each morning and Evening Prayer at 6 p.m.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
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