18 July 2013

Visiting the Round Church ... a
landmark building in Cambridge

The Round Church is a landmark building on Bridge Street, close to Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I have often passed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the corner of Bridge Street and Round Church Street, close to Sidney Sussex College and Saint John’s College. Popularly known as the Round Church, it is a landmark building in Cambridge.

During a break earlier this week in the summer school at Sidney Sussex College, I took an opportunity to visit this intriguing building, which is one of only four round churches that survive to this day in England.

The popular mythology that all mediaeval round churches belonged to the Knights Templar is without historical foundation. The Round Church was built in Cambridge ca 1130 by the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre.

The brothers of the fraternity were probably a group of Austin canons, and were given the land by Abbot Reinald of Ramsey between 1114 and 1130. The Austin Friars had their principal house in Cambridge at the nearby Hospital of Saint John, later the site of Saint John’s College, across the street from the Round Church.

They were influenced by the design of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a round church or Rotunda in Jerusalem, built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century on the site of Christ’s tomb and the Resurrection.

Most churches in Western Europe are cross-shaped in their floor plan and in England there are only four other round churches like this one, all built after the First Crusade.

The church was built in the Norman or Romanesque style, with thick pillars and rounded arches. At first consisted of a round nave and an ambulatory, with a short chancel, probably in the shape of an apse.

Initially, the church was a wayfarers’ chapel serving travellers along the main Roman road – the Via Devana, now Bridge Street – just outside the town.

By the mid-13th century, the Round Church had become a parish church under the patronage of Barnwell Priory. Around this time, structural alterations were made to the church, with the rebuilding of the chancel and the addition of a north aisle, with the aisle shorter than the chancel.

During the 15th century the Norman style windows in the nave were replaced by larger Gothic style windows. The carvings of angels in the roofs of the chancel and aisle were added. A heavy, polygonal gothic tower or bell-storey was built over the round nave in the 15th century.

In 1643-1644, during the Civil War, the Puritans destroyed many of the images in the church they regarded as “idolatrous.” William Dowsing refers to the destruction of the church in his journal on 2 January 1644: “We break down 14 superstitious Pictures, divers Idolatrous Inscriptions, one of God the Father, one of Christ and of the Apostles.”

The weight of the massive the 15th century Gothic tower was too heavy and it collapsed in the round ambulatory in 1841. The Cambridge Camden Society offered to repair the church and appointed Anthony Salvin to carry out the work.

Salvin replaced the bell-storey with a conical spire which he believed was similar to the original roof faithful to the nave’s Norman origin. At the same time, the 15th-century Gothic windows were replaced by windows in Norman style, and a formerly-inserted gallery was removed, together with the external staircase leading to it.

To compensate for this, a new south aisle was added. It was found that the east wall of the chancel was unstable and this was replaced. Then the north aisle, by that time in poor condition, was also rebuilt, extending it to the same length as the chancel.

The original estimate for the cost of the restoration was £1,000 (£70,000 in today’s terms in 2013), with the parish paying £300 (£20,000 in 2013). Finally, the restoration cost almost £4,000 (£290,000 in 2013), with the parish providing only £50 (£4,000 in 2013).

The communion table, dating from 1843, was made by Joseph Wentworth. In 1899, a vestry was added to the north of the north aisle.

The East Window depicts the Risen Christ in Majesty (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

During World War II, the Victorian East Window was destroyed by a bomb in 1942. It was replaced by a modern window portraying the Risen Christ in Majesty, triumphant over death and suffering. The cross is depicted as a living tree with leaves that are for “the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22: 2).

The decorated Norman west door into the Round Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The church is entered by a Norman west doorway with three orders of colonnettes, decorated with scalloped capitals and zigzags, and crenellations in the voussoirs.

The church is built in stone. Its plan consists of a circular nave surrounded by an ambulatory, a chancel with north and south aisles and a north vestry. Over the nave is an upper storey surmounted by a conical spire. To the north of the church is an octagonal bell-turret containing two bells.

The Romanesque arches inside the Round Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Between the ambulatory and the nave are eight massive Norman columns and round arches. Each of the capitals of the columns is carved with a different design. Part of the vault of the ambulatory has dog-tooth ornamentation. In the ambulatory and nave are carved human heads dating from the 19th century. Above the nave is a triforium containing double Norman arches.

To the east are the chancel and aisles. In the chancel and the north aisle are carved angels dating from the 15th century which are attached to the corbels supporting the roof. Some of the angels are holding or playing musical instruments.

There are two bells in the bell-turret. One of these is dated 1663 and was cast by Robard Gurney; the other is a priest’s bell, possibly cast by J. Sturdy of London between 1440 and 1458.

Most of the stained glass in the church was introduced during the 19th century restoration and was designed and made by Thomas Willement and William Wailes.

The vestry added to the north of the north aisle in the 19th century was extended in 1980. But by then the congregation in the Round Church was overflowing, and the building was too small for their numbers. In 1994, they moved down Bridge Street and Sidney Street to the much larger church of Saint Andrew the Great, by Lion Yard, opposite the gate of Christ’s College.

The church is designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building. Christian Heritage now manages the building, with an exhibition on the story of Cambridge and the impact of secularism on western culture. Behind the church is the Union Building, the red brick Victorian home of the university debating society.

The other surviving mediaeval round churches in England are the Temple Church in London, Little Maplestead in Essex, and Saint Sepulchre’s in Northampton.

The Round Church at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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