28 August 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
91, The Round Church, Cambridge

The Round Church is a landmark building on Bridge Street in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme this week is churches in Cambridge that are not college chapels. My photographs this morning (28 August 2021) are from The Round, on Bridge Street, Cambridge.

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

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the corner of Bridge Street and Round Church Street, is popularly known as the Round Church and is a landmark building in Cambridge.

This intriguing building 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 that he believed was similar to the original roof and 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, along 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), with the parish paying £300. Finally, the restoration cost almost £4,000, with the parish providing only £50.

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

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 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.

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 that 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 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 in the 19th century restoration and was designed and made by Thomas Willement and William Wailes.

The vestry was added to the north of the north aisle in the 19th century and 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 decorated Norman west door into the Round Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 25: 14-30 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” 21 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” 23 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26 But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.’

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

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (28 August 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, as they rebuild their lives in the wake of the destruction caused by the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Round Church at night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Faith, Hope and Charity depicted in a window in the Round Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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