27 July 2011

Refreshment for both body and soul in mediaeval Michaelhouse

Trinity Street, Cambridge, with Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I had coffee this afternoon with the Revd Dr Peter Waddell, the Pastoral Dean of Sidney Sussex College, in Michaelhouse, an interesting café located in Saint Michael’s Church in Trinity Street in the oldest part of Cambridge.

Michaelhouse is only a few steps from Sidney Sussex, around the corner at the end of Green Street. It stands opposite Gonville and Caius College and is close to Great Saint Mary’s Church, Trinity College and King’s College Chapel. The café is set within the 14th century church of Saint Michael’s, a parish and collegiate church.

But, while it is an award-winning café and restaurant, Michaelhouse remains a church – you could say it offers refreshment for both body and soul. Church services are held in the chancel several days a week, and the mediaeval Hervey de Stanton Chapel offers a peaceful space that is also a setting at times for concerts.

Michaelhouse recalls the name of one of the earliest Cambridge colleges, which flourished from 13234until 1546, when it was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College. Michaelhouse was the second residential college in Cambridge, following Peterhouse (1284) – although King’s Hall was established in 1317, it did not acquire premises until it was re-founded by King Edward III in 1336.

The Hervey de Stanton Chapel in Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Michaelhouse was founded by Hervey de Stanton, Edward II’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chief Justice of England, who had acquired the advowson (or right of presentation) to the parish of Saint Michael along with property on the High Street.

In May 1324, Edward II granted a royal charter to the new college for scholars in Holy Orders. Three months later, Bishop John Hotham of Ely granted his own charter. De Stanton suggested to the bishop that the master and fellows, who were all priests, could provide daily worship for the parish as they were using the church as their chapel. And so, the first Master of Michaelhouse, Walter de Buxton, was also Vicar of Saint Michael’s.

Around this time, the church was being rebuilt in the Decorated Gothic style, and when de Stanton died on All Souls’ Day 1325, he was buried in the unfinished chancel.

The college continued to acquire more properties, including property between Saint Michael’s Lane (today’s Trinity Lane) and the river, an area now occupied by the south-west corner of the Great Court of Trinity College, New Court, Scholars’ Lawn and the Wren Library, property around Garret Hostel Lane leading down to the river, and a navigable stream.

Nothing much remains of the original Michaelhouse buildings, apart from Saint Michael’s Church. The chancel is three bays long, a bay larger than the nave; both chancel and nave have sizeable side aisles.

The nave was used for parish worship, regular preaching, university debates and lectures. Until a chapel was completed at Gonville Hall in 1396, both Michaelhouse and Gonville shared in the use of the two aisles, with Gonville using the north aisle and Michaelhouse the south.

As a college, Michaelhouse was a study house for clergy with a conservative theological ethos. John Fisher, who was Master of Michaelhouse 1497-1501, was Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was instrumental in the foundation of Saint John’s College and Christ’s College. As Bishop of Rochester, Fisher maintained a conservative stance on the royal supremacy and the reformation measures introduced in the reign of Henry VIII, and he was executed in 1535.

By the time of the dissolution of the monastic houses, Michaelhouse had an income greater than that of Westminster Abbey. Michaelhouse clergy served Saint Michael’s Parish until the college was dissolved by act of Parliament in 1546. It was merged with its neighbour, King’s Hall, to form Trinity College, which is the largest and wealthiest college in Cambridge to this day.

The coat of arms of Trinity College on the north wall of Saint Michael’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Until the completion of Trinity College Chapel in 1565, Trinity used Saint Michael’s as its chapel. As the new chapel was being built, 36 scholars’ stalls from the former chapel of King’s Hall, some with carved misericords, were moved to Saint Michael’s, where they remain to this day.

Trinity College continued to hold the patronage of the living of Saint Michael’s and from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Trinity College fellows were the chaplains of Saint Michael’s.

The interior of Saint Michael’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After a fire in 1849, the church was rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott and his son, George Gilbert Scott junior. Their work included a new stone porch, a new East Window, and a three-tiered new reredos. The artists who worked with Scott included FR Leach, who worked with GF Bodley on the ceiling and frescoes of All Saints’ Church, the ceiling of Jesus College Chapel, and the dining hall ceiling at Queens’ College. Leach painted the chancel ceiling and arches in Saint Michael’s to designs by Scott as a thank-offering, without accepting any payment. Parts of the north aisle had been painted previously to designs by Holman Hunt.

In time, the parish was too small to be sustainable, and it was finally united with Great Saint Mary’s Church, the university Church, in 1908.

By the early 1990s, the church buildings were increasingly in need of significant repair, and an ambitious fundraising and building project began. The Michaelhouse Centre opened in 2002, and is a registered charity. The café is run by Bill Sewell, a restaurateur and food writer who has two other cafés in churches – Café Below in London and Café@All Saints in Hereford. He is an alumnus of Trinity College and was a consultant on the 1990s refurbishment of Saint Michael’s.

Michaelhouse is now a key cultural and spiritual location in Cambridge, a unique community resource in the heart of this city, a place of beauty and tranquillity.

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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