09 July 2018

Great Saint Mary’s, the
University Church in
Cambridge, is as old
as the university itself

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

When I stay in Cambridge, I have come to regard Saint Bene’t’s Church on Bene’t Street, opposite the Eagle, as my parish church. It is just a short, brisk and quick walk from Sidney Sussex College, and I have been welcomed at both the Sunday Parish Eucharist and at the early morning weekday celebrations at 8 a.m.

But there are many churches and college chapels in Cambridge that I have felt welcome in too. In the past, I have preached in the chapels of both Sidney Sussex College and Christ’s College, I have been at both the Sunday Eucharist and Choral Evensong in the Chapel of King’s College, and at the mid-week term-time Eucharist in Westcott House. In addition, I have visited the chapels of most Cambridge colleges, and I have also been at the Sunday Eucharist in Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street, one of the best-known Anglo-Catholic churches in Cambridge.

In all these years, however, I had only occasionally visited the University Church or Great Saint Mary’s Church, and so it was interesting to spend a little extra time in this great church during my visits to Cambridge last week on my way to and from the USPG conference in High Leigh, near Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

Saint Mary the Great is a parish and university church on Senate House Hill, at the north end of King’s Parade, opposite the Senate House and close to both King’s College and Gonville Caius College. It is known locally as Great Saint Mary’s or simply GSM to distinguish it from Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street.

Cambridge has no cathedral and is part of the Diocese of Ely. So, in many ways, Great Saint Mary’s serves not only as a parish church in Cambridge, and also as the university church for the University of Cambridge, and it has a role in the city similar to that of a cathedral.

Indeed, Great Saint Mary’s is one of the 55 churches in the Greater Churches Group in the Church of England, which includes churches that have a cathedral-like ministry in their towns and cities. They include Bath Abbey, Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, Christ Church, Spitalfields, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, London, Pershore Abbey, Saint Mary the Virgin, Saffron Walden, the largest parish church in Essex, Sherborne Abbey, and Selby Abbey.

The entrance to the Tower in Great Saint Mary’s, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Great Saint Mary’s, which is also a Grade I listed building, is designed in the Late Perpendicular style and has been at the heart of Cambridge life for over 800 years, welcoming people from many backgrounds and nationalities.

The first mention of the church is in 1205, when King John presented Thomas de Chimeleye to the rectory, and the first church on the site was built that year. Four years later, Great Saint Mary’s was the first home of Cambridge University when scholars fled Oxford in 1209, and here lectures were given, degrees were conferred and celebrations took place.

The church was mostly destroyed by fire on 9 July 1290. At the time, the fire was blamed on the Jewish population of Cambridge, and the synagogue was closed. King Edward I issued an edict in 1290, expelling all 5,000 Jews from England and confiscating their property. The old synagogue near the prison – later the site of the Guildhall on Market Hill – was given to the Franciscans, who had their main house in Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College.

The church was rebuilt, and in 1303, the University ordered that a special sermon should be preached at Great Saint Mary’s four times a year. The tradition of the University Sermon continues to this day.

During the early years of Great Saint Mary’s, the church was the property of the crown, but on 15 July 1342 the land passed to King’s Hall, founded in 1317 and one of the predecessors of Trinity College Cambridge. Ownership of the site passed to Trinity College, and it has rested there ever since.

The orders for the consecration of the new church were issued on 17 May 1346, but these were not enacted until 15 March 1351. Before 1352, the church was known as the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, but since that year has become known by its present name.

In the Middle Ages, the church became an official gathering place for meetings and debates for Cambridge University.

The present church was built between 1478 and 1519, and the building costs were met largely by King Richard III and King Henry VII. King Henry VII donated 100 oak beams for the roof, with carved bosses. The oaks came from Chesterford Park in South Cambridgeshire which belonged to the Abbott of Westminster, John Islip, and the British Library holds a letter of apology from Henry VII apologising to the Abbott for cutting down his oaks.

Originally, bells were hung in a wooden structure in the churchyard. The bells were moved to the tower in 1515 and the structure was dismantled.

The clerestory windows, based on the canticle Te Deum, were inserted in 1902-1904 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Great Saint Mary’s played a leading part in the English Reformation. Many leading figures of the day preached here, including Erasmus, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who was Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge from 1549 and who influenced Cranmer’s writing of the Book of Common Prayer, was buried here when he died in 1551 as a reaction to the damp fen climate.

During the reign of Queen Mary I, Bucer’s corpse was burned in the marketplace. Great Saint Mary’s was condemned for harbouring the body of a heretic, and the churchwardens had to buy frankincense, sweet perfumes and herbs for a ceremony of reconciliation before the church could be used for services again.

However, in Elizabeth I’s reign, the dust from the place where he was burned was replaced in the church in 1560 and now lie under a brass floor plate in the south chancel. Queen Elizabeth visited the Church in 1564.

After the Reformation, Great Saint Mary’s became an important centre of preaching, and galleries were erected on all four sides to accommodate members of the university who were required to listen to formal sermons. The church tower was completed in 1608, and the font dates from 1632.

As the English Civil War began to unfold, Puritan parishioners resented an elaborate choir screen built by the University vice-chancellor in 1639, and Cromwell’s ‘multitudes of enraged soldiers’ later vandalised it. In 1641, a Trinity academic flew into a ‘greate rage’ when the churchwardens started to follow Parliament’s orders to remove the altar steps. Royalist academics even complained that Cromwell watched as his soldiers ripped up the Book of Common Prayer in the church.

For the next 200 years, the Puritan faction dominated at Great Saint Mary’s. Galleries turned the church into a hall for preaching, centred on the imposing triple-decker pulpit.

The University Organ, bought from Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, in 1698, was built by the renowned organ builder ‘Father’ Bernard Smith (ca 1630-1708).

The bells were replaced in 1722, and in 1724 the Society of Cambridge Youths was formed to formalise the responsibility for ringing them. This society claims to be the oldest bellringing society in Britain and the second oldest at any church in the world with a continuous ringing history.

Looking out from Great Saint Mary’s towards the Senate House, built in 1730 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church continued as a gathering place for meetings and debates in Cambridge until 1730, when the Senate House was built across the street. Great Saint Mary’s became datum point from which the first English milestones were measured in 1732.

During the 18th century, the sermon became the main focus of theology teaching, the whole church interior was transformed, and the church was restored by James Essex in 1766. When Henry VII’s oak roof showed signs of decay in 1783, a supplementary one was built a few feet above the original and the two were tied together.

The architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) carried out restoration work in 1850-1851, and soon after he was involved in the restoration of Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street. He was followed at Great Saint Mary’s in 1857 by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881).

From the 1860s, stained glass and a raised High Altar returned to Great Saint Mary’s, bringing colour and ritual back into the Anglican worship here. The interior was re-arranged with a new carved choir stalls and fixed pews, and the north and south galleries were removed, although the west gallery still stands.

The East Window depicting the Nativity of Christ is the work of the Chance Brothers partnership in Birmingham (1869)

The stained glass in the east window depicting the Nativity of Christ was installed in 1869 and is the work of the Chance Brothers partnership in Birmingham, which specialised in adapting the colouring techniques used by the best mediaeval glaziers. Other stained glass by Hardman was added in 1867-1869. The south porch was rebuilt in 1888, and there was further restoration work in the 20th century.

Each of the clerestory windows is based on a verse from the Te Deum and they were inserted in 1902-1904. Sixty figures are portrayed, running east to west along the north side of the Church and then west to east along the south. They depict the ‘glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of prophets and the noble army of martyrs.’

Alan Durst created the scene of ‘Christ in Majesty’ in gilded wood for Great Saint Mary’s, and it was installed as a reredos in 1960 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The golden sculpture above the High Altar, the Majestas Christi, the Majesty of Christ, was made in gilded wood by Alan Durst in 1959 and was installed in 1960. Its imagery draws on the Book of Revelation. Christ stands in front of the cross as the tree of life, his hands and feet are marked by the wounds of the crucifixion and around him are the lion, ox, man and eagle, who symbolise the four evangelists, while Christ treads on a serpent. The Latin inscription on the book in Christ’s left hand means, ‘The leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22: 2).

The sculpture of the Majesty of Christ by Alan Durst draws on imagery draws in the Book of Revelation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As the university church, Great Saint Mary’s continues to play a role in the life of the University of Cambridge. For example, university officers must live within 20 miles of Great Saint Mary’s and undergraduates within three miles. The church also hosts the University Sermons and is home to the University Organ and the University Clock.

Saint Mary the Great is unusual in housing two self-contained pipe organs, a Parish Organ in the chancel for the regular congregation, built in 1991, and the University Organ in the West Gallery, played for University services. The University Organ was added to in the 18th and 19th centuries until a major rebuild by William Hill in 1870. There were further restorations in 1963 and again in 1995, and the organ was rededicated in 1996. Great Saint Mary’s remains one of the few churches were a double organ concerto can be performed.

The University Clock chimes the ‘Cambridge Quarters,’ later used by Big Ben, the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. The old ring of bells was replaced in 2009 with a new ring of 13 bells cast by Taylors Eayre and Smith. Some of the original bells have been retained to continue sounding the Cambridge Chimes.

The funeral of Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), the theoretical physicist, was held in Great Saint Mary’s earlier this year [31 March 2018] before his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey.

Great Saint Mary’s stands in the Liberal Catholic tradition of the Church of England, and is a member of Inclusive Church. The church works with partners at home and abroad in social and mission projects. The mission of Great Saint Mary’s includes the Michaelhouse Centre and Chaplaincy in Trinity Street and the chaplaincy to the non-collegiate members of the University.

Past Vicars of Great Saint Mary’s include Mervyn Stockwood (1955-1959), later Bishop of Southwark,Hugh Montefiore (1963-1970), later Bishop of Kingston and then of Birmingham, Stanley Booth-Clibborn (1973-1979), who became Bishop of Manchester; Michael Mayne (1979-1986), later Dean of Westminster Abbey; David Conner (1986-1993), afterwards Bishop of Lynn and then Dean of Windsor; and John Binns (1994-2017), now a Research Associate at the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS in London. John Binns was a founding director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge where he remains a Visiting Professor, and he is known for his strong links with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

In recent weeks, Canon Adrian Daffern, Vicar of Woodstock and Bladon, and Area Dean of Woodstock in the Diocese of Oxford, has been appointed Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary the Great with Saint Michael, Cambridge, and is be instituted and inducted to his new post on 5 September 2018.

Bicycles chained to railings of Great Saint Mary’s in Cambridge last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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