Great St Mary’s, Cambridge
- About the place
- Visitors information
The church has existed at the present site since 1205 though the present building was built in later centuries. When scholars from Oxford arrived in 1209 they used the nave for meetings and conferment of degrees thus becoming the church for the nascent University of Cambridge. Rivalry between ‘town and gown’ to make the church its centrepiece venue for meetings came to a head in 1381 when townsmen, led by the mayor entered the church and destroyed its records, which is why records of both University and church are meagre compared to its Oxford counterpart.
The church is littered with connections to the English Reformation though nearby St. Edwards is generally acknowledged as the cradle of the reformation itself. Many reformers preached here; thirty-five perished at the stake between 1553 and 1558 in the reign of Queen Mary.
Great St Mary’s served as University and civic church as well as parish church. Seats for the mayor and aldermen were placed in the chancel facing toward the pulpit while all its other affairs were crowded into the constricted site. So great was its usage that when Elizabeth I visited in 1564 twenty loads of sand had to be spread over the churchyard to cover the mud and rubbish.
The church is most noteworthy in its early development for its playing out of religious dispute, e.g. the conflict between Thomas Cartwright, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and John Whitgift the Master of Trinity College, which ended with Cartwright being deprived of his chair, banishment from the university and going on to become the founder of English Presbyterianism.
Following the years of disputation, after the Long Parliament met in 1640 preaching once again dominated. The eighteenth century saw inception of the formal University Sermon, six out of eight per year of which are still preached here to this day. The aisle galleries and oak pulpit were installed later around 1730, the chancel gallery in 1754 and a west gallery in front of the ‘Father Smith’ organ in 1837. All Bachelors of Divinity living in Cambridge as well as Masters of Arts were required to preach in turn and the function of the church as a secular meetinghouse was brought to an end by the building of the University Senate House opposite in 1730.
Great St Mary’s continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a centre for religious thought and practice development as huge crowds came in to hear evangelicals and high churchmen like Bishops Marsh of Peterborough and Kaye of Lincoln.
In the twentieth century many ‘controversialist’ vicars have been incumbent, like Mervyn Stockwood who recognised that deep questions of religious thought should be aired once again in the pulpit rather than just university common rooms and many well-known personalities such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta and the evangelist Billy Graham preached to capacity congregations.
Nowadays Great St Mary’s role in Cambridge University life has begun to come to the fore, as that institution has expanded with the Chaplain to the University Staff now part of the church’s ministry team, also it has increased its exposure to the town through its parochial sister church, St Michael’s, with the regeneration of its thriving community and café facility, the Michaelhouse Centre.
Great St Mary’s is a grand building in the Tudor Perpendicular style, dominating the Cambridge market place and complementing its more famous sibling opposite, King’s College Chapel.
On entering, many visitors feel a sense of surprise. Darkened by the galleries, filled with brown woodwork and with its intricately carved roof equally dark, the interior may not immediately attract. But the furnishings have considerable historic interest and can best be understood in the context of the theological and liturgical developments which have occurred in the centuries since it was first built.
The church fulfills the classic ‘town and gown’ role, also has a flourishing ministry as a local parish church. As a greater church it is the main Cambridge church pursuing a range of activity normally associated with a cathedral.
As a visitor attraction then, its history is very rich and guided tours are offered in the summer through to October. The German philosopher, Martin Bucer’s remains are housed in the church.
Visitors can climb the 35M tower and see right across the fens to Ely and Peterborough in the north, the Gog Magog hills in the south and the University of Cambridge all around the town centre. There is a gift shop open nearly every day of the year.
The musical life of the church is vibrant, boasting three choral services on Sunday and visits by many orchestras and musicians throughout the year in specially arranged concerts. The church has its own orchestra and choirs for all ages.
Nearby there are many tourist attraction, often associated with the university. Opposite there is King's College Chapel and access is allowed to many of the colleges during certain times. Visitors should check with individual colleges before arrival to ensure they are open.
Cambridge has one of the best concentrations of academic bookshops anywhere in the world. Its market is open seven days per week and backs onto the east window of Great St Mary's.
There is punting available from at least two outlets on the River Cam in the town centre where it is possible to hire a boat to see the famous 'Cambridge College Backs'.
Great St Mary's itself also offers a second ancient church in its parish, which has been tastefully rejuvenated as a community centre and award winning cafe