Great St. Mary's
The university church of Cambridge

Great St. Mary's Church is situated in the middle of the pedestrian area in Cambridge. It seems to be rather Mediterranian - the church close to the market, where locals and tourists jostle and mingle. But both, church and market have had their place here together throughout centuries. The church, firstly mentioned in 1205, already then was called "St.Mary-by-the-market".
At that time the church was the biggest building in the market town and therefore was used for all kind of meetings, not only religious ones. Its ties to the university started only four year later.
That happened, when students from Oxford settled here and chose the church as their meeting place as well - as the university church of Oxford also had St. Mary as patron.
But in 1291 a fire destroyed the church and the rebuilding went only slowly. First in 1351 the altar was consecrated again, even if it might have been in use earlier. In 1352 the church got the "Great" to its name, because another church was renamed to St. Mary the Less.
The next catastrophy occured thirty years later. The feelings of the citizens against the people of the university were rather chilly, as so often in history, when average has to face intellectuality. Then it is always a good method to burn books. Like here. Under the lead of the mayor, the mob entered the church and burned all university documents. Not at least because of this, the retained notes from the time before this adversity are rather scarce.
In the 15th century the church became too small.
In 1475 Richard, Duke of Gloucester, donated twenty mark to a church-fond, which should finance the enlargement. This duke was later to become more known as King Richard III. Even Shakespeare let him exclaim: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" But that has actually nothing to do in this context.
Three years later the extension started and in 1519 it was finished, apart from the tower. The latter was finally erected first in 1608 - in its shape of today. In between those dates came the Reformation. Good or bad? In 1549 the first service was held in English in St. Mary (before the language of the church had been Latin - as everywhere else), but the pompous, medieval church, with its wonderful wallpaintings and its guilded roof, was changed into a neutral, whitewashed reformationchurch. Again the defiance against authorities (Henry VIII against the Pope) had destroyed precious cultural values. On the other hand, the opposition wasn't really prissy either. The Roman-Catholic Queen Mary was to follow on the throne.
Under her five years reign, there were thirty-five reformed preachers burnt on the stake. And all of that every time in the name of God, of course ...
Through the use of the native language, St. Mary more and more turned into a church of preachermen. All Bachelors of Divinity and higher ranks had to preach there in a given order. The students were supposed to listen to at least two sermons on Sundays and Holidays and to give a compilation of them.
Around 1730 the galleries were extended, which allowed more people to find seats in the church. Actually the capacity could be enlarged by one half.
But at the same time the church was not any more used for general meetings, as the newly built Gibb's Senate House took over this function.
In front of the port of the church is a plaque put into the ground. It marks the center of Cambridge. Going out from there, there were milestones set on three important roads, leading from Cambridge. These were the first mile stones ever used in England.
For the roof King Henry VII donated the wood from one hundred oak trees, let be from a population, that he didn't own ...
The pulpit, from 1872, has the advantage, that is can be pushed on rails into the middle of the church. But then the pulpits in this church always had an outstanding position. Already in the year 1736 there was a pulpit in black oak, which was a three-decker pulpit. From the top only high clergymen were allowed to preach, in the middle the rest of the clergy, whereas the lower part was used by the parish clerks. So wonderful English and so wonderful in the conception of this religion, in which everybody is equal ...
This three-decker stood in the middle of the church, but faced the chancel and not the parish. Nevertheless this pulpit was the pride of the church throughout more than one hundred and thirty years. There are quite many memorial plaques in the church, some of them also serve as gravestones. They remember a broad variety of people among clergy and citizens.
During some time the bells were stuffed away provisorily, as the church didn't have any tower. In 1564 the church was fined, because it didn't ring the bells at the Queen's entry into the town.
Today there are not less than twelve bells hanging in the tower. If one would ring all possible variations, it would take thirty-three years.
A pretty lectern is worth mentioning as well. It has the form of an eagle and stands on the opposite side of the pulpit, at the entry to the chancel. The eagle is partly an attribute to St. John the Evangelist, but partly a symbol for resurrection, not only that of Christ, but of all people.
As picture over the altar there is a guilded woodcarving, the so called "Majestas". The name is an abbreviation of "Majestas Christi". The carving was made by Alan Durst in 1960. It pictures the resurrected Christ, with the cross as background. On the arms of the cross there are the letters alpha and omega engraved, a symbol for beginning and end (or eternity, if you prefer).
St. Mary has two organs. The reason for that is found once again in the differences between parish and university. In the 16th century one could not agree on who would pay for the reparation of the old organ.
After this nothing happened - and a hundred years passed without the church having an organ. At the end of the 17th century the univerity decided to invest in an organ. It stands on the Western gallery, above the entry. But soon enough the parish was not satisfied with the state the organ was in and installed an organ of its own, in the chancel.
One more word about the windows of the church: they all are from relatively modern times. At the long sides are the so called Te Deum-windows, each of which has a verse of the Te Deum as base. Those were put in between 1902 and 1904. The window at the Eastern side, above the altar, is a little older, from 1872. Every part shows events around the birth of Jesus, so for instance the annunciation, the visit of the Mages, the flight into Egypt and so on.

Bernhard Kauntz, Wolvertem, Belgium, 2012

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last update: 9.9.2012 by