Since the foundation of the University in 1209, religious authority, academic prestige and political influence have brought kings and queens to this small fenland town.
As the University Church, and the closest thing Cambridge has to a cathedral, Great St Mary’s has welcomed many royal visitors. This section focuses on a few monarchs with particularly close links to the church.
Generous Royal Rivals
Bitter enemies, the Yorkist Richard III and Lancastrian Henry VII were united in their generosity to Great St Mary’s.
In 1478, before he became King, Richard gave £20 for the rebuilding of Great St Mary’s –nearly £13,000 in today’s money. He also donated large sums to Queens’ College to pay four priests to pray for his family and friends.
A grateful University promised that Cambridge theologians would publicly pray for Richard’s safety at busy London churches.
In 1481, the congregation of Cambridge University wrote to Richard comparing his love for the University to Prince Hector’s devotion to his Trojan people.
Perhaps this was a bad omen -Hector was killed in battle, and Richard would face the same fate just four years later, becoming the last English king to die on the battlefield.
In 1483, the University thanked Richard for his ‘large and abundant alms founding certain priests and fellows to the great worship of God.’
Richard visited Cambridge in March 1484. University records show the prices paid for entertaining the King.
The largest single cost was £6 and five pence spent on ‘fish for the King’s table.’ Richard had spent around £700 on King’s College Chapel -half a million pounds in today’s terms.
Following Richard’s successful royal visit to Cambridge in 1484, the University decreed that a special mass would be said in May each year throughout the King’s life for the ‘happy state of the same most renowned prince and his dearest consort, Anne.’
This annual mass almost certainly took place here at Great St Mary’s, but must have only happened twice; Richard was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field just over a year after his visit.
After Richard’s death in 1485, his generosity continued to benefit Great St Mary’s. Thomas Barowe, who had been Master of the Rolls and Keeper of the Great Seal under the former King, was the largest subscriber to the church’s rebuilding fund. Barowe’s money went towards constructing the roof of the nave and church windows.
Not to be outdone, Henry Tudor cemented his new dynasty by continuing this tradition of royal patronage for Cambridge churches, colleges and chapels.
Having seized his crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry became the first Tudor King.
Following the example of his mother, Margaret Beaufort, Henry was a generous patron of Cambridge. He had the magnificent fan vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel made, and provided 100 oaks from Chesterford Park for the roof of Great St Mary’s.
Unfortunately, the King did not own this forest, which actually belonged to John Islip, the Abbot of Westminster.
Nevertheless, the oaks seem to have arrived at Great St Mary’s and his beautiful carved roof can still be seen today.
Henry wanted to be remembered in Cambridge after his death. Nearing the end of his life, he paid £10 a year for an annual service at Great St Mary’s to pray for his soul ‘as long as the world shall endure’.
Although the King was not yet dead, Henry ordered that prayers should be said in Great St Mary’s around a hearse which would be draped in a cloth of gold and velvet, decorated with a pattern of pomegranates.
The burgundy velvet cross which divided Henry’s hearse cloth was embroidered with red roses, Beaufort portcullises and the Tudor coat of arms, supported by the greyhound and Welsh dragon of Cadwaladr.
Almost all the fine vestments of Great St Mary’s were sold during the Reformation, but this cloth alone survived. This was almost certainly because its royal emblems meant that it was reused as the royal canopy for Henry’s granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth I, when she visited Cambridge in 1564.
The hearse cloth was once kept at Great St Mary’s, but can now be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Fit for a Queen
Queen Elizabeth I visited Cambridge only once in her long reign, in August 1564. During five busy days she toured the colleges, saw plays and heard scholarly debates at Great St Mary’s.
When Elizabeth decided to visit Cambridge, she was thirty and had ruled for five years.
This was the first official royal visit to Cambridge for forty-two years, when Henry VIII had passed through in 1522 and been given twelve eels, twelve great pike and a selection of swans and cranes as a gift by the University.
The royal visit was an opportunity to display Elizabeth’s regal authority and inspire the love and loyalty of the next generation of thinkers, churchmen and politicians who were studying at Cambridge.
The muddy streets of Cambridge and churchyard of Great St Mary’s were covered in sand, straw, and greenery and the Market Cross was painted.
Gifts were prepared, including boxes of sweetmeats, sugar loaves, gloves and a silver cup filled with gold coins.
King’s College, where the Queen would be staying, stockpiled ‘beer, ale and wine’ and huge quantities of food.
On her arrival, historians believe that her grandfather’s hearse cloth, lavishly decorated with Tudor symbols,was carried over the queen by four doctors of the University when she dismounted her horse and went into King’s College Chapel. At the end of Elizabeth’s visit, her footmen claimed the canopy as part of their fee, and the University paid them £3. 6s. 8d in order to keep it in Cambridge.
Elizabeth wore ‘a gown of black velvet’, a golden net in her hair, ‘set with pearls and precious stones’ and a hat ‘spangled with gold’, with a bush of feathers.
She was dazzled by the beauty of King’s College Chapel, praising it ‘above all other in her realm.’
Elizabeth came twice to hear debates at Great St Mary’s. She had paid for ‘a great and ample’ stage to be constructed for a packed audience of scholars and dignitaries.
On the first occasion, the Queen criticised the speakers in Latin for their ‘small and not audible’ voices, asking them to speak up.
The Queen enjoyed debates on political topics such as whether ‘monarchy is the best form of government’ and dietary dilemmas like whether it is better to eat more at lunch or dinner.
After the disputations, Elizabeth was asked to speak to the audience in Latin.
At first, she was careful to display appropriate feminine modesty by appearing shy about her abilities, and asking William Cecil if he could speak on her behalf. She finally gave an accomplished speech in fluent Latin, asserting her authority and learning in a male sphere.
This was Queen Elizabeth’s first public speech in Latin. She compared herself to Alexander the Great, stressed the importance of learning and promised to create an exceptional monument in Cambridge, as her ancestors had done.
In Elizabethan times, it was extremely unusual for women to speak classical languages. The audience of academics at Great St Mary’s were ‘marvellously astonished’ at Elizabeth’s eloquence, and broke out in a cry of ‘vivat regina’.
Not everything went perfectly; the churchwardens of Great St Mary’s were fined for failing to ring the bells when the Queen arrived.
However, Elizabeth was delighted with her stay in Cambridge. She was flattered by complimentary poems and speeches and enjoyed the chance to prove that she was a highly educated Renaissance ruler.
Apparently Elizabeth ‘would have stayed longer if provision of beer and ale could have been made’.
Elizabeth never returned to Cambridge, but she did grant the borough a coat of arms in 1575 which is still in use today.
A Scholarly Hunter
In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died and the crowns of Scotland and England were united under King James VI of Scotland as he became King James I of England.
James was a scholarly ruler who promoted religious moderation, commissioned a new translation of the Bible that became the standard text for 250 years, and visited Cambridge four times.
Completed in 1611, the Authorised King James Bible is a masterpiece of Jacobean prose. Great St Mary’s owns a first edition.
During his peaceful reign, James made four visits to Cambridge to take a break from hunting at nearby Newmarket.
Before his first visit in 1615, students were warned not to wear outlandish dress or smoke tobacco in Great St Mary’s.
King James enjoyed a lively debate on whether dogs could use logic – he joined in to say that by ‘yelling arguments’, his hunting dog could persuade other dogs to follow a scent.
The comic play ‘Ignoramus’ ridiculed lawyers and was a huge hit with the King; James returned to Cambridge two months later to see it again.
In 1616, James tried to curb Puritan feeling in Cambridge. He ordered all students to attend sermons at Great St Mary’s twice a day unless there was plague in the town.
James also took a personal interest in the layout of the University Church. He hated the doctors’ gallery which had been built across the chancel arch at the east end of Great St Mary’s in 1610. The academics turned their backs to the altar but had a good view of the preacher’s pulpit in the middle of the church.
Rejecting the Puritan emphasis on preaching over the sacrament of Holy Communion, James insisted that the gallery was demolished.
However, another gallery was built in 1754 to provide seating during sermons, and this was not removed until the 1860s.