We are pleased to welcome you to Great St. Mary’s, a place of worship since Angles and Saxons fought Vikings in the market square. Our physical foundations originate from around 1010 and a church of one kind or another has occupied this site since. Written records can confirm that a church has existed here since 1205, ten years before the Magna Carta was signed and well before there was a University or a single college in Cambridge. Our spiritual foundations are even older. The church you see today has gone through many changes physically, politically, and religiously.
We offer the best publicly accessible view of the city, the colleges and surrounding countryside in Cambridge from our church tower, which you may climb at most times of the year. Check out our church and tower pages. While in the church you might also like to buy a souvenir from our gift shop. Look on the gift shop page to see what’s on offer. Entry to the church itself is free; however, if you would like to make a donation either in church or through this website then you are welcome to do so.
During its rich history the church has been burned to the ground (1291), rebuilt (1351), expanded (1475-1519), and a tower raised (1690). The interior was once highly decorated with a painted and gilded ceiling, stained glass and painted walls. During the Reformation, and within a period of less than sixty years, the interior transformed into a place of whitewashed walls and plain timbers. What you see today is the result of a major Victorian restoration (1863).
There was a time when all public records were kept at Great St. Mary’s for safekeeping and to assure authenticity. We retain the “parish chest”, constructed in Tudor times, that once housed those records before angry townsmen burst into the church and burned the records in the market square (1381).
That was not the last time that fire, the market square, and Great St. Mary’s came together. By the order of Queen Mary Tudor, the remains of church reformer Martin Bucer (1491-1551) were exhumed, brought to the marketplace, and burned for heretical teaching. The remains were later re-interred by the order of Queen Elizabeth I . A brass by the altar marks that spot.
When students came to Cambridge in 1209 and formed the nascent University, Great St. Mary’s stood ready to welcome them. The building was the largest in Cambridge and was already used for other public functions. Great St. Mary’s became the place to confer degrees, hold meetings and record sermons. Great St. Mary’s was, for hundreds of years, the physical centre of the University. Cambridge students were required to live within five miles of the church.
We cannot in these few words address all that there is to see and experience at Great St. Mary’s but what we can do is tell you how to expand your experience of this great place, e.g. the Boer War memorial (of which there are few anywhere) at the East end of the church can be followed up at a specialised website that deals with all UK memorials – go to http://www.roll-of-honour.com/ Call in for information on any aspect of our history.
A Welcomer will greet you and continue this thousand year conversation when you enter the church. You may always politely refuse the conversation, equally do feel free to talk more deeply with them. They are there to help and their services are free.
You may have come for history and heritage in which case the group tour is ideal for you. Our trained, knowledgeable guides will take you around the church for a very reasonable charge. You will gain access to parts of the church not open to the casual visitor and usually receive a free gift into the bargain. What better way to begin your Cambridge experience than at the historic centre of of its university’s history?