Cambridge, Cambridgeshire – Great Saint Mary’s

Great Saint Mary’s is the main church in the centre of Cambridge – the University Church. In my youth their Director of Music also conducted Cambridge Youth Orchestra, so we did various concerts here. In our undergraduate days we came to various events here – I remember Michael Flanders and Donald Swann leading a packed church in “Mud, mud, glorious mud” with the Vicar, Michael Mayne, conducting from the pulpit. I used to bring the Confirmation kids over from Bury every year and we used to climb the tower.

Leaving Julie in Heffers bookshop, I headed up the 123 steps (if memory serves), 114 feet. At the top I realised how out of condition I am. There was a rainbow over St John’s, and I enjoyed myself working out which church and which college was which. The first written record of this church is 1205. Although St Bene’t’s is earlier, there was probably a church by the market place at the start of the eleventh century. When scholars arrived from Oxford in 1209 they would no doubt have used the nave as a meeting place. It burned down in 1291 and was slowly rebuilt. A major rebuild started in 1478 under the patronage of Richard III and then Henry VII. The Nave was complete by 1519, it had cost £1,350, and the tower by 1608. King’s; the Old Schools and Senate House with Clare behind; looking up Trinity Street with Gonville & Caius, Trinity, and John’s; the Chapel of St John’s with added rainbow; Michaelgate; the Market; St Edward’s with St Bene’t’s behind.

Sadly you don’t get to see any of the 13 bells. The clock dial dates back to 1679, the workings 1892. The chimes, known as the Cambridge Quarters, date back to 1792 when Joseph Jowett, Professor of Civil Law, was (according to the guidebook) asked to produce suitable chimes – that begs lots of questions! Apparently he was assisted by William Crotch, the composer. Later they were copied for the newly built Big Ben in 1858, and are now familiar as the Westminster Chimes.

Back down below I had a good explore – there was a bunch of students preparing for a Carol Service this evening (you forgot how early Christmas starts in Cambridge). Let’s start with the font, which dates to 1632. £3 was donated for a new font without religious imagery. The font is octagonal with seven of the sides representing the days of the week and the eighth, the eighth day, representing eternal life. Presumably it replaced one with a lot more religious images on, removed or destroyed at the Reformation. Divine Office was first performed in English in 1549 and within 60 years “the glory of the late medieval church, glowing in colour with windows filled with stained glass, wall-paintings of biblical scenes and a painted and gilded roof, was … transformed into a plain, whitewashed auditorium with only its architecture reminding the congregation of more colourful times.” 35 Cambridge Reformers perished at the stake in the reign of Queen Mary.

The church continued serving parish, town and university. Religious fashions came and went – the aisle galleries were installed in the 1730s. Some of the pews in the galleries date to the C15 or C16, but the ones in the Nave are Victorian (1863 – another re-ordering). The Clerestory windows were installed between 1902 and 1904 – the Te Deum.

The East End is dominated by The Majestas. Installed in 1960 it is carved in wood and covered in gold leaf. In shows Christ in Majesty, in front of the empty cross, surrounded by the four Gospels. The East Window (1872) is the Christmas story.

The memorial on the north wall just beside the altar is to Dr Butler, physician to James I. He was known for his eccentricity, his amazing diagnosis of illness and seemingly miraculous cures. There are many other memorials around the church – Michael Woolf, churchwarden and landlord of the Rose tavern, died in 1614.

At the east end of the North transept is a chapel. It contained some fascinating things, but really needs a proper sort-out. The Great War Window was installed in 1922. The risen Christ was created by the Hungarian sculptor Gabrielle Bollobas – I think the one in Selwyn is better. Nor was I particularly impressed by this line of angels.

I have missed many things in this lovely church, but we must have the 1863 pulpit. It is on rails so can be pushed out into the middle for University sermons. The heavens had opened as I prepared to leave, so I sat and read the guidebook for a bit longer – knowing J would be happy in Heffers for a while. I also went back the following day to get some of the photos I hadn’t got. There are times I regret not having taking full advantage of all the facilities, all the inspiration, that Cambridge offered – and, indeed, offers. O well! We’ll be back.

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