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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of Great St Mary’s Church in Cambridge

What is Great St Mary’s?

Great St Mary’s, full name The Church of St Mary the Great, is a significant church in Cambridge that was founded in the 11th century that hosted the first scholarly lectures in the city.

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Great St Mary’s History

It would be no exaggeration to describe Great St Mary’s as the central point of Cambridge, situated as it is not only between King’s Parade and Market Hill but also at the spiritual heart of the university. As the ‘University Church’, undergraduates must live within five kilometres of it, and all full-time postgraduate students within 16 while completing their studies.

Great St Mary’s served as the original and first home of the university and has been closely associated with it ever since. In the 13th century, the nascent university had not yet established its central role in the ancient market town, and this site served as the first location for study and instruction in what would later become one of the most significant universities in the world. Scholars fleeing from conflict with the townspeople of Oxford settled here in Cambridge in 1209, and it was this church that hosted the first lectures and conferrals of the scholarly community that would be recognised in the 1230s by both King Henry III and Pope Gregory IX. The University Church has presided over many of the most significant events in the history of Cambridge in the last 800 years.

The origins of the modern-day building lie in one of the great churches of medieval Cambridge. The foundations were laid in the early 11th century, and the first church to be built on the site was constructed around 1205, later rebuilt after a fire in 1290. A second rebuilding was ordered two centuries later, and the church tower reached its present height in 1608.

Great St Mary’s played a significant part in the Reformation and was visited by Elizabeth I in 1564 whereupon the church wardens were fined for failing to ring the bells properly upon Her Majesty’s entrance into town. The interior features some beautiful panes of stained glass and (unusually) two organs, but the tower is absolutely the highlight of a visit to Great St Mary’s. The church’s viewing platform affords what might be the best aerial view of central Cambridge available, a reward that merits the climb of over 120 narrow steps in the tower staircase for all that are able. The panoramic view includes many of the central colleges of the university. There’s perhaps no finer location from which to appreciate the history and beauty of Cambridge than from the top of Great St Mary’s.

Dive deep into the city’s rich history with our comprehensive Cambridge audio tour.


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