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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A History of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Round Church)

What is Round Church?

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, famously known as Round Church, is a 900-year-old Anglican church that’s been restored many times over the years.

Round Church Cambridge

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Round Church History

Here at the end of St John’s Street sits a strange squat church. Most grand churches follow a cruciform ground plan, in the shape of a Latin Cross or in Byzantine and Greek Orthodox churches, the shape of an X. If you travel the country, the sight of small, simple, rectangular parish churches is very common. So, this circular church on Bridge Street with a conical spire is somewhat unusual.

The Round Church was founded in the early 12th century, not long after the Norman invasion, which explains its Norman design: eight massive columns and wide round arches. It also hints at the identity of the builders, a Norman Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre who may have arrived with William the Conqueror. They had seen early Romanesque round churches in the Holy Land during the First Crusade. Impressed, especially by the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, they brought the design back to Europe and to Cambridge. Today, there are only three other operating round churches in England.

The small church was originally a wayfarers’ chapel on the Roman road. The Norman archway opens into a round nave with no pews, surrounded by a walkway. The eight sturdy cylindrical columns support another tier of Norman arches. Its appearance was altered little until the 15th century, when the nave windows were made to look Gothic, the square-ended chancel was built, wooden angels – that can still be seen today – were added to the ceiling, and, most drastic of all, a tower was erected on top of the nave. When the nave collapsed in the 19th century, the famed restorer Anthony Salvin set about rebuilding the Round Church. The turret-like tower was quickly returned to a conical spire. Smooth, stone-carved human heads were installed on the columns, and tiles were placed underfoot, some of which commemorate Queen Victoria’s reopening of the church in 1843.

Its dark and austere interior made the Round Church a focal point for fervent Evangelical churchgoers over the centuries. Today, its congregation is made up of students and the wider community. The congregation now meets in the more spacious St Andrew the Great, while Christian Heritage looks after the Round Church and offers tours to the public. If the sun is out, grab a tea or coffee and sit atop the church wall, or in its picturesque garden.

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