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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of St Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge

What is St Bene’t’s Church?

St Bene’t’s Church is a medieval parish church that’s the oldest building in Cambridge.


St Bene’t’s Church in Cambridge

St Bene’t’s Church History

St Bene’t’s (or St Benedict’s) is the oldest building in the city. The Anglo-Saxon tower was built in the early 11th century and the interior dates from the 13th century. Over a thousand years old, the small church is a rare space.


The tower hulks upwards. Rubble was stacked, forced together with mortar, and kept in place by the distinctive long and short stonework corners: laid vertically and horizontally, these are a feature of Anglo-Saxon buildings that help to keep damp out of the precarious corner joints. Another Anglo-Saxon feature are the double belfry windows at the top of the tower. The magnificent archway that connects the tower to the rest of the church is the original Saxon, and is adorned by two curiously carved beasts. The interior has been restored many times. A fire in the late 13th century encouraged the construction of the existing arcade and aisles. The seats and the piscina (a shallow basin for washing the communion vessel) were both added to the chancel in the 14th century. And 19th-century restorations refashioned much of the church: the north and south aisles were rebuilt; the west door was turned into a Perpendicular Gothic, stained-glass window; and a wooden roof with carved figures was added.


For nearly half of its existence, the church was intimately tied to the university and then to Corpus Christi College. The bells summoned ‘acts…congregations, lectures…and such like’ until the 1660s. The church also served as a chapel for Corpus Christi, from its foundation until 1577, when they built their own. The college’s master, Thomas Cosyn, even constructed two side chapels and a brick gallery in around 1500 that physically connected the college’s Old Court to St Bene’t’s, though the passage is now closed.


The 17th century was a particularly busy time for St Bene’t’s. The churchwarden, Thomas Russell, gave money to the republican cause during the Civil Wars, which was associated with the Puritan faith, and therefore allowed the iconoclast William Dowsing to obliterate ‘seven superstitious pictures, 14 cherubim, and 2 superstitious ingravings,’ within the church. Two notable parishioners were Thomas Hobson and Thomas Mace. The first was a wealthy businessman who bequeathed to the church a valuable 1617 edition of the King James Bible, while the second was a musician who sang, composed, and played the lute and viol (popular instruments of the time), though he is especially remembered for his musical theory. The most influential parishioner was Fabian Stedman, a bookseller and campanologist (a specialist in bellringing). Stedman is credited with inventing, or at least progressing, the ‘Exercise’ of English bellringing; that is, methodically ringing bells in continuously varying orders. St Bene’t’s six bells are still rung every week and you can join a bellringing class on Friday evenings.


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