Great St Mary’s


Great St. Mary’s foundations were thought to have been laid around 1010 and it was first recorded in legal documents in 1205, when it was called ‘St. Mary-by-the-market’. It became the University of Cambridge church when scholars arrived in 1209 and it has been in the heart of Cambridge for over a thousand years! The church completely burnt down in 1290, which wasn’t surprising, as it was surrounded by thatched roofed buildings and wooden market stalls. Eventually in 1478 they started rebuilding the church- which is the church you can see there today!

During Tudor times there was a great deal of activity in and around Great St. Mary’s, including the building of Hobson’s fountain in Market Square and the burning of Bucer’s dead body under the order of Mary I. There were also a number of royal visits, including Elizabeth I, when she came to Cambridge in 1564. Sadly the church was still not complete when she arrived and it was surrounded by deep mud, so they had to pour bags of sand onto the ground to try and cover the mess. The church was also fined for not having the bells ring on her arrival! Many Tudor monarchs also donated to the building of the church, and Elizabeth I said she would do the same on her visit to Cambridge- but she never kept her promise!

Despite experiencing riots, unrest and even being burnt to the ground, it has managed to survive and grow to be an extremely important part of education, culture and social reform. To this day, it remains a fundamental place of worship and is an important meeting space for both the townspeople of Cambridge and the University.

Do please download the powerpoint and pdf laminates illustrating this subject which you will find  useful to use for a class:

Also do watch the film re-enactment of Elizabeth I’s visit to Cambridge here. 

To learn the fun song about the Great St. Mary’s Chimes click here.



For over 800 years, St Mary the Great has been a well- established church, in the very heart of Cambridge.  Its first mention was in 1205, when it was known as ‘St Mary-by-the-market’ and granted to St Thomas de Chimeleye.  Very soon after this, in 1209, the church was established by scholars from Oxford, who found it the perfect place for their studies.  For 200 years, Great St Mary’s was home to the main functions of the university, with lectures taking place, meetings held, degrees conferred and jovial celebrations taking place for over 200 years, until a new senate house was built across the road in 1730.  In addition, it also remained a flourishing parish church, the heart of community life with marriages, births and deaths taking place.  This provoked much tension between ‘town and gown’, during the Peasants’ revolt, culminating in the mayor leading the townspeople into the church, ransacking the university’s records and burning them in the centre of the market square. For this reason, the records of Cambridge University are meagre compared to those of Oxford! 

The church was completely burnt to the ground in 1290, which was hardly surprising given that it was set above a thick shambles of timber-framed, thatched dwellings, shops and market stalls! This called for a huge rebuilding programme, which commenced in 1478. The church was rebuilt in the perpendicular style, and John Wastell, who was in charge of the completion of King’s College chapel, was responsible for the fine stone tracery of the new Great St Mary’s.  The new design was complete with oak roof beams with carved bosses, donated by Henry VII.  In actual fact, these were not his to donate as he had cut down 100 of the Abbott of Westminster’s oaks from Chesterford Park in South Cambridgeshire without asking!  Awkwardly, the abbot complained and he had to write him a letter of apology! When the roof showed signs of decay, a new one was built a few feet above the original and the two were tied together.

The post-reformation Church was built in a very different style to the previous one, due to a change in attitude to religious images as ‘idolatry’.  The most dramatic example of changes in attitude, during this period is the treatment of Martin Bucer, a Protestant thinker, who gave very influential sermons.  Bucer was buried at Great St. Mary’s in 1551 and he was so popular that over 3000 people showed up to his funeral, which resulted in many chairs being broken due to overcrowding! However, when Mary came to the throne, she ordered that the bodies of Bucer, and another reformer, Paul Fagius be exhumed and burned in the market square, along with various protestant writings.  Elizabeth I later moved the dust of Bucer’s body, which now lies in the south chancel under a brass floor plate.   

Although the main building was completed by 1519, the towers took another 89 years. It was an extremely slow process and a thatched roof had to be put on and taken off at every stage of building!  Tragically, the churchwarden, who was overseeing the work, John Warren was killed in an accident.  An inscription on the wall of the tower can be found, which reads, ‘Here John Warren sleeps among the dead, Who with the church his own life finished’.  During the construction of the tower, the four bells had to be placed in the courtyard of the churchyard in a wooden tower. These were used to call people to sermons, announce University lectures and opening of the Corn Market, as well as the beginning and end of the day and public events.  Indeed when Elizabeth I visited Cambridge in 1564, Great St Mary’s was fined for failing to ring the bells! The number of bells gradually increased from 4 to 12, making St Mary’s the only church with 12 bells in the county. In 1724, the Society of Cambridge Youth was set up, the second oldest bell-ringing society in existence, and still going today!  A clock has been on the tower since 1577, a time when there were very few public clocks.  Although the current mechanism dates back to 1892, it is very reliable.  It is adjusted by adding two pence coins to a tray, which is fixed to a pendulum.  Revd Dr Joseph Jowett composed the tune of the chimes, the ‘Cambridge Quarters’ in 1793.  It became very famous when it was copied for the Westminster chimes of Big Ben!  A datum point was added to the tower in 1732, which was used to measure the first English milestones from.  This makes Great St Mary’s Cambridge’s official centre!

Many additions were made to the church, including the University Organ, which was purchased from St James’ Church, Piccadilly in 1698. This is a very unusual feature for a church, and despite acting as a reminder of ‘town and gown’ hostility, this allows for two concertos to be played at once.  Later, in 1735 Galleries were installed to provide 476 extra seats as Great St. Mary’s did not have enough space for big congregations and people had to be crammed in the aisles.  However, they proved controversial as they blocked much natural light from the windows and completely changed the character of the church.  After they were called an ‘indispensable eyesore’ by the vicar, Dr Luard, the east and west galleries were removed, with just the aisle ones remaining.  The church has massively benefited from such modifications, allowing it to host many influential speakers, including the Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Lord Denning and Prince Philip.  From 1205 to today, it is clear that the importance of Great St Mary’s to Cambridge has not changed, to the people of the city or students of the university, and it continues to greatly influence people’s lives. 

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Great St. Mary’s Church, Senate House Hill, CB2 3PQ

To arrange a visit to Great St. Mary’s as a School group get in touch with Rosie Sharkey, Great St. Mary's Heritage Education Officer at:

For more information on the amazing history of Great St. Mary’s visit:

Great St Mary’s


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