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Great St Mary’s is full of history. You can best explore our heritage by visiting the church, and using the touchscreens which offer lots of information about the church, Cambridge, and its history.

The first mention of this church (then ‘St Mary’s) is in a record dated 1205, so this site has lived through many events both local and international. It was also the first official meeting place of the university, with the nave being used for meetings and degree ceremonies by scholars when they moved to Cambridge from Oxford in 1209.

One of the biggest periods in the history of Christianity in the West is the Reformation, where people began to question some of the teachings of the Catholic Church and thought deeply about how their faith could better reflect the God that they worshipped.

One of the major figures of the Reformation, Martin Bucer, lived in Cambridge for several years was buried in Great St Mary’s. He faced turbulence even after death, which reflects just how much disagreement there was between new ideas and old. When Queen Mary was on the throne, she demanded that Bucer’s remains be dug up and burnt in the marketplace, demonstrating how seriously she would treat anyone who was a reformed thinker. During Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, his symbolic remains (in the form of dust and dirt) were collected from where they had been burnt and were interred in the church building. You can visit the original place of his burial in Great St Mary’s, the site is on the south side of the High Altar and is marked by a brass plate.

The building itself has changed overtime. In 1291, the church – which was surrounded, at the time, by thatched and timber-framed buildings – was destroyed by fire. The rebuilding took some time, although it will have been in use before the chancel (area where the Altar is) was reconsecrated in 1351. This is also the time when St Mary’s became ‘St Mary the Great’ to distinguish between this church and ‘St Mary the Less’ on Trumpington Street.

After a century, it was decided that the nave was too small and so fundraising for more building work began. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (who would be crowned Richard III) began the fundraising in 1475 by contributing 20 marks, and building began 3 years later. It resumed under King Henry VII after money was donated by benefactors whose names are commemorated in windows around the church.

King Henry VII kindly donated oak trees from an estate at Great Chesterford to build the roof, although unfortunately he did not own the estate so had to make an apology. Although the nave was completed by 1519, work did not resume on the tower until the 1590s, and it reached its current height in 1608.

One of the features of the church that you might notice when you first walk into the building is the large East window (the stained glass window above the Altar). This was installed in 1972, and tells the story of Jesus’ birth, from the angel’s visit to Mary, to the nativity scene, to the flight into Egypt, which is the last we hear of the infant Jesus in the Bible. The windows on either side of the central aisle of the church as you look up towards the roof were installed even later, between 1902 and 1904. The stained glass has brought colour back to a church that will – like many churches – have been whitewashed during the Reformation, and had many decorative elements stripped by iconoclasts. 

We have many resources that explore on these topics and more, and these can be used as part of educational visits to the church. Downloadable resources are a work in progress, but please contact our Education Officer if there is anything in particular that you would like to see.

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