H) Great St. Mary’s Church


Great St. Mary’s foundations were thought to have been laid around 1010 and it was first recorded in legal documents in 1205 when the Church was called ‘St. Mary-by-the-market’. It became the University of Cambridge church when scholars arrived in 1209 and it 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 - but it took ages to rebuild which got town and gown into trouble with the monarchy.


This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 

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! The church that you can see standing today started to be built in 1478, as part of a huge rebuilding programme and was completed with the addition of wooden roof beams, with carved bosses that were donated by Henry VII  in 1506. Henry VII donated 100 oak trees from Chesterford Park in Essex for the roof to be completed. However this was very naughty, as the King didn’t actually own the forest – it belonged to the Abbot of Westminster, John Islip. The Abbot wasn’t very happy about this and Henry had to write a letter to apologise for his terrible behaviour!

In Tudor times, religion was a matter of life and death. Martin Bucer was a celebrated Protestant theologian. While the Protestant boy-king Edward VI ruledEngland, Martin Bucer became Professor of Theology at Cambridge. When Martin died, 3,000 people crammed into Great St Mary’s for his funeral – so many that the benches had to be repaired. 

Just six years later, the Catholic Queen Mary was on the throne and Martin Bucer’s Protestant ideas made him a target for royal revenge. Mary burned many Protestants alive, but Bucer was already dead. This didn’t stop her. Martin Bucer’s body was dug up from his grave in Great St Mary’s, chained to a stake in the market square and burned, along with a pile of books. Some people mocked the university authorities for binding the ‘rotten carcases’ with chains, saying that ‘they might be burnt loose without peril, for it was not to be feared that they would run away.’ Later, Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I ordered the ashes from the bonfire to be reburied in Great St Mary’s again, so Martin Bucer is still remembered here today.

We have a song about Martin Bucer written by Dave Cohen, the CBBC’s Horrible Histories Songwriter and commissioned by Historyworks. You can listen and sing along to it on the website.

During Elizabeth I’s reign, she visited Great St. Mary’s in 1564 as part of a state visit to Cambridge. The University wanted to make a good impression on the Queen but the outside of the church was covered in deep mud, so they had to disguise it with twenty loads of sand! Also when she arrived the tower wasn’t finished, which meant that Great St. Mary’s was fined for not being able to ring the bells! Overall Elizabeth I’s visit was seen a great success. She attended two debates and also made a speech in Latin during her visit, in which she said she would donate to the University- but she never kept her promise! Elizabeth I’s visit not only benefited those at the University, it also helped the city’s market and traders. It led to her enacting a charter in 1575, which gave permission for traders to hold the market. The Cambridge Coat of Arms was created for the Charter and can still be seen on the Guildhall in the Market Square. We have a song about the Coat of Arms called “Seahorses” written by Dave Cohen. You can listen and sing along to it on the website.

Town Meets Gown at Great St Mary's

Nowadays, Cambridge people mix well with those who come to the city’s world famous University. Things haven’t always been this way, though. When the University first came to Cambridge in 1209, there were mixed feelings. Dons and students were a potential gold mine for this small market town in the fens, as the academics needed to buy food and drink, books and stationary, rent rooms, do laundry, hire cooks and cleaners.  However, there was often fighting, especially as the University enjoyed favour with special privileges from monarchs, so King Henry III brought together both sides in 1268 and made them swear to live peacefully. However tension did not go away as the Colleges became the landowners, charging high rents to local people.

Resentment at the power and wealth of the University turned nasty in 1381, when the townspeople ransacked Great St Mary’s and burned important University documents in the market place for all to see. Today, Great St Mary’s stands as a symbol of local co-operation and enrichment, with national events jointly celebrated here. For example, in August 2014 the city and University came together to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I to honour and commemorate the sacrifice of the men and women, both ‘town’ and ‘gown’, who fought and died.

The Tower, Bells and Chimes of Great St Mary's

There have been bells at Great St Mary’s from at least 1303 and they rang to call everyone to Church services; to open the town Corn market; to toll for births, marriages and deaths; and to announce the start of University meetings and lectures. They rang out for great events like royal coronations and victories in battles; but also tolled every evening to remind local people to cover over the fires in their hearths for the night and this continued until the outbreak of the Second World War. And because the tower was not completed until 1608, the bells were hung on temporary frames, located both insideand outside the church door, and in the church yard by the market, where the ringers stood using long ropes. The belfry was completed in 1596 with four bells.

To help source local stone to build Great St Mary’s  some was recycled from the ruins of Abbeys, even using stone from Barnwell Priory, taken after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Tragically, one of the churchwardens was killed in an accident, and you can find graffiti up the tower staircase clearly dated 1607 and a plaque in the Church saying: “Here John Warren sleeps among the dead, Who with the Church his own life finished.” The completed tower stands 35 metres tall, and because the original plan to build a 25 metre spire was abandoned there’s space instead for a great viewing platform to see over the entire city and suburbs.

Since 2009 there have been thirteen new bells, all cast as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations of Cambridge University.

 You can find the belfry when you walk up the stairs of the tower, and you will be able to see all these bells in the bellchamber.  There has been a clock on Great St Mary’s above the door since 1577, when there were very few public clocks.  What is even more distinctive about Great St Mary’s is the noise made by the chimes. The tune of the chimes is known as the ‘Cambridge Quarters’ and has become very famous because it was copied for the ‘Westminster Chimes’ of Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament. Not everyone knows that our Cambridge chimes were the first bongs!

We have a song about the Great St Mary’s Chimes written by Dave Cohen. You can listen and sing along to it on the website

Datum Point & Cambridge Milestones

Many people don’t know that Great St Mary’s is the official centre of Cambridge and has been so since 1725. Nationally, maps were printed as engravings and became popular in small pocket forms in the 1600s, with Ogilby’s “Road Maps of England and Wales” published in 1675 becoming the best seller because it illustrated main routes with distances and landmarks, the app maps of their day!  In Cambridge mapping distances became more accurate in the 1720s when a Dr William Warren began measuring the roads out of Cambridge with a sixty-six-foot surveyor’s chain, setting up milestones to guide travellers. 

During World War Two, when German invasion became a threat, the markers were hidden in roadside ditches. Warren chose the door of Great St Mary’s as his milestone starting point which is why today there is a datum disc set up in the wall. It is claimed that the Warren milestones were the first ‘true’ milestones erected in Britain since Roman times!

We’ve chosen this disc as an emblem of our project, ‘Clicking to Connectivity’ bringing in communities from outside the centre of the city, to learn local history, share knowledge and their creativity, inspired by their experiences of their routes to the centre. 

H) Great St. Mary’s Church


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