Facilities and features
Click on the tags below to learn more about each.
Please speak to a verger or shop staff for the baby changing facilities.
Please speak to a verger or shop staff for access to the accessible toilets.
Our main entrance is wheelchair accessible, and a wheelchair accessible toilet is available upon request. Wheelchair seating is currently at the front row of pews, but we are hoping in our next reordering to provide greater wheelchair seating.
Large Print service books are available at our 9.30, 11.15 and 5.30pm services.
Assistance Dogs are always welcome!
Great St Mary's is blessed to have a Grade 1 Listed Building
Early C14 chancel. Nave and aisles begun 1478 but not completed until c.1520. W tower begun 1491 but not completed until 1606. Aisle galleries added 1735. Restored by James Essex 1766, and again in 1850-1 by Gilbert Scott with further work by Anthony Salvin in 1857. S porch rebuilt 1888. Some C20 restoration.
MATERIALS Rubble with some ashlar, and dressings of oolitic limestone. Interior faced largely in clunch. Some of the stone comes from the ruins of Ramsey and Thorney abbeys. Lead roofs.
PLAN Chancel, nave, W tower, N and S aisles extending alongside the tower and the western part of the chancel, S porch.
EXTERIOR A very large and impressive church that forms an important landmark in the centre of Cambridge. The exterior is wholly perpendicular in appearance, and is embattled throughout with low pitched roofs. The windows are late perpendicular in style and have vertical tracery, with transoms in the aisle windows and chancel E window. Tall four stage W tower, with a very large W window and polygonal corner turrets. It is c.1490-1550 to the top of the W window, with the upper part added in 1593-1608. The W door is C19 and replaces a late C16 Elizabethan door. Clerestoried nave, the clerestory windows unusually tall. The aisles extend across the western bay of the chancel to form chapels, and there is a polygonal rood stair turret on the S side at the junction of aisle and chapel. Gabled S porch, added in 1888 to replace a porch demolished in 1783. The chancel was refaced externally in 1857 by Salvin.
INTERIOR A lofty interior, particularly notable for the rich decoration on the arcades and the survival of the C18 aisle galleries. the chancel E window is C14 internally and there is also evidence for former C14 N and S doors and windows. There is an early C14 tomb recess in the chancel, and C14 two ogee-headed statute niches flanking the E window. The arches to the chancel chapels are late C15. The tall, slender nave arcades, the N and S tower arches and the chancel arch have richly panelled spandrels with blind tracery and a moulded frieze of quatrefoils. The internal string courses in the aisles and chapels are also decorated with paterae, flowers, masks and heraldic devices. The nave roof stands alternately on slender shafts that descend to the piers and corbels between the clerestory windows. The tower arch rises through two stories to the head of the clerestory windows; it is partially closed by the organ gallery. The lower part, with a Perpendicular-style doorway in artificial stone, is probably part of the former W gallery of 1819. The aisle galleries were installed in 1735. Screens closing the entrance to the chancels from the aisles were made up in the C19 from parts of the C18 pulpit.
Very fine late medieval roofs in the nave, aisles and chapels with carved bosses and openwork tracery in the spandrels of the braces; the bosses in the nave are very fine. There is a further C18 roof designed by James Essex above the medieval nave roof. N and S aisle doors are early C16; those in the chapels are late C16, as is that to the rood stair. The N tower screen wall door is C17; that on the S is C15.
PRINCIPAL FIXTURES Remains of a C14 double piscina and sedilia in the chancel, and two C14 statue niches flanking the E window. Late C15 piscina in the S aisle. Excellent and very unusual font of 1632, polygonal, with strapwork cartouches on the bowl and Renaissance foliage carving on the stem. The cover is also C17. Late medieval chest, much restored in the C19. Some C16 or C17 poppyheads survive on the C17 benches at the back of the galleries. The other gallery seating is C18. Good nave benches of 1863 with finely carved poppyheads, and C19 choir stalls, also with poppyheads. Organ of 1698, rebuilt in 1870, in a fine late C17 case. Very good C19 pulpit of 1872, with openwork tracery; it is mounted on rails in the floor allowing it to slide to the centre of the church when needed. Wooden eagle lectern of 1867. Some late C19 and early C20 glass. E window of 1872 by William Chance. The clerestory windows, installed 1902-4, use portraits of noted Victorian clergymen for the faces of the apostles. Clock face of 1679 on the tower.
Many monuments, mostly wall and floor tablets. Notable monuments include an early C14 tomb recess in the chancel, probably for John of Cambridge, d. 1335, and William Butler, d.1617/8, an alabaster wall tablet with a half-figure flanked by putti. Also many good C18 wall tablets, and a number of palimpsest ledger slabs made from former brass indents. A small brass plaque marks the former burial place of Martin Bucer, d.1551. There is a good set of C18 and early C19 bequest boards under the W tower and in the galleries.
SUBSIDIARY FEATURES Good cast iron churchyard railings with floral finials including lilies.
The datum point for road mileage from Cambridge, established in 1732, is cut into the SW tower buttress.
HISTORY There may have been a church on this site, adjacent to the marketplace, before the Conquest, and it was certainly in existence by the late C12 or early C13, when it was known as St Mary-by-the-market. It was used by scholars of the nascent university from their arrival in 1209. There was a fire in 1290, and the chancel was rebuilt in the early C14 and consecrated in 1351. The rest of the church was entirely rebuilt from the late C15. The work began in 1478, but carried on into the early C16. The nave roof was being framed in 1506, the altar in the Lady chapel was set up in 1518, the nave seats were made in 1519. Craftsmen associated with the work include the masons William Burdon, John Bell and William Rotherham, and the carpenter William Buxton. The W tower was begun in 1491, but by 1550 it had only reached the height of the W window. The bell chamber was complete by 1596, and the top of the tower was finished in 1608. The medieval pulpit was replaced by a new one (now in Orton Waterville church) in 1618. A projected spire was never built. The galleries in the aisles were added in 1735, and a chancel gallery, subsequently removed, was installed in 1754. A three decker pulpit and box pews were also installed in the mid C18. James Essex carried out restorations to the nave roof and altered some of the windows in 1766. A W gallery, also later removed, was installed in 1837 to designs by Edward Blore. Blore also intended to add a spire to the tower, but this was never carried out. The Elizabethan W door of 1576 was replaced by a Gothic-style door in 1850-1 by Gilbert Scott, and the old vestry was demolished and the chancel re-clad in 1857 by Anthony Salvin. The S porch was rebuilt along its original lines in 1888, and the tower was restored in 1892. There was also some refurnishing and restoration in the C20, including reordering in the chancel in 1958.
SOURCES RCHME City of Cambridge: II (1959) , 275-80 Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire (1970), 219-20 Hall, R. Great St Mary's: The University Church, Cambridge, Guidebook and History
Music and Worship
There have been bells at St Mary’s since at least 1516. The current peal of 12 bells plus a semitone were installed in 2009 as a result of a generous gift made to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the University. Also in the tower and still chiming today are the original clock bells upon which were first sounded the famous “Cambridge Chimes”, which were widely copied and are now more commonly known as the “Westminster Chimes”.
Ringing at Great St Mary’s is performed by the Society of Cambridge Youths which was founded in 1724 and is the second oldest ringing society anywhere with a continuous history. The Society rings the bells for services twice on a Sunday (8.35am-9.30am and 5.30pm-6.30pm) as well as special University and Civic occasions. It practises on most Monday evenings from 7pm to 9pm. The ringing is led by the Master of the Society, Jonathan Agg, and visitors are always welcome to both service and practice ringing. During University Term the Sunday evening ringing is delegated to the Cambridge University Guild of Change Ringers.
For current details of ringing and for information on the history of the bells’ details please check the Society of Cambridge Youths website.
We run a Summer Series of Free Lunchtime Recitals, as well as regular lunchtime recitals and concerts. For more information about upcoming recitals, please visit the Recitals page. If you would like to give a recital, contact the Music Administrator at [email protected]
Our orchestra, the Academy of Great St Mary’s, was founded by Adam Pounds, in 2007. The Academy performs four major concerts per year, plus a number of smaller, chamber music, baroque or light music concerts. Players are drawn from across the city and University, and beyond. .The Orchestra and Choirs of Great St Mary’s present four large concerts a year, in March, June and September, with a Grand Christmas Concert two Sundays before Christmas. There is also a programme of smaller concerts throughout the year.
Michaelhouse Chorale is a choir, open to all, which meets in Michaelhouse every Friday at 2.30pm. It was founded in 2007, and is a joint venture between Michaelhouse and Arts and Minds, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Foundation for Arts and Mental Health.
We are always very happy to welcome visiting choirs to sing for any of our choral services at Great St Mary’s or for weekday recitals. Visiting groups are especially welcome during the summer months and other periods where our regular choirs are on holiday, but we aim to be as flexible as possible. In recent years, our worship has been graced with performances from choirs from as far afield as Canada and Russia, but we are equally happy to accommodate local choirs looking for somewhere new and exciting to sing.
Music in our services fits naturally into the English Cathedral style, so church and cathedral choirs will find themselves particularly at home here. We are always keen to welcome singing groups from any tradition, and have enjoyed hearing gospel choirs and choirs from the Orthodox tradition leading worship from our choir stalls. For more information, download our Guidelines for Visiting Choirs 2016 and Guidelines for Visiting Organists (2016)
To discuss a visit, please contact the Music Administrator, [email protected]
Great St Mary’s has the distinction, shared by few other churches, of having two organs. The organ in the west gallery was designed and built for the west end of the church in 1698 by ‘Father’ Bernard Smith. It was paid for, and is still maintained by, the University. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the parish was allowed to use the University Organ for its regular worship. However, by the 1850s the University Organ had grown very unreliable, and the University was unwilling to commit the funds to have it repaired. The parishioners grew so exasperated that in 1869 they had their own organ built by Miller of Cambridge, in the chancel. The Miller organ served the parish for almost 100 years until its replacement by a brand new Parish Organ by Kenneth Jones in 1991. Both organs are regularly used for services and recitals.
Every Sunday we offer a spoken BCP communion service at 8am, as well as BCP Choral Mattins at 11.15 and BCP Choral Evensong at 5.30pm.
Our choral Parish Communion at 9.30 uses Common Worship.
With five choirs and a long tradition of great choral music, Great St Mary’s is justly proud of our choral offerings. The Director of Music, Sam Hayes, is always keen to hear from keen and committed singers interested in joining our community of music makers.
During school term time, three choral services are held at Great St Mary’s on Sundays:
Parish Communion (Common Worship): 9.30am
Choral Mattins (BCP): 11.15am
Choral Evensong (BCP): 5.30pm
Groups, Courses and Activities
We have brass rubbing with five replica brasses to choose from, including Sir Roger of Trumpington and St George and the Dragon. For just £3 you can create your own souvenir.
On Thursdays at 1pm in Michaelhouse, as well as regularly home groups.
Part of the Cambridge Churches Homelessness Project, offering regular overnight shelter
Children are an important part of our community! We offer a children's communion service on Tuesdays at 10.30am in Michaelhouse, a Junior Choir, and Children's Church on Sundays during our 9.30 Parish Communion.
Help for Visitors
You can now enrich your visit to the University Church by booking a guided tour. Our enthusiastic guides will help you discover the fascinating stories of kings, queens, scholars and townspeople that shaped this historic church.
Weekday Tours cost £3.50 per person for a 30 minute tour and £7 per person for a 1 hour tour.
Weekend Tours cost £4 per person for a 30 minute tour and £8 per person for a 1 hour tour.
Tours must be booked in advance with a minimum party size of 10 and are subject to availability. To enquire about booking a tour, please e-mail [email protected] or telephone the Education Office 01223 747284 / the Parish Office 01223 747273.
Self Guided Tour
Explore the church to look more closely at its beautiful features: the carved pews, stunning stained glass, font and resplendent Majestas to name a few. Discover the stories behind the features: have you ever wondered why Great St Mary’s has two organs, why it is the official centre of Cambridge, why its pulpit is on rails and why the bells sound the same as the Westminster Chimes? Find out more about the fascinating people associated with the church: Queen Elizabeth I, the infamous Dr Butler and the Protestant Reformer Martin Bucer with his buried and burnt body! Experience the peace and tranquility of the church as you wander.
The self guided tour is available to purchase from the gift shop along with our more detailed guide book.
Michaelhouse Café is a fantastic, award-winning café in the heart of Cambridge, offering breakfast and lunch and available for private parties as well:
The Great St Mary's Shop is open every day — from 10am Monday-Saturday, and from 12.30pm on Sundays.
The Church Shop offers a wide range of guides, souvenirs, gifts, and music, as well as religious, children’s and local books.
We are staffed and open every day from 9am to 5pm (8am to 6.30pm on Sundays), to visitors, tourists, and those coming to light a candle and say a prayer. We'd love to see you!
Our Michaelhouse Centre is available for private hire, as is our Great St Mary's sanctuary for concerts and events. Please be in touch to learn more!