A church on Cambridge market square is first mentioned in 1205 and the church was known as St Mary-by-the-market in early years.
Great St Mary’s burned down more than once in the middle ages and a huge rebuilding programme began in 1478, during the reign of Edward IV.
A New University Church
An ordinary parish church would have relied on parishioners to donate money for the new building. As the University Church in Cambridge, Great St Mary’s was of national importance and University academics led the fundraising drive.
Many abbots and ten bishops donated, and Great St Mary’s attracted royal gifts too: before taking the throne, the Yorkist Richard III donated £20 and his Lancastrian rival Henry VII gave 100 oak trees for the new roof.
The new church was built in the perpendicular gothic style while King’s College Chapel slowly took shape across the road. Great St Mary’s probably owes its delicate stone tracery to the famous mason John Wastell, who created the fan vaulting at King’s.
If you visit Great St Mary’s, you can explore the features of this striking church at the heart of the city on our interactive touchscreens.
Some of the unusual things to discover are the famous chimes, which provided the tune for big Ben, the tomb of a Reformation thinker who was burned as a heretic after his death, and the two magnificent organs – a hangover from the rivalry between ‘Town and Gown’.
Read on to find out more about Great St Mary’s.
The layout of Great St Mary’s has changed through time, in response to shifts of emphasis between the eucharist and preaching.