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The University Church

To the east of Great St Mary's lies the market square, with its busy stalls and imposing Guildhall – the hub of civic trade and politics.

To the west is the Senate House – the University’s administrative and ceremonial headquarters.

GSM (12 of 13) (678x1024)Since its foundation in the 13th century, Great St Mary’s has served both townspeople and scholars.

Within this church marriages, birth and deaths have been marked, lectures delivered, degrees conferred, judgements made and grievances aired.

Heart of the University

When scholars arrived in Cambridge over 800 years ago, Great St Mary’s became the first home of the University: the bells summoned students to lectures and debates and ceremonies took place here.

This church has played a central role in the University’s academic and ceremonial life ever since.

Before the first scholars arrived in Cambridge in 1209, St. Mary’s was the parish church for people living around the busy medieval market.


Town and Gown TensionsNuremberg Chronicle

As tensions grew between the University men and the townspeople, Great St Mary’s was often the forum for town-gown disputes.

During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, a mob of Cambridge townspeople stormed into Great St Mary’s during mass. Breaking open the university chest, they burned the precious documents in the marketplace.

The rebels were punished harshly by King Richard II, with the leaders beheaded in the market.

The balance of power tipped in the University’s favour when the King gave the scholars the right to regulate weights and measures and the price of food and drink.

University officials survey weights and measures and burn those found to be false. Cambridge University Archives, UA Hare A.1, f.267v (detail). Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

University officials survey weights and measures and burn those found to be false.
Cambridge University Archives, UA Hare A.1, f.267v (detail). Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Fights often broke out between local men and students, but scholars who committed a crime could avoid prosecution in the civil courts, and instead be tried by the more sympathetic University authorities under church law.

One focus for local resentment of the University was the ‘Magna Congregatio’ or ‘Black Assembly’. This meeting between academic and civic authorities took place in Great St Mary’s each year in October.

The first Black Assembly took place in 1268, when King Henry III ordered the mayor and selected townsmen and scholars to swear to keep the peace.

Later, the town authorities also had to swear obedience to the University.

The Black Assembly. Cambridge University Archives, UA Hare A.1, f.152r (detail). Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

The Black Assembly. Cambridge University Archives, UA Hare A.1, f.152r (detail). Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

The Black Assembly was finally abolished in 1856 and the relationship between the civic and University authorities began to improve, although fights remained common in Victorian times.

Cambridge University Library, Cam.c.824.15. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

The Battle of Peas Hill in November 1820 was an unusually fierce fight around market square between town and gown. Cambridge University Library, Cam.c.824.15. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.


Place of Preaching

Like all churches, Great St Mary’s is a place of preaching.

Sermons and lectures were a particularly important part of academic life so, as the University Church, Great St Mary’s attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the time to preach here.

This illustration shows the doctors' gallery blocking the east end, with the triple-decker pulpit in the nave. From R. Ackermann's 'History of the University of Cambridge', 1815.

This illustration shows the doctors’ gallery blocking the east end, with the triple-decker pulpit in the nave.
From R. Ackermann’s ‘History of the University of Cambridge’, 1815.

Their audience of scholars would often go on to have significant intellectual, political and religious influence.

In 1303 the University ordered that a special sermon should be preached at Great St Mary’s four times a year. The tradition of the University Sermon continues to this day.

Academics took it in turns to preach at Great St Mary’s on Sundays and for many years attendance was compulsory: regulations from 1750 state that students who failed to turn up to Sunday sermons would be fined sixpence.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams often speaks at Great St Mary's. Photograph © Louis Sinclair.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams often speaks at Great St Mary’s. Photograph © Louis Sinclair.

Sermons could be a matter of life and death: great Protestant thinkers including Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley taught and studied at Cambridge, preached in this church and were all later burned as heretics by Mary I.

Arguments about the importance of preaching have dictated changes to the layout of Great St Mary’s.

During the 18th century, the sermon became the main focus of theology teaching and the whole church interior was transformed.

Attention turned to the three-decker pulpit in the centre, and galleries were built on all sides to hold the huge audiences for sermons.

Today, Great St Mary’s is still known for insightful and progressive preaching.