Archive for February, 2017

Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge and its Royal Patrons

February 24, 2017





In the very heart of historic Cambridge, stands a tall and elegant late Perpendicular Gothic church, sandwiched between the colleges and market square.

The church of St Mary the Virgin has stood on the site since 1205; the first recorded rector being Thomas de Chiveley who was appointed in the reign of King John.

The church was burnt to the ground in 1290. The local Jewish population were blamed for this unfortunate event and were punished by shutting down their synagogue. After the rebuilding of the church it was re-named Great St Mary’s, to differentiate it from Little St Mary’s in 1351.

King Edward III was a benefactor of the church at this time, along with his re-founding of King’s Hall in Cambridge which was later assimilated into Trinity College during the reign of King Henry VIII.


Arms of King Edward III and his sons over the gateway to Trinity College, Cambridge


‘Great St. Mary’s was the first home of the University when scholars came from Oxford in 1209. Here lectures were given, degrees conferred and celebrations held.’


After the rebuilding, the church became the official meeting place for university debates and it held official records which were raided by angry peasants who dragged them out of the building to burn in the square in 1381 during the Peasant’s Revolt.

From 1478 the church was remodelled and rebuilt under the patronage of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III. Richard had several connections to Cambridge University, as early as 1475 and seems to have been a great patron of the university and its churches.



Richard III – Patron of Great St Mary’s Church from 1470’s – 1485



‘In 1478-79, Richard gave £20 for the rebuilding of the university church, Great St Mary.  Even after his death his support for the church continued to have an effect.’ 


The rebuilding of the nave was begun in the late 1470s, at the time of Richard’s gift.   (Thomas) Barowe, who had intended the church as a monument to Richard, would with his gift have secured its completion.  Possibly he was continuing a process initiated by Richard’s gift of £20, as there are records stating that he acted as a messenger to bring gifts from Richard to Cambridge. [Brooke, pp.18-21; Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, p.113]’


On 7 April 1481, the congregation of the university wrote a remarkable letter to the then Duke of Gloucester.  In it they announce that in gratitude for the many favours he had shown them, they would “ask every Cambridge doctor or bachelor or theology who preached at [two places in London famous for their Easter celebrations] to mention Richard by name, to commend him to their listeners, and ask for prayers for his well being,” an honour which had never been granted to anyone before.  In early 1480 or 1481 two representatives of the University travelled to London to see Richard – a six day journey in bad weather.  In 1482 the University staged a procession to celebrate his victory against the Scots. [Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.112-114]

The good relationship continued when Richard became king.  Probably in late June 1483, the University wrote to Richard to ask for his mercy towards one of their graduates, Thomas Rotherham, the Archbishop of York, who was Chancellor at that time.  He had been arrested on 13 June 1483 in connection with the Hastings affair.  Rotherham was released in due course. [Sutton, Visser-Fuchs, ‘Universities’, pp.95-99] Richard visited the University in early March 1484 and was welcomed with a procession and masses.  They also decided to say a special mass every year on 2 May for Richard and Anne.

Richard visited the church of Great St Mary in March 1484 during his progress through Cambridge. Masses were said for the King, his queen consort, Anne Neville and his wider family and were to be said every year thereafter on 2nd May but Bosworth intervened and so the thanksgiving turned to masses for the repose of his soul.

‘As soon as they would hear of his death they would perform a special funeral mass, a promise they kept, as the accounts for 1485 show the expense for candles used at the ‘exequies of King Richard”. [Sutton & Visser Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.114-115]


Nave of Great St Mary’s, showing the fair proportions and decoration on the arches and hammer beam ceiling

On 21 January 1495, Thomas Barowe, a close associate of Richard and master of the rolls and keeper of the great seal, gave the extravagant amount of £240 to the rebuilding of the church and for “masses, prayers and ceremonies in honour of King Richard III and Dr Thomas Barowe – who were to be enrolled in the list of the university’s benefactors”.  Richard was for a while politely forgotten, but has more recently been restored.’


The date here is notable as 1495 was also the year when King Henry VII paid £10 for the erection of a tomb over Richard’s hastily dug grave site in the Grey Friar’s church in Leicester, including a now lost effigy. Perhaps Thomas Barowe judged the time to be right, a decade after Bosworth, for re-asserting his master’s memory in Cambridge?

I wonder how this was viewed by the Tudor regime and the king’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, in particular? Her protégé, John Fisher, placed great importance in prayer for the souls of the dead and therefore she may have accepted this tribute to her political rival with humility and respect. We are, perhaps, too quick to judge the actions of a woman who lived by a very different set of moral precepts than ourselves and who operated in a world where care for the souls of the departed was a Christian duty, even for those who were on the opposite side in a bloody and divisive civil conflict.

Richard’s contemporary and political adversary, Lady Margaret Beaufort was also a major patron of the church. Along with her university foundations of Christ’s College in 1505 and St John’s College which was completed after her death in 1511, under the guidance of John Fisher, Margaret was a keen patron of learning and religious interpretation. She gave funds to the church to assist in the completion of the rebuilding project.

Lady Margaret was a great friend of John Fisher who became her personal confessor, executor of her will and who sermonised at her funeral and memorial service. John Fisher was a Cambridge man who was the Master of Michaelhouse between 1497-1505 which stands next door to Great St Mary’s and spoke at the church along with Margaret’s other protégé,  Erasmus who became her Professor of Divinity in 1511.

Erasmus is thought to have composed the epitaph to Lady Margaret on her tomb in Westminster Abbey. He said of his friend, John Fisher:

“He is the one man at this time who is incomparable for uprightness of life, for learning and for greatness of soul.”[6]


John Fisher- friend to Lady Margaret Beaufort, first Lady Margaret Beaufort Professor of Divinity at Cambridge in 1502 who preached at Great St Mary’s church in the early C16th

John Fisher held several key positions within the university establishment including the first Professorship of Divinity which was set up by Lady Margaret in 1502 and actively promoted humanist learning at Cambridge, using Lady Margaret’s influence to encourage scholars like Erasmus to come to Cambridge and championing the study and interpretation of Greek and Hebrew in scriptural study and promoting popular preaching in the town. He famously stood against Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’ and paid with his life becoming a Catholic martyr and saint.

It is fascinating to wonder what Lady Margaret would have made of her grandson’s actions regarding these men who she had fostered and encouraged in their new learning and what her reaction would have been to the consequences of their desire to read scripture in its purest form.




Her connection with Cambridge is still evident today in the highly decorated gateways which display her personal badge of the Beaufort Portcullis and mythical Yale creatures, at St John’s College and Christ’s College.


Lady Margaret Beaufort’s crest and badges in St John’s College, Cambridge



Statue of Lady Margaret Beaufort over the gateway of Christ’s College, Cambridge with her arms and badges displayed underneath


It is intriguing to imagine the relationship between Lady Margaret and Great St Mary’s with its former Yorkist associations and the proximity between Great St Mary’s and King’s College, just a few metres away, loaded with its Lancastrian badges and links to Henry VI.

Lady Margaret was a driving force behind the completion of King’s College Chapel by her son, Henry VII but it had been King Richard III who had commanded work was re-started on King’s College and had lent his own glazier and masons to the task. The first six bays had been completed in the two short years of his reign yet no sign of his patronage remains!

Similarly, the foundation of Queen’s College was linked to various consorts from Marguerite of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville to Anne Neville:

‘During Richard’s reign, when he made further grants to the College, Queen Anne was also considered a founder, but that was “conveniently forgotten when political circumstances changed in 1485”.  Andrew Doket remained as president until his death in 1484 and worked tirelessly for the benefit of the college.  [Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.121-129; Ross, p. 135]

‘(King Richard III) gave instructions that “the building should go on with all possible despatch” and to “press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed”.  He also sent his own master plumber and glazier to help with the building. This result was that by the end of his reign the first six bays had reached full height, of this the first five were roofed with oak and lead and were in use. The University thanked him for funding and “erecting the buildings of King’s College, the unparalleled ornament of England.”  Drawings of a planned tower still exist, which can be dated to 1484.’ [‘History of the Chapel’; Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, ‘Cambridge’, pp.116-117]



King’s College Chapel – the great vision of King Henry VI, completed by his Lancastrian ‘heir’ Henry VII and heavy with Tudor symbolism

This photograph of King’s College Chapel was taken from the roof of Great St Mary’s and shows just how close the two buildings are to one another.

The relationship between Richard III and Margaret Beaufort has been the subject of much debate over the years. How much personal animosity existed between the two and to what extent did Margaret revel in his fall and enjoy claiming ownership of his possessions? She was famously given his own personal Book of Hours after it was taken from his tent at Bosworth and it is perhaps revealing that she wanted to continue his work both at Great St Mary’s and at King’s College to ensure that her own dynasty’s badges were carved on the walls and remembered as significant benefactors and patrons.

Some have argued that Richard’s interest in King’s College stemmed from his guilt over the murder of King Henry VI and his desire to make amends for this by fostering the construction of Henry’s great project. However, Richard’s associations with Cambridge and interest in the churches and colleges suggests that he was just keen to see the work completed and to be part of the construction of such a beautiful and remarkable building so there be no sinister interpretation in his actions or those of Lady Margaret. Both were pious and saw their patronage as a further expression of their Christian faith and praise of God and their duty as members of the elite ruling class to leave buildings and good public works behind them.

During the turbulent years of the Reformation, reformers like Martin Bucer spoke from the pulpit of Great St Mary’s; so compellingly that even in deadly repose he was considered enough of a threat that Queen Mary Tudor had his already dead body burned in the marketplace!

‘The contract also survives for the building of the magnificent rood loft in 1522–3, the scale of which was made possible by the great height of the new nave. (fn. 170) The loft was demolished in 1562 by Parker’s orders. (fn. 171) The tower, the first stone of which was laid in 1491, was completed as far as the belfry in 1596, when the parish books record that ‘this year all our bells are rung out and was never before’ [sic]. (fn. 172) The corner turrets were completed in 1608, (fn. 173) when John Warren, churchwarden and acting clerk of the works, was killed in an accident. An inscription on the tower wall, copied from his former monument, records:
Here John Warren sleeps among the dead, Who with the church his own life finished.’ (fn. 174)


In Richard and Margaret’s time the tower had not yet been completed so the bells were hung on a wooden frame in the vicinity of the church to call the faithful to prayer. Once the tower was completed a set of five bells were hung in 1596, but chimes were not installed until 1671 when Charles II visited.

When, in 1722–3, the bells were recast (for the fourth time) and increased from eight to ten the chimes were replaced by change-ringing, and the society of bellringers was founded. (fn. 187) The quarter-hour chimes now sounded from St. Mary were composed and installed in 1793 by Joseph Jowett of Trinity Hall, Professor of Civil Law. He may have been assisted by William Crotch, a former pupil of the organist of St. Mary. Having been copied at the new Houses of Parliament in 1859, the Cambridge chimes have been widely adopted by the name of the Westminster Quarters. (fn. 188) Since 1769 the bells have numbered twelve; they are considered perhaps the finest toned in the eastern counties.’


The church remains at the heart of Cambridge today, full of history and the ghosts of its many patrons and visitors, reforming speakers and angry mobs. It is well worth a visit, especially to climb the 132 steps up the narrow spiral staircase to view the whole of Cambridge stretched out around you on every side and to contemplate the great sweep of our rich history and some of the benefactors who assisted in its growth and present appearance.


External view of the of Great St Mary’s heading towards the market place