Little Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge

History of LSM

There has probably been a place of worship on the current site, just outside the original town walls, since before the Norman Conquest. Surviving fragments of typically Anglo-Saxon carved interlace from the original church can be seen inside the north entrance porch and near the south-west exterior corner of the Parish Centre, where they have been reset. According to the earliest known records, this church, known as St Peter without Trumpington Gate to distinguish it from the other St Peter by the Castle, was served by three successive generations of the same family, beginning with Langline who was in office around the date of the Conquest. If the records are to be believed, his successor Segar officiated as parson for eighty years and was followed by Henry, who in his turn held the position for another sixty! At some time during one of these prodigious incumbencies the little Saxon church seems to have been rebuilt in stone by the Normans.

Around 1207 the church was given to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist, the forerunner of St John's College, and served by chaplains from that foundation. Remains of the tower of St Peter's can still be seen at the north-west corner of LSM; the present entrance from the porch incorporates the former tower arch and gives us a good impression of the small scale of the original building.

LSM and Emmanuel URC

Some time in the 1280s Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, lodged some scholars in the hospital, but quickly discovered that the students and sick people did not get on well together, and therefore moved the students in 1284 into two houses on the south side of St Peter's, allowing them the use of the church as their chapel. That was the origin of Peterhouse, the first Cambridge College.

By the 1340s St Peter's was in such decrepit condition that Peterhouse was obliged to rebuild it; the tottering chancel finally collapsed in 1350. In 1352 the new building was rededicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Grace. To distinguish it from the University Church of Great Saint Mary it became known as Saint Mary the Less. Until the 17th century it remained a dual-purpose structure, serving as both college chapel and parish church — as did our neighbouring church of St Bene't which doubled as the chapel for Corpus Christi (or Bene't) College until the late 16th century, and the chapel at Merton College, Oxford (very similarly proportioned to LSM) which for a long time was also the parish church of St John Baptist. Many members of Peterhouse are buried in the church; there is a memorial brass in memory of John Holgate, a Master who died in 1436, and another dated around 1500 commemorating an unknown doctor. Sadly both our ancient brasses are incomplete.

ancient screen doors
In 1450 a sixth bay was added at the west end of the original five-bay nave to serve as an ante-chapel for the parishioners, who were separated from the collegiate chapel by an oak screen. This screen was removed in the reordering of 1741, and its ancient doors now hang on the stone staircase which leads directly across a bridge into the college, built to give the Petreans direct access to an upper chamber (the present choir vestry) affording a view of the sanctuary.

high altar and east window


The beauty of the church arises from its light and airy open plan and the delicacy of its Decorated tracery, which is noticeable especially in the fine east window. Writing in 1910, Fr Edward Conybeare called it "the only really beautiful church in Cam- bridge." The similarity of the design to that of the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral (1349) suggests that they may both be the work of Alan of Walsingham, sacrist of the cathedral and architect of the central octagon there. The church of St Andrew at Sutton, a few miles west of Ely, also has similar windows dating from a decade or two later. The absence of aisles and pillars at LSM affords clear sightlines, making the space visually and acoustically ideal for musical and dramatic performances as well as for preaching and liturgy, that twin ministry of Word and Sacrament which is at the centre of the church's corporate life.

When a separate chapel was consecrated in Peterhouse in 1632 during the Mastership of Matthew Wren, uncle of Sir Christopher, LSM reverted to being simply a parish church, but the college remains the patron of the living. Peterhouse and LSM at this time were twin foci of the Laudian High Church movement in Cambridge. Richard Crashaw, the metaphysical poet, ministered at LSM while he was a Fellow of Peterhouse from 1638. In 1643 he was ejected from his fellowship and fled into exile abroad (eventually dying at Loreto in the Italian Marches), and at the end of that year the church's decorations and ornaments were badly damaged by the Puritan iconoclast William Dowsing, who recorded triumphantly that he "brake downe 60 superstitious pictures, some popes, and crucifixes, and God the Father sitting in a chayer, and holding a globe in His hand." Dowsing then went on to the new chapel at Peterhouse where he wrought further destruction.

Washington memorial
Godfrey Washington
ministered at LSM from 1705 until his death in 1729. His memorial, on the north wall just at the entrance to the church, is always a focus of interest for our American visitors because it displays the stars and stripes of the Washington family arms (or in more technical heraldic terms "Argent, two bars Gules, in chief three mullets of the last") surmounted by a black eagle crest. This is thought to be the origin of "Old Glory", the flag of the United States of America, of which Godfrey's great-nephew George was to become the first President.

Le Keux print


In 1741 the church was refitted with wooden panelling, box pews, choir gallery and a central pulpit surmounted by a magnificent tester with mahogany inlay (now removed to its present position on the north side of the chancel). All this cost a mere £30!

The Royal Arms of George II, painted by Valentine Ritz who is buried in the churchyard, were installed around the same time. A print of 1840 by John Le Keux gives us a glimpse of that Georgian interior. 


Royal Arms

The 18th-century woodwork was removed when Sir George Gilbert Scott restored the church in 1857. Further work took place in 1876 and 1891, but by 1880 the church appeared substantially as it does now. Scott's reredos from his 1876 restoration has been repositioned on the west wall of the nave; it is of Flemish oak with figures carved in Bruges. The stained glass of the east window, representing the Resurrection, is by Charles Eamer Kempe and dates from 1886. The west window (a Jesse Tree of 1890) and the north-east window of 1903, showing the Crucifixion, are also by Kempe. All the other windows are more recent. The high altar, with its riddel posts inspired by the Use of Sarum (the variant  of the pre-Tridentine Roman rite customary in most dioceses of medieval England) was designed by Sir Ninian Comper in 1913. The six heraldic panels in the lowermost register of the east window, below Kempe's work, were added by Comper at the same time and bear his strawberry signature.

Lady Chapel


The Lady Chapel (dedicated to the Holy Sepulchre, St Mary and All Saints) occupies the site of the 16th-century Hornby chantry, and was added in 1931 to the neoclassical design of Thomas Henry Lyon, architect of Sidney Sussex College Chapel and of St George's Church in the north Cambridge suburb of Chesterton. After an extensive programme of restoration and redecoration, the chapel was reopened and rededicated at Easter 2018.

crypt chapel


The lovely little chapel of the Holy Angels and All Souls in the 14th-century crypt under the sacristy, formerly a medieval ossuary or charnel-house, and later a store room for Peterhouse, was restored in 1961 by Stephen Dykes Bower. It is the only such crypt chapel in Cambridge. Like the Lady Chapel it is still in regular use for weekday services.

The organ was completed in 2007 by Kenneth Tickell of Northampton. Its pipework and action are completely new, but it is housed within the neo-Perpendicular case designed by Lawrence Bond in 1978 for the previous instrument by Bishop & Sons of Ipswich.

The Parish Room at the west end was added in 1892 by William Milner Fawcett (who also planned a west tower that was never built) and enlarged in 1990 and again in 2011 to provide the present Parish Centre, an award-winning contemporary design by Cowper Griffith.

Further reading

See also our timeline of incumbents.