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 St Peter by the Castle (ad Castrum), 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. The single bell, cast in Stamford in 1608, was rehoused in a small turret during the late 19th century and is now struck electrically, sounding the hours during the day and also the Angelus at noon and 6pm.

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. This was the origin of Peterhouse, the first Cambridge College.

Brass of John Holbrook


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 Benedict 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 LSM: there is a memorial brass in the centre of the chancel to John Holbrook (or Holbroke), a Master of the college, mathematician and Chancellor of the University, who died in 1437. Another brass, smaller and dated around 1500, commemorates 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, sacristan of the cathedral and architect of the central octagon there. The niches in the chancel (now containing figures of the patron saints Peter and Mary), the triple sedilia and the piscina uncovered in George Gilbert Scott's 1876 restoration are also typical of the mid-14th century. The church of St Andrew at Sutton in the Isle, 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 notorious Puritan iconoclast William "Smasher" Dowsing, whose journal entries for December gloat 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." A few days earlier Dowsing had wrought similar destruction next door in the new chapel at "Peter-house".

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 point 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.

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! A west gallery added in 1824 was subsequently removed.

Le Keux print

 

 

 

 

A print of 1840 by John Le Keux gives us a glimpse of that Georgian interior

Royal Arms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Arms of George II, painted by Valentine Ritz who is buried in the churchyard, were installed around the same time.

 

The 18th-century woodwork was removed in 1857 when Sir George Gilbert Scott restored the church (by then, according to Willis Clark in The Ecclesiologist, "a mournful skeleton of its former self"). Further work took place in 1876 and 1891, but by 1880 the church appeared substantially as it does now. Scott's reredos from that period was later 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 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, were also glazed 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 characteristic strawberry signature. The two central coats of arms in the lower panels are those of John Willis Clark (1833-1910), Registrary of the University and Fellow of Trinity, and his wife Francisca. The other arms are those of Peterhouse, Trinity College, Cambridge University and the Diocese of Ely.

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 the late 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 reopened the Norman arch to form the present entrance to the nave, and planned a west tower that was never built). It was 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.