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Religious Buildings in Cambridge

a large building with many windows with Trinity College Library in the background

Religious buildings

Cambridge has three churches dating back nearly 1000 years – at this age it is hard to know precisely the dates, but generally agreed to be the oldest is St Bene’t’s Church, sometimes described as the city’s oldest building in continual use. The Saxon tower of this Franciscan church was built around 1025 and the round holes above the belfry windows were designed for owls to nest (they killed mice in the church). The interior is largely Victorian, and contains a bible that once belonged to Thomas Hobson (see Outdoors for details of his brook and historical connections).

Tiny St Peter’s Church in Kettle’s Yard was built some time during the 11th century using stone plundered from the remains of the Roman fort. It has two Saxon doorways and a stone font.

The Round Church opposite St John’s College was built by the Knights Templar in 1130 on the model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with an unusual circular nave ringed by chunky Norman pillars. It is one of only four churches like this in the country. By the 1990s the congregation had outgrown the church and moved to St Andrew’s Church, opposite Christ’s College, which is mainly notable for having a memorial to Captain James Cook, whose son died early while attending Christ’s College, and is buried here alongside Cook’s wife and another son.

Next in age is the Leper Chapel, built in 1125 to serve the Leper Hospital, well outside the town’s medieval eastern limits. The Chapel’s east wall is original, and none of it is later than 1279, when the hospital ceased taking new lepers as leprosy was dying out in England (possibly due to that now popular phrase ‘herd immunity’). This simple but enchanting Romanesque building is one of the finest remains of leper hospitals in the country; the interior is open on the day of Stourbridge Fair each September.

St Edward’s (or more formally, St Edward King and Martyr Church) is a little-known but historically significant church between King’s College and the Market Square. It was rebuilt in 1400 on the site of an Anglo Saxon church (St Edward was king from 975 until his death in 978), and became the “Cradle of the Reformation” when it hosted the first openly Evangelical sermon in any English church at midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1525, given by Robert Barnes (who was sentenced to prison for his crime). This followed a number of meetings led by Thomas Bilney to discuss the preachings of Martin Luther and Erasmus’s translation of the New Testament. Other noted reformers also preached here, including Hugh Latimer before he left Cambridge in 1531. He was infamously executed in 1555 in Oxford.

St Botolph’s Church, beside Corpus Christi College, and located where the medieval city’s South gate would have been, was mostly constructed in the 14th century, although the tower is 15th century and the chancel was made in 1872 by George Bodley. It has a memorial to the Darwin family, who were regulars here. The 1870 stained glass window by Charles Kempe was broken in a theft in early 2020.

Great St Mary’s Church, by the Market Square, was built from 1479-1519 in late Gothic perpendicular style, on the site of an earlier church which was here when scholars came from Oxford in 1209. It is the university church, where lectures were held in early days and degrees conferred, and still to this day undergraduates must live within three miles of here during term time. The zero-mile marker outside is the point from which all distances from Cambridge are measured, and there are bronze 3D maps of the town nearby that make a great place to get one’s bearings. Even better is to pay the steep entry fee to the tower, for a great view over King’s and other nearby colleges.

The renowned Victorian All Saints’ Church in Jesus Lane was built from 1863-70 by George Bodley, who built many college buildings including Bodley’s Court on the river in King’s College. It is English Gothic Revival with fittings in the Arts and Crafts style. Much of the interior decoration was designed by William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Charles Kempe; and David Parr (see museums) was a local worker involved in the execution of the work.

The Catholic Church on Hills Road (formally known as the Church of our Lady and the English Martyrs) is impressively large, completed in 1890 in Gothic Revival style, and the first Catholic church to be opened in the city since the Reformation. Its spire dominates one corner of Parker’s Piece.

Most religions are well-represented in the city, none finer than the fabulous new eco-friendly Cambridge Central Mosque, which opened on Mill Road in 2019. The building embraces traditional Islamic designs with English influence: a garden leads into the main building where timbers soar to the ceiling like the spreading branches of trees, echoing the fan vaults of King’s Chapel. Back along Mill Road is the Cambridge Mosque, also known as Abu Bakr Mosque, dating from 1981. Despite this unmosque-like building being deceptively large on entering, it had become far too small for the Muslim community, hence the need for the new mosque.

Cambridge Beth Shalom opened the first permanent synagogue in Cambridge in 2015 on Auckland Road, to support the growing Jewish community in the city, both among the locals, and at Cambridge University, where JSoc has flourished since 1937.

The Cambridge Buddhist Centre is part of the Triratna Buddhist Community, located in a fascinating building off Newmarket Road, which incorporates one of only four surviving pre-Victorian theatres in the country, built in 1814-16 by William Wilkins Sr and Jr. In its early days it was seen as being radical – for example, it had the first open apron stage, designed to have anti-illusionary effects so you could see the stage hands (and other backstage effects) and realise it was theatre.

Colleges have their own chapels (see University).

– Christopher Jagger ‘King’s College, Alumni’