Cambridge Round Church
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
Why round, when most European churches are built more or less in a cross shape? The round shape was believed to represent resurrection, since Constantine's church was though to stand over the site where Jesus was buried, and where he subsequently rose from the dead. Given this symbolic meaning, it is perhaps surprising that more English churches were not built to a round design. Today only four medieval round churches survive; this one, Temple Church in London, St John's in Little Maplestead, Essex, and Holy Sepulchre in Northampton. All were constructed after the First Crusade of 1097, so presumably the returning Crusaders brought back stories about Constantine's church and these ideas influenced the builders of the new church. The circular ambulatory is also symbolic of the circle of life, followed by death, and finally resurrection.
Holy Sepulchre seemed in imminent danger of collapse, when a saviour stepped in to restore the church. The restoration was the work of the Cambridge Camden Society, who only undertook the essential rebuilding on condition that they were give a free hand. At that time there was a a strong belief, fostered by such writers as John Ruskin, that the early medieval Gothic, or Early English style of architecture was the almost perfect expression of religious architecture.
The Society was convinced that they had a mission to recreate the 'perfection' of Early English design, which in their eyes required a church to have a nave and chancel with a chancel arch between, a porch attached to the nave, and a vestry attached to the chancel. All these features were built into the restoration plans. The Camden Society called on Anthony Salvin, a leading architect with experience in restoring medieval castles. Salvin got rid of the 15th century windows and replaced them with new ones in Norman style. He tore down the central tower and replaced it with a conical bell turret.
In a zealous attempt to recreate their vision of medieval Christian perfection the Society inserted a stone altar and a credence table in the chancel. To a modern reader this might seem so innocuous as to be hardly worth a mention. But to zealous Victorian Christians this was an act tantamount to trying to roll back the English Reformation. The local vicar objected and took his objections to the ecclesiastical courts, who agreed with him and the Society was forced to back down. They replaced the altar with a wooden version, which we can see today. Interestingly, this turmoil and court case caused the Cambridge Camden Society to go through a period of upheaval, and almost collapse itself, before being reborn as the Ecclesiological Society, in which guise they were one of the most influential voices for church restoration throughout the Victorian period. They influenced designers, architects, and lay people alike, and are still an active organisation today, helping to preserve and restore historic churches.
The Victorian restoration included the addition of a south aisle and a separate bell tower. They also inserted a stained glass east window, which was damaged by bombing during WWII and replaced by a modern window. Much of the Victorian stained glass remains, however, and it is well worth a look. Many of the windows were designed by Thomas Willement and William Wailes, two of the most prominent Victorian artists working in what the Society called an 'archaeological' style.
By 1994 the small church was simply inadequate to handle the sizeable congregation, and they moved to St Andrew the Less. After a time in limbo, the church was taken over by the Christian Heritage charity, who keep it open to visitors. Christian Heritage offer regular guided walks of Cambridge, and have erected displays around the church telling the story of the church and Christianity in the history of Cambridge.
As of this writing the church is open every day during daylight hours. There is a small admission fee, though to be honest it is so small as to be almost absurd given the historical interest of this wonderful church.
Summing up the Round Church
One of the most enjoyable small churches in East Anglia. The interior is not replete with furnishings; you can see the bones of the building in the nave and ambulatory. The aisles are more crowded and probably of less interest to most visitors, though the carved angel roof is well worth a look. But it is the marvellous circular nave and ambulatory, with the wonderful medieval carvings, that make this such an enjoyable church to visit. a real gem.
About Round Church
Address: Round Church Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
Attraction Type: Historic Church
Website: Round Church
OS: TL448 588
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Historic Time Periods:
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Medieval (Time Period) -
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Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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