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The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, Cambridge

A Grade I Listed Building in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

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Latitude: 52.1987 / 52°11'55"N

Longitude: 0.1274 / 0°7'38"E

OS Eastings: 545490

OS Northings: 257745

OS Grid: TL454577

Mapcode National: GBR L7H.30P

Mapcode Global: VHHK3.5Z6T

Plus Code: 9F4254XG+FX

Entry Name: The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, Cambridge

Listing Date: 26 April 1950

Last Amended: 8 November 2022

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1349061

English Heritage Legacy ID: 47478

Also known as: OLEM
Catholic Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs
Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs
Our Lady and the English Martyrs

ID on this website: 101349061

Location: Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Newtown, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB2

County: Cambridgeshire

District: Cambridge

Electoral Ward/Division: Trumpington

Parish: Non Civil Parish

Built-Up Area: Cambridge

Traditional County: Cambridgeshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Cambridgeshire

Church of England Parish: Cambridge St Paul

Church of England Diocese: Ely

Tagged with: Church building Gothic Revival

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A Roman Catholic parish church constructed between 1887 and 1890 to the designs of Dunn and Hansom of Newcastle.


A Roman Catholic parish church constructed between 1887 and 1890 to the designs of Dunn and Hansom of Newcastle.


The church is of stone construction, with Casterton stone foundations, Ancaster plinths, Combe Down exterior walls, and Bath stone (from Farleigh Down) facing the interior walls and vaults with dressings of Plymouth marble and Newbiggin stone. The pitched roofs are covered in plain tiles.


The church is not traditionally oriented and the references below refer to liturgical compass points. Liturgical east (where the altar is located) faces geographic south-east. The building has a cruciform plan with an apsidal east end, a crossing tower, basilican nave, a western narthex or antechapel and a steeple over the north porch.


The architecture of the church is inspired by the Early Decorated or Middle Pointed style of the last quarter of the C13.

The liturgical west front faces Lensfield Road with the steeple on the left-hand side and transept on the right. The large west window has six lights with geometric tracery above and is flanked by stair turrets. Above the window the gable is filled with statuary: a choir of angels rising towards the Coronation of the Virgin. The west doors stand within a wide portal with three archivolts. The tympanum is filled with fleurs de lys and, supported on a trumeau, there is a figure of the Virgin and Child at its centre. Either side of the portal there are canopied figures of St Joseph (left) and St Anne (right) and above it is a quotation from the Magnificat: ‘FECIT MIHI MAGNA QUI POTENS EST’ (He who is powerful has made me great).

The steeple stands at the liturgical north-west corner of the church at the corner of Lensfield Road and Hills Road. The tower rises in three stages with angle buttresses. The octagonal spire has pinnacles at the corners of the tower and large lucarnes at the cardinal points. The belfry stage has paired openings that have been partly in-filled with brick. Projecting out to the crossroads is a two-sided clock face supported on a large stone bracket. At the base of the tower facing Hills Road is an entrance porch, richly carved and ornamented. At the centre of the porch is a trumeau featuring St John Fisher, one of the most prominent Catholic martyrs associated with Cambridge. In the tympanum is a figure of the Virgin Mary surrounded by sensing angels and a scrolling vine populated by martyrs. The gabled canopy rises to a scene of the Crucifixion. To the left and right of the archway are elaborately pinnacled canopies housing figures of the martyred St Alban and St Thomas Becket respectively. On the liturgical east side of the tower the engaged octagonal form of the baptistery stands in the corner with the nave aisle.

The north wall of the nave is five bays long. Flying buttresses rise from the aisles, where two-light windows are surmounted by separate occuli filled with trefoils, up to the clerestorey, which has large geometric tracery, all varied. The parapet is carved with the text of the prayer 'Ave Maria', continued from the chancel: SANCTA MARIA MATER DEI ORA PRO NOBIS PECCATORIBUS NUNC ET IN HORA MORTIS NOSTRAE AMEN (Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen).

The north transept has four narrow lancets at the lower level and a large rose window above. The window has six oculi each with three rounded trefoils. At its centre is a carved figure of Christ. The carved spandrels are inhabited by the beasts of the apocalypse and above it is an inscription: PRAY FOR YE GOOD ESTATE OF YOLANDE MAR[IE] L[OUI]SE LYNE STEPHENS FOUNDRESS OF THIS CHURCH.

At the corner of the north transept and the chancel there is a pair of hipped roofs over the adoration chapel.

The chancel is apsidal and the buttresses of each bay terminate in angel pinnacles. There is a complex arrangement of glazing at triforium level with narrow lancets set behind open tracery framed by carved spandrels featuring angels. The numerous gargoyles that cover the church are most noticeable here. The large clerestorey windows all have three lights with unique geometric tracery in each bay. The parapet is carved with the beginning of the text of the Ave Maria: AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM BENEDICTA TU IN MULIERIBUS ET BENEDICTUS FRUCTUS VENTRIS TUI JESUS (Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus).

On the liturgical south side of the chancel is the chapel of the Sacred Heart and the priests’ sacristy. Both have flat roofs and the latter has square windows of three-lights topped with flowing tracery. Shrapnel damage from the Second World War remains visible on the walling at the south-east corner.

The crossing tower has two large three-light windows with geometric tracery on each side and a crenelated parapet pierced by finials. At each corner is a tall crocketed pinnacle. At the south-east corner is an open-tracery stair turret surmounted by a figure of Our Lady ringed with a choir of angels. An inscription follows the rising staircase. It is a text from the Song of Solomon (3:6 and 6:9) that is associated with the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary: QUAE EST ISTA QUAE ASCENDIT PER DESERTUM SICUT VIRGULA FUMI EX AROMANTIBUS MYRRHAE / QUAE EST ISTA QUAE PROGREDITUR QUASI AURORA CONSURGENS (Who is this that ascends out of the wilderness like a pillar of smoke, perfumed with myrrh? / Who is she that comes forth as the rising dawn?).

The principal feature of the south transept is an engaged stair turret that rises into the gable. Narrow windows and weather mouldings break up the rest of the elevation.

The south side of the nave repeats the form of the north, though the parapet is not inscribed. The terminals of the hoodmoulds feature portrait carvings of the heads of the architects, Canon Scott, Cardinal Newman, and the 15th Duke of Norfolk. The flat-roofed chapel of the Holy Souls stands in the corner between the aisle and the narthex transept. The latter has a large window at clerestorey height with four lights and geometric tracery.


The high quality of materials and decorative complexity that has been executed externally is maintained throughout the interior of the church.

The church interior is lofty and numinous. From wood block floors rise stone columns and walls, pierced by stained glass. A stone tierceron vault with carved bosses adds to the cathedral-like quality of the building.

Beginning at the liturgical west end, the interior spaces of the church include a porch at the base of the west tower, and a wide narthex or antechapel. The porch has a floor of encaustic tiles and, amongst many carved details, a sculptural portrait of Yolande Lyne-Stephens as a head stop. Above the porch, now inside the church, is a ringers gallery that opens on to the narthex through a tall open archway. The narthex is separated from the nave by an elaborate ironwork screen. On the western wall of the narthex, spiral staircases lead to a narrow gallery. The south wall of the narthex-transept has a C19 wall painting by NHJ Westlake.

The nave proper is basilican in section and rises to a clerestorey. The columns have clustered shafts and detached responds of Plymouth marble. On its north and south side respectively is an octagonal baptistery and a square chapel dedicated to the Holy Souls. The vaulted baptistery has an ironwork gate and a font carved with scenes of the Seven Sacraments.

Where the nave meets the crossing there are marble altar rails and, above, the Rood on an arched beam by B. McLean Leach (1914). Beneath the crossing is Goalen’s central altar. Above the chancel arch is a wall painting by NHJ Westlake showing Christ surrounded by the company of heaven, English martyrs and religious brethren. On the north and south sides of the crossing the transepts are separated by tall double arches.

Within the north transept a single column supports the complex vault. On the walls there are figures of St John Fisher and of St Andrew, the latter was designed by Pugin and originally belonged to the earlier mission church. At its east end is a chapel of the Adoration. The parclose screen within the transept originally enclosed the chancel until the 1970s reordering.

The south transept connects to the sacristies and to the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, which has a richly painted vault; a floor brass marking the grave of Canon Scott by Hardman of Birmingham; and a substantial carved reredos. Across the transept is a stone organ gallery with a balcony of pierced quartrefoils. The organ, by Abbott and Smith of Leeds, is contemporary with the church.

The chancel is apsidal and has a small glazed triforium. The floor is covered in encaustic tile. At its centre, on a stepped platform, is a large baldacchino modelled on a C14 tomb cover at the church of Santa Chiara in Naples.

The sacristies have oak joinery. The priests’ sacristy has a stone fireplace, now blocked by a radiator, with the inscription FLAMMESCAT IGNE CARITAS (May [our] love burn with fire).


England’s many medieval churches had been built for a Roman Catholic mode of worship (the Latin rite). Elizabeth I’s 1559 Act of Uniformity rendered them all part of the Church of England and outlawed the Catholic Mass. The following two centuries imposed upon a diminishing minority of Catholic worshippers in England severe civil inequalities, public suspicion and periods of outright persecution. Catholic observance in Cambridge all but disappeared as the town became a centre of Protestantism and Puritanism.

The Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791 permitted the first new generation of Catholic places of worship to be built in England and Wales since the Reformation. They were forbidden to feature bells or steeples and were typically small, classically or domestically detailed, and were often hidden or set back from public view. The 1829 Act of Emancipation removed most remaining inequalities from Catholic worship and was accompanied by a growing architectural confidence.

For the first quarter of the C19 the nearest place for Catholic worship in Cambridge was at Sawston Hall, roughly 10km south of the city. In 1842, in the face of serious opposition, the first post-Reformation Catholic church in Cambridge was constructed on Union Road. Dedicated to St Andrew, the new church was designed by the highly influential architect AWN Pugin (1812-1852). By 1879 the small congregation at St Andrew’s set out to build a larger church and the adjoining land on Lensfield Road was bought by the Diocese of Northampton for that purpose, supported financially by the Duke of Norfolk. The old church would later be dismantled and re-erected as the Church of the Sacred Heart in St Ives, Huntingdonshire (Grade II).

Responsibility for the creation of the new church was given to Canon Christopher Scott in 1884, and in the same year Yolande Lyne-Stephens agreed to fund the entire cost of the new building and its presbytery. A competition for the design of the church was won by Dunn & Hansom of Newcastle. Bishop Riddell of Northampton laid the foundation stone on 30 June 1887 and the building was consecrated in October 1890. The majority of the work was carried out by the significant local firm of Rattee & Kett. As with the earlier church, the project was dogged by serious anti-Catholic opposition. The new church was dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs (in later years referred to as OLEM). By the time of its completion the total cost had risen from £30,000 to £70,000.

The new building was one of the largest Catholic churches in the country in 1890 and was built at a prominent crossroads sometimes known as Hyde Park Corner. The height of the spire at 65 metres is only slightly lower than the tower of Ely Cathedral. Its large size, landmark features and arresting architectural detail were intended in part to befit its anticipated role as the centre of Catholic life at the University, though soon after its completion a dedicated Catholic chaplaincy was established instead.

On Shrove Tuesday 1941 bomb damage caused the stained glass in the apse and aisles to shatter; the windows were later repaired by the Hardman firm. Whilst the repairs were underway, some plain or simplified glass was introduced to improve the level of light to the interior. The priests’ sacristy and the chapel of the Sacred Heart were also damaged.

A major reordering following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was proposed in 1972-3 but resulted instead in a less radical scheme directed by Gerard Goalen who introduced the central altar. (A major architect of the Liturgical movement in Catholic church design, Goalen was born in 1918 and died in Cambridge in 1999.)

Archibald Dunn (1832-1912) and Charles Hansom (1842-1900) began their architectural partnership in 1871 and were later joined by Dunn’s son, also called Archibald, in 1887. They specialised in Catholic building projects, often in the north of England. Many of their buildings are now listed, some at a high grade, including the tower of the Catholic cathedral in Newcastle (Grade I), and the chapel of Stonyhurst College (Grade II*).

Yolande Lyne-Stephens was born Pauline Duvernay and had been a successful ballet dancer in France before her marriage to Stephen Lyne-Stephens. On the death of her husband in 1860 she inherited a considerable fortune and became a generous supporter of Catholic causes. Her patronage for Catholic church buildings included the support of the mission at St Mary’s Church in Thetford, and the construction of a chapel at her estate in Lynford, Norfolk (both Grade II*).

Reasons for Listing

The Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, a Roman Catholic parish church constructed between 1887 and 1890 to the designs of Dunn and Hansom of Newcastle, is listed at Grade I for the following principal reasons:

Architectural interest:
* as the work of Dunn and Hansom, a highly significant architectural partnership noteworthy for their major contribution to the late-C19 architecture of the Catholic church in England;
* for the building's landmark quality, found in its prominent position in the streetscape and skyline of Cambridge;
* for the exceptional quality of its craftsmanship, architectural detail and building materials;
* as an encompassing architectural vision, rich in symbolism internally and externally.

Historic interest:
* as the physical legacy of the nationwide growth in the Catholic community during the C19;
* as a record of the changing attitudes towards Catholicism in the late C19, seen in the contrast between the elaborate public display of the building's clear Catholic identity and the prevailing hostility still evident locally at the time of its construction;
* as a significant example of female architectural patronage, being an entire church and separately listed presbytery produced for a single patron and completed in a single phase of work.

Group value:
* for the strong visual and functional relationship with the attached Grade II listed presbytery, walls, gates and piers.

External Links

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