A Brief History
by Fr Robert van de Weyer
The Romans built a fort on high ground on the north-west side of the Cam at the first good crossing place south of the Fens. A later Anglo-Saxon settlement there became known as Chesterton meaning the settlement or village by the fort. In the 9th Century England was invaded by a Viking army that was eventually pushed back into East Anglia by Alfred the Great. The Vikings or Danes settled on the opposite side of the river to the fort in the short period before Alfred’s successors took control of the country. The Danes were encouraged to convert to Christianity and many of their early churches were dedicated to St Clement, one of the first Bishops of Rome, who had become popular with seafarers at that time. His symbol is an anchor referring to his martyrdom by being tied to an anchor in 101AD.
The initial settlement was extended south by the Saxons along the Roman road towards Colchester (Bridge Street/Sidney Street/St Andrews Street) and the road to London (St Johns Street/Trinity Street/Kings Parade/Trumpington Street) so that by the Norman Conquest there were ten parishes forming the town of Cambridge, with St Clement’s occupying the area of the original settlement. We do not know when the first church, assumed to be timber, was built, but in the early 13th Century work started on a stone church in the Gothic style which was then new to Cambridge. The nave arcades and south door survive from that time.
At about the same time the patronage and income of the church were given to the nearby convent of the ‘glorious virgin St Radegund’. In 1496 due to the ‘the imprudent and dissolute character and incontinency of the prioresses and religious women’ the nunnery was closed and the buildings used to found Jesus College. The college remains the patron of St Clement’s today.
In the early 16th Century St Clement’s was largely rebuilt and the aisle and clerestory windows date from that time. In the following centuries the church was affected by changing religious fashions. The chancel was demolished when Protestants had more time for lectures than religious ceremonies, and was rebuilt in the 18th Century when there was a swing back in the other direction. In the 19th Century followers of the Oxford Movement wanted to restore the pre-Reformation style of service and the chancel was transformed to suit. The church became for a time the leading Anglo-Catholic church in Cambridge, and it has stayed in that tradition ever since. The chancel is a fine example of Arts and Crafts style decoration, and has an exceptional mural on the east wall painted by Frederick Leach in 1872.
The previously strong Anglo-Catholic congregation declined in the 1950s and became unable to support a paid priest. In the 1980s it agreed to share the building with the Greek Orthodox community in Cambridge, an arrangement which lasted nearly thirty years but did not generate the funds necessary to keep the church in good repair. When the Greek Orthodox community left St Clement’s, a new Priest-in-Charge and a still small but reinvigorated congregation found the means to end the decline and establish a secure future for the church, with the help of the new arrangement with the Russian Orthodox congregation of St Ephraim the Syrian.