Building » Cambridge – Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs

Cambridge – Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs

Hills Road, Cambridge, CB2 1JR

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

  • Image copyright Alex Ramsay

A large church in Decorated Gothic style, designed by Dunn, Hansom & Dunn of Newcastle and built in 1887-90 at the sole expense of Mrs Yolande Lyne-Stephens under the supervision of Canon Christopher Scott. The church and its large rectory (by the same architects, in a contrasting Tudor style) were intended by Canon Scott as the centre of Catholic worship in the university town. The church was complete both structurally and decoratively at its opening, with almost all of its furnishings installed. It occupies a prominent corner site and its 214 ft spire is a notable feature of the Cambridge skyline. With the adjoining rectory the church makes a major contribution to the Cambridge Central Conservation Area.

After the Reformation Cambridge became a centre of Protestantism and Puritanism, and public Catholic observance all but disappeared. The first post-Reformation Catholic church was St Andrews, Union Road, designed by A.W.N. Pugin and built in 1842. In 1879 the adjoining Lensfield estate was acquired by the Diocese of Northampton as a site for a new and larger church, with financial assistance from the Duke of Norfolk. In 1884 the convert Canon Christopher Scott was given charge of the mission and in the same year Mrs Yolande Lyne-Stephens agreed to fund the full cost of both a new church and presbytery. Mrs Lyne-Stephens was previously Yolande Duvernay, a successful French ballet dancer who in 1845 had married Mr Stephens Lyne-Stephens, a banker and Tory MP with an inherited family fortune from glass manufacture in Portugal. He purchased Lynford Hall in 1856 but died in 1860. His widow was a generous supporter of Catholic causes, including the church at Lynford (qv). 

A limited competition was held for the design of the new church, open to Catholic architects, and the winners were Dunn & Hansom of Newcastle (Dunn, Hansom & Dunn from 1887). The original design was described as Early English, but evolved into a rich Early Decorated style. A large presbytery in red brick Tudor style, also designed by Dunn, Hansom & Dunn, was completed in 1887. The foundation stone of the church was laid by Bishop Riddell of Northampton on 30 June 1887 and the finished building was consecrated in October 1890. The opening was a major occasion, attended by nearly all the bishops of England and Wales and many leading lay Catholics. The large size of both church and presbytery is explained in part by Canon Scott’s expectation that this would become the centre of mission to the university; in the event however, a separate university chaplaincy was established in 1895. The church was complete both structurally and decoratively at its opening, with almost all its furnishings installed. To achieve this, the original estimate of £30,000 rose to a final cost of about £70,000.

The interior of the church, which is popularly known as OLEM, has been altered little since it opened. There was some minor bomb damage in 1941 which shattered the stained glass in the apse and aisles, repaired after the war by the Hardman firm. Proposals for a major reordering of the interior were put forward in 1972-3 but were resisted and a less radical scheme was implemented under the direction of Gerard Goalen; his altar was consecrated by Bishop Grant of Northampton in April 1973.

In 1920 a prefabricated building that had been used during the First World War as a ward at the First Eastern General Hospital on Newmarket Road was purchased by Baron Anatole Von Hügel, a major local Catholic benefactor, and moved to the garden of OLEM, providing a clubroom and parish hall. In 1939 this was removed to Chesterton Road to serve as the first church of St Laurence, after a new parish hall and school were built in the rectory gardens in 1936; the prefabricated building now serves as the church of St Vincent de Paul, Cambridge (qv).


The church is not orientated; the liturgical east end faces south east. All directions in the following description are liturgical.

The church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs is a large and conspicuous design in an Early Decorated Gothic style, its exterior and interior rich with carved ornament and detail.  Much of the external carving is by Ovens of Preston, with figures by Boulton of Cheltenham, while much of the interior carved work is by Rattee & Kett of Cambridge, the principal contractors. The base course of the external walls is of Casterton stone, the plinth of Ancaster stone and all above the plinth is of Bath stone from Combe Down. The roofs are covered with tiles. On plan the church comprises a western transept with a tower and steeple on the northern arm and a porch below, a tall aisled nave, eastern transepts with a tower above the crossing, a sanctuary with a polygonal east end and a southeast chapel. Next to the chapel are sacristies and a link to the rectory, while a baptistery gives off the north aisle alongside the entrance porch.

On the west front towards Lensfield Road the gabled end of the nave is flanked by two octagonal towers and has a west door with an elaborate carved portal. Above the door is a large six-light traceried window and above the window the gable end is filled with carved ornament and figures including the Coronation of the Virgin with saints. The west transepts have two-light traceried windows and a parapet with pierced quatrefoils. Its north arm terminates in a tall tower and octagonal spire, the base of which forms the northwest porch, with a richly-decorated portal facing Hills Road. The side walls of the nave have large four-light traceried clerestorey windows above low side aisles with two-light windows with plate tracery set in pointed reveals. The window bays are divided by elaborate flying buttresses, and on the north side the parapet carries carved inscriptions, including: ‘Pray for the good estate of Yolande Marie Louise Lyne-Stephens, Foundress of this church’. The terminals of the hoodmoulds on the south aisle are carved with portraits, including those of Canon Scott, the architects, John Henry Newman and the fifteenth Duke of Norfolk. The northeast transept has a large rose window in the gable, and the crossing has a high square lantern tower with two three-light traceried windows in each face and an elaborate crenellated parapet. The tall polygonal chancel is very French in character, with radiating buttresses, an arcaded frieze below the three-light traceried window in each bay and a lettered parapet.

The interior is tall and richly decorated. All the internal spaces have elaborate stone tierceron vaults with carved bosses and clustered piers and wall shafts. The main flooring is of woodblock, with some areas of encaustic tiling. The western transept forms a narthex or ante-chapel, not unlike some college chapels, and is divided from the nave by a decorative metal screen. Below the south window of the ante-chapel hangs a large picture of the Descent from the Cross, by N.H.J. Westlake. The nave arcades are of five bays of multiple moulded pointed arches on clustered piers with Purbeck marble shafts towards the nave and elaborate foliage capitals. The aisles have carved stone tabernacles in the outer walls for the Stations of the Cross. In the angle between the northwest transept and the north aisle is a small vaulted baptistery with sunken tiled floor, richly carved central font and stained glass windows on the theme of the Seven Sacraments. At the west end of the south aisle is the Chapel of the Holy Souls. The eastern transepts are two bays deep and are separated from the crossing by tall octagonal piers. The south transept is largely filled by the organ gallery. The east wall of the lantern tower over the crossing has a large mural painting of Our Lord in Glory, by Westlake. The sanctuary walls are plain below with stone wall shafts rising to a band of arcaded carved decoration beneath the windows; the current plum-coloured paint scheme is modern. To the east of the chancel is the Sacred Heart chapel, with painted and gilded vaulting and an elaborate carved reredos. In the floor is a memorial brass to Canon Scott, by Hardman of Birmingham.

The church is richly furnished; for a full account see the account of the opening in The Tablet and Wilkins’s guidebook and history. Original furnishings include the high altar and large baldacchino (the latter after a fourteenth century tomb cover at Santa Chiara in Naples), the Stations of the Cross and the elaborately-carved stone font with timber cover, all by Boultons of Cheltenham. The sanctuary and transept screens were carved by Ralph Hedley of Newcastle; the timber bench seating is by Rattee & Kett. In the north transept is a wooden Crucifixion of St Andrew, designed by A.W.N. Pugin and donated by him to his church of St Andrew, Union Street (now rebuilt to a slightly different design at St Ives, qv). The original stained glass is mostly by Hardman, although the west window (on the theme of the English Martyrs) is by J. H. Powell. The aisle and apse windows were almost completely destroyed in 1941, but were subsequently replaced in the early 1950s by Hardmans with a mixture of clear and coloured glass. The ‘Majestas’ rood and rood beam across the west crossing arch were carved by B. McLean Leach of Cambridge (1914). In the west transept is a wooden statue of Our Lady, probably sixteenth century and possibly originally in Great St Mary’s church; apparently found at Emmanuel College, it was given to the church in the 1930s. The nave altar under the crossing was designed by Gerard Goalen as part of his 1973 reordering of the sanctuary. The organ by Abbot and Smith of Leeds was installed in the southeast transept in 1890.

List descriptions


The church was upgraded to Grade I in November 2022:

Church wall and gates


Fronting Lensfield Road. 1890, contemporary with the church. Red brick wall with stone coping. Gate piers the same with decorative details and carved animals. Wrought iron gates.  Listing NGR: TL4547857770



Circa 1890, contemporary with the church. L-shaped. Red brick, in the Tudor style, stone dressings. Doorway with 4-light windows on either side, one 6-light window on upper floor, others single light casements. Castellated, slate roof, decorative chimneys. Listing NGR: TL4549057702

Wall and gate piers of rectory


Red brick, stone capped wall and gatepiers. No gates. Listing NGR: TL4552457723

Heritage Details

Architect: Dunn, Hansom & Dunn

Original Date: 1890

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade I