King's College Chapel

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King's College Chapel

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Status: College chapel
King's College Chapel from The Backs
Church of England
Diocese of Ely
Grid reference: TL44735840
Location: 52°12’17"N, 0°6’59"E

King's College Chapel is the possibly the most breathtaking building in Cambridge. It is the chapel of King's College in the University of Cambridge, and is considered one of the finest examples of late Perpendicular Gothic architecture in the land. It features the world's largest fan vault.[1]

The Chapel was built in phases by a succession of Kings of England from 1446 to 1515, a period which spanned the Wars of the Roses and three subsequent decades. The Chapel's large stained glass windows were completed by 1531, and its early Renaissance rood screen was erected in 1532–1536. It is a Grade I listed building.[2]

An active house of worship, the chapel is also home of the King's College Choir. It is a landmark and a commonly used symbol of the city of Cambridge.


The world's largest fan vault, in the chapel
Fan vaulting diagram

King Henry VI planned a university counterpart to Eton College (whose Chapel is very similar, but not on the scale intended by Henry). The King decided the dimensions of the Chapel. Reginald Ely was most likely the architect and worked on the site since 1446.[3] Two years earlier Reginald was charged with sourcing craftsmen for the Chapel's construction.[3] He continued to work on the site until building was interrupted in 1461, having probably designed the elevations.[3] The original plans called for lierne vaulting, and the piers of the choir were built to conform with them.[3] Ultimately, a complex fan vault was constructed instead.[3] Reginald probably designed the window tracery at the extreme east of the church's north side: the east window of the easternmost side chapel, which unlike the Perpendicular style of the others is in curvilinear Gothic style.[3] The priest and later bishop Nicholas Close (or Cloos) was recorded as the "surveyor", having been the curate of St John Zachary, a church demolished to make way for the Chapel.[4][5][6]

The first stone of the Chapel was laid, by King Henry himself, on the Feast of St James the Apostle, 25 July 1446, the College having been begun in 1441. By the end of the reign of Richard III (1485), despite the Wars of the Roses, five bays had been completed and a timber roof erected. Henry VII visited in 1506, paying for the work to resume and even leaving money so that the work could continue after his death. In 1515, under Henry VIII, the building was complete but the great windows had yet to be made.

The Chapel features the world's largest fan vault, constructed between 1512 and 1515 by master mason John Wastell. It also features fine mediæval stained glass.

In 1968 the chapel received as a donation The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium: the painting was installed in the Chapel above the communion table, amid national controversy;[7] as this involved the lowering of the Sanctuary floor, which has been built on steps in Tudor times at the Founder's specific request that the altar should be three feet above the choir floor. In the development human remains were found in intact lead coffins with brass plaques were discovered, dating from the 15th to 18th centuries, and were disinterred.[8]

Many religious sites suffered damage during the Civil War as Puritans sought to remove or deface iconography they considered inappropriate. Although Parliamentarian troops stationed in Cambridge used the chapel as a training ground, the building was largely untouched. Some sources suggest that Oliver Cromwell, who had studied at Cambridge, ordered its protection. Near the altar, on the north and south walls, there is still graffiti left by the soldiers.[9] During the Second World War, most of the chapel's stained glass was placed in storage as a precautionary measure, but the chapel again avoided damage.[10]

Great windows

The Great East Window

The windows of King's College Chapel are some of the finest in the world from their era. There are 12 large windows on each side of the Chapel, and larger windows at the east and west ends. With the exception of the west window, they are by Flemish hands and date from 1515 to 1531. Barnard Flower, the first non-Englishman appointed as the King's Glazier, completed four windows. Galyon Hone and three partners (two English and one Flemish) are responsible for the east window and 16 others between 1526 and 1531. The final four were made by Francis Williamson and Symon Symondes. The one modern window is that in the west wall, which was donated by King's alumnus Francis Stacey and is by the Clayton and Bell company and dates from 1879.

Rood screen

The rood screen], organ, and fan vault

This large wooden screen, which separates the ante-chapel from the choir and supports the organ, was erected in 1532–36 by Henry VIII in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The screen is an example of early Renaissance architecture: a striking contrast to the Perpendicular Gothic Chapel; Sir Nikolaus Pevsner said it is "the most exquisite piece of Italian decoration surviving in England".[11]

Current use

The Chapel is actively used as a place of worship and also for some concerts and college events. Notable college events include the annual King's College Music Society May Week Concert, held on the Monday of May Week. The event is popular with students, alumni, and visitors to the city.

The Chapel is noted for its splendid acoustics. The world-famous Choir of King's College, Cambridge, consists of choral scholars, organ scholars[12] (male students at the college), and choristers (boys educated at the nearby King's College School).

The BBC has broadcast the Choir's Nine Lessons and Carols from the chapel on Christmas Eve, during which a solo treble sings the first verse of Once in Royal David's City. There is also a chapel choir of male and female students, King's Voices, which sings Evensong on Mondays during term-time.


("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about King's College Chapel)

Outside links


  1. A History of the County of Cambridgeshire - Volume 3 pp 376-408: King's College (Victoria County History)
  2. National Heritage List 1139003: King’s College Chapel (Grade I listing)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Curl, James Stevens; Wilson, Susan, eds. (2015), "Ely, Reginald" (in en), A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (Oxford University Press), doi:10.1093/acref/9780199674985.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-967498-5,, retrieved 2020-05-17 
  4. Thomas John P. Carter, King's college chapel: notes on its history and present condition (Macmillan and Co, 1867), 10
  5. Horace Walpole (1937). The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, Volume 1. Yale University Press. p. 18. 
  6. Frederick Mackenzie (1840). Observations on the Construction of the Roof of King's College Chapel, Cambridge. 
  7. Gavin Stamp, Sell The Rubens, in Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, London 2013 pp.141-145.
  8. GRAHAM, CHAINEY. "A season for crying in the chapel: Millions will enjoy today's festival of carols from King's College, Cambridge. But Graham Chainey mourns a botched 'restoration'". 
  9. "Historic graffiti, masons' marks and ritual protection marks in secular and religious contexts - Kings College Chapel, Cambridge". Raking Light. 
  10. King's College Chapel, Cambridge at
  11. Pevsner, An Outline of European architecture 1963:292f.
  12. "Choral and Organ Scholars".