The Late Gothic King's College Chapel is one of the architectural highlights of Cambridge. Begun in 1446 and completed in stages over the following century, Wordsworth called it "an immense and glorious work of fine intelligence." The chapel's many treasures include rare early 16th-century windows, exquisite fan vaulting, a Renaissance wooden screen, and a painting by Rubens.
History of King's College Chapel
Construction on King's College Chapel began in 1446 under King Henry VI's master mason Robert Ely, but ceased in 1461 when Henry was defeated and taken prisoner at the Battle of Towton.
Some further progress was made under the king's Yorkist successors between 1476 and 1483.
Building work began again in earnest in 1506, after King Henry VII visited Cambridge with his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort. Overseen by John Wastell, the chapel and its stonework were completed by 1515.
King's College Chapel was finally completed with the addition of the woodwork and windows under King Henry VIII (d.1547).
Notable members of King's College over the years include the composer Christopher Tye (1500-73), ghost-story writer M.R. James (1862-1936) and poet E.M. Forster (1879-1970).
What to See at King's College Chapel
The chapel has a simple rectangular shape with no side aisles, 289 feet long, 40 feet wide and 80 feet high.
Each of the four corners have ogee-capped turrets bearing the portcullis and rose of the Tudor dynasty and the buttresses are decorated with carved figures.
Inside, the ceiling is spanned with spectacular fan vaulting, designed and built by Wastell.
The walls are filled with huge stained and painted glass windows, which are rare pre-Reformation survivals. All (except for the 19th-century Last Judgment in the West Window and the upper half of the southeast window) were made between 1515 and 1547 by Dutch and English glass painters. Together these windows are the most complete collection of early 16th-century glass in England.
Each window contains four main scenes. The lower lights on the north side depict the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ up to the Passion, which is shown in the East Window.
On the south side, east to west, are the Resurrection, Pentecost, Acts of the Apostles, and the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The upper lights contain Old Testament scenes that are parallels to the lower lights; for example, the Temptation of Eve is above the Annunciation of Mary.
15th and early 16th century glass can also be found in the side chapels; most was brought from elsewhere and installed in 1920 and 1991.
A chapel on the south side contains the memorial brass of Robert Hacumblen (d.1528), who was Provost of King's College at the time of the chapel's completion.
The north chapels contain an excellent exhibition with 15th-century service books and other treasures plus drawings and models of the chapel's construction.
The antechapel takes up the western end of the building and was finished in 1515. Its rich ornamentation includes the Tudor motifs of the turrets as well as the dragon, the Beaufort greyhound, the fleur-de-lis and the crown.
The antechapel contrasts strongly with the austere eastern end, which was built under explicit orders from Henry VI against "busy moulding."
Between the antechapel and choir is a splendid woodwork screen, dating from 1533-36. Probably overseen by a Spanish sculptor, it is richly carved with pilasters, armorial motifs, grotesques and arabesques. It bears the initials of Henry VIII and his current queen Anne Boleyn, along with her family crest (a falcon) and his Tudor rose.
The wooden choir stalls are of the same date and by the same sculptors as the screen. Behind them are beautifully carved heraldic panels from 1633, with the arms of the English monarchs from Henry VI to Charles I. The north side bears the arms of Eton College (from which the scholars of King's were exclusively drawn for 400 years) and Oxford University, while the south has those of King's College and Cambridge.
The bronze lectern on the east side of the screen dates from the early 16th century. It is engraved on one side with roses, the other with the Four Evangelists, and topped with a small statue of Henry VI.
The altarpiece of King's College Chapel is the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (1641). Originally painted for a nunnery in Leuven, Belgium, it was given to King's College in 1961.
For a fine view of the west exterior of King's College Chapel across the Backs, leave the college grounds by the west entrance near the Cam River and take a right turn along the pathway parallel to Queen's Road.
In addition to its fine architecture and art, King's College Chapel is famous for its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held each Christmas since 1918.
Quick Facts on King's College Chapel
|Names:||King's College Chapel|
|Categories:||academic chapels; Grade I listed buildings|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||52.204911° N, 0.116408° E|
|Phone:||01223 331 212|
|Hours:||Term time: Mon-Fri 9:30-3:30, Sat 9:30-3:15, Sun 10-5|
Vacation: Mon-Sat 9:30-4:30, Sun 10-5
|Lodging:||View hotels near King's College Chapel|
- Personal visit (exterior only; June 2, 2007).
- Geoffrey Tyack , Blue Guide Oxford & Cambridge, 6th ed. (2004), 197-99.
- King's College Chapel - King's College official website
Map of King's College Chapel, Cambridge
Below is a location map and aerial view of King's College Chapel. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.