King's College, Cambridge
King’s College, affiliated with the University of Cambridge, is a prestigious college that first opened its doors in 1441. At the time of its inception, the school’s formal name was the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge.
The college was the pet project of Henry VI. Henry had already successfully formed a college in Eton. While he had grand plans for what would come to be known as King’s College, the project got off to a rocky start. The Wars of the Roses began, and there was not much money to devote to the institution.
The Wars of the Roses involved the houses of Lancaster and York fighting viciously for power. The struggle became so intense that the Duke of York was eventually killed, and Henry VI was deposed. Henry, who was said to struggle throughout his life with dark periods of mental illness, was imprisoned, and it wasn’t until 1508 that further progress would be made on the college.
King's College and Henry VII
New ruler, Henry VII, decided to resume work on Henry VI’s project. Most people believe that his sudden interest in the college was an attempt to showcase himself as a capable and powerful leader.
Regardless of Henry VII’s reasons for contributing to the college, it was under his watchful eye that construction on the college’s chapel, now considered one of the world’s most renowned architectural structures, was finally resumed.
Henry VII would not see the chapel through to its completion, however. The building, which was started in 1446, was not fully finished until 1544. By that time, a new leader, Henry VIII, was in power.
Who Designed the Chapel at King's College?
Despite the prestige of King College’s chapel, no one is entirely sure who designed the building. The disputes surrounding whom the original architect was are likely due to the long lapse between the building’s start and end dates.
Though Henry VI decided upon the chapel’s dimensions, it is not clear who took over from there. Some believe that Reginald Ely, head press mason of the project in 1444, was the original architect. Others, however, argue that surveyor Nichols Close was responsible.
While there are some architectural researchers who will argue the case of one of the above men being the architect, most accept that the true architect’s name is likely lost to history.
Even though the name of the original architect is unknown, there are still clear records surrounding who built certain features of the chapel. The chapel, for example, features 12 large side windows, and four of those windows were completed by Barnard Flower, the appointed King’s Glazier. Gaylon Hone, along with three unknown workers, created four windows as well, and together, Francis Williamson and Symon Symondes created four windows.
In addition to the impressive windows, King’s College chapel is home to the largest fan vault in the world. The vault took three years to build and was completed in 1515. The architect behind that project was John Wastell, Master Mason at the time.
Design and Dimensions
Though construction on the King’s College chapel was continually halted and took a hundred years to complete, it stands today as a breathtaking example of Gothic English Architecture.
The long building is 289 feet in length and has an interior height of 80 feet and an exterior height of 94 feet.
Its above-mentioned windows and fan vault are some of its most distinctive and celebrated features, as is the medieval stained glass. Also in the chapel is Peter Paul Rubens’ 1634 painting, “The Adoration of the Magi,” which has been hung above the chapel’s altar since 1968.
Other noted features include the wooden chancel or “rood” screen, and the glorious front court.
King’s Chapel Today
The chapel, which has been subjected to minor restorations, still stands strong today, inspiring architectural students and all who visit it.
Despite its historic status, the chapel is oft-used and makes up a regular part of the King’s College experience for students. Worship services are held there to this day, as are the concerts of the celebrated “Chapel Choir” and “King’s Voices” choir.
The gorgeous chapel has come to represent not only King’s College but Cambridge as a whole. It is even featured in the logo of the Cambridge City Council. And, in addition to the chapel’s impact on Cambridge, it will forever have an impact upon the world’s understanding of architecture.