Elegant stone buildings and a large church with a lawn
Architecture,  England,  History

A visit to King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

When I was a child my mother, despite being the most unreligious person I know, would always insist on listening to (and in later years watching) the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve. That pause for beautiful music amidst the frenetic preparations for the big day was as much part of our family’s Christmas traditions as Mum’s recipe for Christmas pudding and the Morecombe and Wise show in the evening.

This is a continuation of the visit to Cambridge started in my Monday Walk post.

The Backs

After our lunch we continued our explorations of Cambridge. We crossed over the Cam to walk along what are known as The Backs, the green lawns on the far side of the river to the town. From here you get excellent views of several of the colleges, and none more so than King’s.

Elegant stone buildings and a large church with a lawn
Kings College from the Backs

We crossed back over the river at King’s College Bridge. This took us to the lawn immediately behind the main college buildings, dominant among them the famous King’s College Chapel. I loved being able to visit the chapel where those Christmas Eve services are held.

Elegant stone buildings surrounding a lawn
King’s College Lawn with Chapel, Gatehouse and Screen
Looking up at carved and ornamented stone arch
Above the gatehouse to Kings College

King’s College Chapel: some history

This chapel alone is worth a trip to Cambridge in my view; it is stunning! It was founded, like the college itself, by Henry VI. But the king didn’t live to see the work completed. He was murdered in the Tower of London in 1471 when little more than the foundations had been built. Work continued rather half-heartedly under Edward IV and somewhat more enthusiastically under Richard III. The latter gave instructions that, ‘the building should go on with all possible despatch’ and to ‘press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed’. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height; and the first five bays were roofed with oak and lead and were in use.

Carved stone details on a building
Exterior detail
Carved stone details on a building
Fleur de Lys and Tudor Rose
Exterior detail

But it was left to the Tudors, first Henry VII and then Henry VIII, to finish the work. And they did so in grand style. The main structure and the vaulting (the chapel has the world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling) were funded by Henry VII, partly during his reign and partly through his will. It was Henry VIII who oversaw the fan vaulting, which was built in just three years between 1512 and 1515, and later the glazing and most of the woodwork.

The most striking example of the latter is the rood screen, separating the nave from the altar. This was erected in 1532–36 by Henry VIII in celebration of his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and you can see both their initials carved on it. It is considered an exceptional example of early Renaissance architecture.

Letters H and R carved in wood
Henry VIII’s initials carved in the rood screen

The influence of politics

The Tudors were of course a royal family under pressure. They had only recently come to the throne as a result of victory in the Wars of the Roses and were facing ongoing challenges from other claimants. Asserting their authority was highly important, and where better to do so than in the building of this magnificent chapel? Much of the decoration here, therefore, has little to do with Christianity and much to do with the power of the ruling family.

The arms of Henry VII appear above the entrance and are repeated all around the walls of the nave. A feature on the university website describes them:

Each shield (or escutcheon) is flanked by heraldic “supporters”: a dragon on the left and a greyhound on the right. Carved from pale limestone, the slender greyhounds have collars set with jewels, marking them out as favoured members of a wealthy household. All the shields have holes in their left-hand corners. This is a reference to jousting: a knight would pass his lance through the hole in the shield in order to defend himself while tilting at his opponent.

Heraldic shield depicted in carved stone
Arms of Henry VIII

The greyhound is the symbol of the Beaufort family (Henry’s mother was a Beaufort), while the dragon is the emblem of the Tudors. It struck me how each pair of animals is posed slightly differently. Compare the photo below with the one above to see what I mean.

Heraldic shield depicted in carved stone
Arms of Henry VIII

I haven’t found any mention of this online, despite searching for some time. So it perhaps has no particular significance other than to demonstrate the skill of Henry VII’s master mason John Wastell and his chief carver Thomas Stockton. Or maybe they wanted to relieve their boredom at creating multiple copies of their master’s arms!

Elsewhere you will see the crowned Tudor rose, the crowned portcullis (another Beaufort family emblem), and the crowned fleur de lis for his titular kingship of France. Look at my photo of the fan vaulted ceiling; roses and portcullises sit at the highest intersections.

Fan vaulted ceiling
The fan vaulted ceiling

You have to look quite closely to find any religious symbols in the stonework. But I did spot some small instrument-playing angels high on the walls of the chancel.

Stone carving of an angel playing a stringed instrument
Angel detail

Stained-glass windows

The stained-glass windows here are magnificent. And these do have a religious theme, depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments.

Even here though the politics of the time crept in. I found the following intriguing explanation in a Telegraph newspaper review of a book about the windows:

Henry VII studded the windows with stubby hawthorn bushes that symbolised his victory at Bosworth Field. As Henry VIII careered from one wife to another, the glaziers were called on to make subtle alterations to the windows: for example, Anne Boleyn’s falcon badge was quietly translated into Jane Seymour’s phoenix. … Henry was Solomon; Henry was Moses. Henry was David brandishing the head of a papal Goliath. Renaissance buildings, Tudor galleons and more naturalistic techniques humanised the illustrations.

Amazingly most of the original early 16th century windows, including the great east window behind the altar, survived both the ravages of Cromwell during the Commonwealth and the bombs of World War Two (when most was taken out and stored safely elsewhere). The only later window is the west one, added in 1879, but it holds its own among all the others.

The Adoration of the Magi

The painting above the altar is the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens. This was originally painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. It was installed here in 1968, an operation that involved lowering the sanctuary floor. This was therefore not without controversy, especially as the painting is not considered one of Rubens’ best and as it clashes in style with the stunning east window immediately above it.

Large stained glass window and oil painting
East window and Rubens painting
Oil painting of Biblical scene
The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

Rupert Brooke

To the right of the altar a small side chapel serves as a memorial to those from the college (scholars, fellows, masters, staff etc.) who died in the two world wars. One very notable name to look for, near the top left of the WW1 commemorative plaque, is that of the famous war poet Rupert Brooke. He died in 1915, aged just 18, from sepsis while with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. His most famous poem is The Soldier:

Carved stone plaque with names
Part of the WWI memorial plaque
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.’

I last visited Cambridge in 2018, when these photos were taken

22 Comments

  • leightontravels

    I enjoyed this piece very much Sarah. Back in my early 20s I worked on an English summer language camp in the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk. For four years in a row we took Belgian teenagers on a day trip to Cambridge. Best of all, I pretty much had the day off to wander around as I pleased. I always found some time for King’s College and the chapel, such exquisite architecture and a history that, when you stop to consider it, can leave one breathless. I totally relate to the thing about not being religious but appreciating the beauty of Christmas Eve carols. Oh, Morecambe and Wise! Really love the exterior shots and the Henry the 8ths carving, I don’t think I ever noticed that. The ceiling of the chapel meanwhile… there are no words. And Rupert Brooke adds yet another touch of magic to proceedings. Did you find the memorial to the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo out in the Backs?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know Woodbridge – a lovely little town 🙂 I’m happy to have brought back the good memories of your own wanders around Cambridge, and also introduced you to something new (the Henry VIII carvings). Yes, I saw the Xu Zhimo memorial and I have a photo but it didn’t really fit with the thrust of this post.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you liked it too Tanja 🙂 That’s a good time to visit, with the summer crowds thinning a little and the students not yet back from their holidays.

  • Alison

    We always listen to the Kings choir at Christmas too
    Those windows are beautiful and so detailed. What a lot of work went into that structure

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Every adjective for beautiful! And beautiful is too weak of a word to describe this chapel. The fan ceiling is something I’ve never seen and all I can say is wow! I have to see this in person. Now to start working on Mike for a trip to England:) Thank you for the history lesson and outstanding photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m so glad you loved this Kellye and it’s fuelled a desire to visit England! I hope you make it here some day soon. And if your travels bring you anywhere near London do let me know, it would be lovely to meet you both 🙂

  • Rose

    Such intricate work and exquisite detail on both the exterior and interior. That ceiling! and those windows! magnificent. What a gorgeous walk.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m so pleased you liked it Rose – it’s an even more stunning sight to be there in person, as you can imagine, but I did my best to convey a sense of its magnificence!

  • margaret21

    Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings is a fixed part of our Christmas too, though as we have always preferred radio for this, your visual tour was very welcome.

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