Part of a birds-eye view of Cambridge, measured and drawn by John Hamond of Clare Hall, 22 February 1592, showing the current Chapel and Old Court.
King’s College Chapel is the oldest surviving building within the College site and perhaps the most iconic building in Cambridge. Work on this Chapel only started five years after King’s College was founded by Henry VI in 1441.
Before looking at the three phases in which that was built, it is worth considering what existed before work commenced on that magnificent building and what the Founder’s intentions were.
The College was originally situated to the north of the current Chapel. This was a relatively modest site, accommodating 12 Scholars and a Rector. Shortly after 10 July 1443, the Provost and Scholars petitioned for a larger site and on 26 August that year a new site to the south of the Chapel was procured.
The Founder’s Will.
The Founder’s Will, written in 1445, sets out Henry VI’s ambitious new intentions for The King's College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge, to give it its full title. The King’s wishes include provision for 70 scholars, in an enclosed court to the south of the original one.
The original site was used to accommodate students until 1828, when the Wilkins building was completed. The Old Court, as it has since been known, was sold to the University of Cambridge in 1829. In 1836, most of it was demolished and all that remains of the Old Court is the unfinished gateway.
Comparison of the College site in 1957 with the Founder’s Will [JS/4/10/33]
The existing Chapel was not completed until 1515 but the College had a place of worship long before then. Between the north side of the current Chapel and the south side of the Old Court lay a ‘temporary chapel’, which collapsed in 1537, 96 years after its foundation stone was laid.
The first part of King’s College to be built in accordance with the Founder’s Will was the current Chapel, built to the measurements he specified.
And as touching the dimensions of the chirche of my said College of oure lady and saint Nicholas of Cambrige, .I. haue deuised and appointed that the same chirch shal conteyne in lengthe CCiiijxx viiij. fete of assise withoute any yles and alle of the widenesse of .xl. fete and the lengthe of the same chirch from the West ende vnto the Auters atte the queries dore, shal conteyne .Cxx. fete …
Extract from the Founder’s Will, transcribed by J.W. Clark and M.R. James
Plan of the Chapel made by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments
The Chapel conforms to the Founder’s design in most respects but one notable difference is that instead of the nine side chapels which currently stand on each side of the Chapel, only the three immediately east of the north and south porches had originally been intended. This change occurred while Henry VI was still on the throne so is likely to have had his blessing.
It was once thought that the Founder’s mark on the Chapel was not merely in its design but also in the laying of the foundation stone, on 25 July 1446, though this has been disputed.
Most of the building work was carried out in three phases, the last of which ended in 1515.