The Founder’s influence
Royal letters patent granting 'Thesdale' quarry at Haslewood, Yorkshire, with right of carriage to river Wharf, granted to Henry VI by Henry Vavasour, for building at King's, 4 March 1447 [KCD/4]
The first period of the building of the current Chapel (hereafter, ‘the Chapel’) was heavily influenced by Henry VI, both in terms of design and materials.
It is fair to assume that the king’s intentions for the Chapel were grand in size but simple in decoration. Of the Chapel at Eton College, which he founded at the same time as King’s College, Henry VI said:
And I wol that the edification of my said College of Eton procede in large fourme, clene and substancial, wel replenysshed with goodely wyndowes and vautes leyng a parte superfluite of to grete curiouse werkes of entaille and besy moldyng.
Extract from the Founder’s Will, transcribed by J.W. Clark and M.R. James
According to the Founder’s wishes, carving of the first period was characteristically simple and religious. The angels from that period can be identified by their hair, which tends to be in rolls.
West front of Chapel, showing the stone used in the first period (the paler stone at the base of the towers). Photograph: RCHM, 1949. [Coll-Ph-757]
As Willis and Clark observed in 1886, the work of the first period is easily identifiable due to the marked difference in colour of the stone used then. For the building of the Chapel, the king gave two quarries in Yorkshire of white magnesian limestone. Further stone was obtained in 1460, from King’s Cliffe in Northamptonshire, so the visual clues may not be entirely accurate; however they do show that the whole of the Chapel had been laid out in the Founder’s lifetime, including the additional side-chapels.
The white magnesian limestone rises to just above the springing of the window arch on the south-east tower, while further west it only rises to the level of the string course below the side chapel windows, and at the West end it only rises to the level of the steps. This led the late John Saltmarsh (KC 1926, historian and Vice-Provost) to suggest that the diagonal layers stepping down towards the west provided a natural staircase for the workmen.
Carving thought to depict Reginald Ely, taken by the Assistant Archivist, 2014. [non-archival]
The first master mason of the Chapel was Reginald Ely. By the time the Founder had laid the Chapel’s foundation stone, Ely had already built the newel staircase on the west side of the mediaeval court at Peterhouse College. He was also thought to have been the master mason of King’s College’s Old Court, as shown by a building account of 1443 and stylistic comparisons with the Old Court gate tower.
Ely has been credited with the design and probably also the completion of the side doorways in the choir and the easternmost pair of side-chapels on the north, which are notable for their lierne vaults, as opposed to the fan vaults used in later parts of the Chapel.
The Founder’s Will had described a tower. This was not built in the form intended but a wooden belfry was constructed by chief carpenter Thomas Sturgeon and with the help of a carpenter named Martin Prentice, and bells were hung there in December 1460.
Early eighteenth century engraving of the south side of the Chapel, showing wooden belfry at the west end and half-cut stone on the Front Lawn. [KCC/123]
In March 1461, when the masons heard that the deposed Henry VI had been defeated at Towton in Yorkshire, in the War of the Roses, legend has it that the masons didn’t have the heart to finish their work so they abandoned the stone they were working on in the Chapel Yard, now the Front Court. This stone remained there until 1724, when it was used as the foundation stone of Gibbs’ building. This is supported by an engraving which shows the abandoned stone.
Any work which took place between 1461 and the start of the second period, in 1476, must have been piecemeal and funded by private contributions. However, we do know that by 1470, the year of the Founder’s death, at least two side chapels were fitted out for service.