Introduction

Photograph of King’s College Chapel, the Gibbs’ building and Clare College, by Country Life.
Photograph of King’s College Chapel, the Gibbs’ building and Clare College, by Country Life.

King’s College has some of the most iconic and frequently photographed views of Cambridge, including the view across the backs to the Chapel and the Gibbs building and the view of the Chapel, Porter’s Lodge and Wilkins’ screen from King's Parade. It is even thought that Virginia Woolf described the King’s College ‘Backs’ in ‘A Room of One’s Own’, although she gave the College the pseudonym of ‘Oxbridge College’.

The grounds we associate with the College are not its earliest. Initially, the College had been much smaller, comprising the ‘Old Court’ and a much smaller chapel, to the north of the present Chapel. In September 1447, six years after the College was founded, Henry VI greatly enlarged his plans for the College, describing them in detail in his “Will and Intent”. To achieve this he bought numerous parcels of land to the south of the original Chapel. This area was densely populated, with busy streets, shops, a hospital and St John the Baptist church. This land was quickly cleared and Henry VI’s intended boundary wall was begun. It was some time before the landscape we are all so familiar with emerged though, as we can see from part of John Hamond’s birds-eye view of Cambridge, drawn in 1592.

The scheme the Founder proposed has been drawn onto a plan of the site as it was when he acquired it, by Willis and Clark. They also provided a plan of what was actually built. Both of these can be seen below.

The Founder's statutes included a gardener amongst the servants he required be supported by the College. It is likely that that post became largely 'the Provost's Gardener' over time and a gardener for the Fellows’ Garden was appointed in 1852. As the duties increased and the results became more visible, the College's Congregation decided on 8 June 1895 that a Fellows' Garden Committee should be established.

In a booklet entitled ‘King’s College Fellows’ Garden’, Max Walters suggested that certain changes in the treatment of the ‘Backs’ showed a shift from practical value to amenity.

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