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Henry VI (1421-1471) founded King's College in 1441. The College's buildings were intended to be a magnificent display of the power of royal patronage, and Henry went to great lengths to ensure that King's College Chapel would be unequalled in size and beauty.  But Henry’s full plans were never carried out.  Most of the original College buildings were on the north and east sides of the Chapel and have long since been demolished. Search google

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King's Parade Gatehouse and Screen Front Court Chapel Gibbs' Building Wilkins Building Library Old Lodge Bodley's Court Back Lawn River Cam The Backs

  1. King's Parade

    King's Parade is one of the most famous sights in Cambridge.  The east side of the street is full of small shops, and the low stone wall in front of King’s is a popular summer spot for meeting and chatting.  Two lawns lie behind the low wall. Henry VI had to use persuasion and force to get this land for the College. The people who sold him the land were allowed to dine in College on four feast days a year for the rest of their lives.


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  2. Gatehouse and Screen

    The Porters' Lodge is the gatehouse for the College. Its fascinating architecture is a product of the neo-Gothic fashion of the 1830s. In daily College life, the Porters receive visitors, sort the College post, and manage the security of the College. Until 1963 the Head Porter lived in the Porter’s Lodge. He was expected to do gardening on top of his other duties, and often he was the College barber. Today the building contains offices.

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  3. Front Court

    The Front Court is architecturally mixed, with the Gothic or neo-Gothic  style of the Chapel, Gatehouse, Screen and Wilkins' Building contrasting with the classical style of the Gibbs' Building.

    Henry VI drew up detailed plans for a ‘great court’ enclosed on all four sides like most Oxford and Cambridge courts. Until 1828 the Chapel had rough stones jutting out of the eastern corner of the south wall, where the screen joins the Chapel now.  These stones were left so that they could join any buildings built along the eastern side of the court. As late as 1877 there were plans to build rooms where the screen is, but the plans never came to fruition. When it became obvious that the court was not going to be properly enclosed, the Chapel wall was finished.

    A statue of Henry stands above the fountain in the middle of the court. In his right hand Henry offers his charter to establish King's College.  Religion and Philosophy sit beneath him. Religion sits on the south side and holds a replica of the Chapel on top of a Bible, whilst Philosophy sits to the north and holds a scroll. The fountain was designed by Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905) and built in 1879. The bronze statues of Religion and Philosophy were completed in 1877 by HH Armstead and exhibited at the Royal Academy until their installation at King’s.

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  4. Chapel

    King's College Chapel is one of the most famous medieval buildings in England. The foundation stone was laid in 1446 and it took over a century to build which included an interruption by the War of the Roses. It was final completed in 1547.

    There used to be another chapel north of the existing one, which was built when the College was founded. It collapsed without warning one evening in 1536-7, just after vespers. There is no trace of it left.

    In 1461 Henry VI was deposed. When the news reached College, the masons gathered up their tools and walked away, uncertain that they would continue to be paid.  You can see how far the walls had been completed by that time (in the photo below) by looking at the buttresses.  Each buttress has a well-defined line where the stone below is whiter than the stone above. The height where the colour of the stone changes is different on each buttress.  The whiter stone is from a quarry given to the College by Henry VI. When building was resumed a different quarry was used, with darker stone.

    During the Second World War the College responded to a threat of imminent invasion by mobilising all the chamber-pots in the College, with a view to housing evacuated children in the Chapel.  The had already taken the precaution of removing all the medieval stained glass from the windows. They replaced it with tar paper, which rattled thunderously, and a small bit of plain glass to let in light.  Replacement of the stained glass was not complete until 1950, due to conservation works.

    The Chapel houses The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens, painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium. The Chapel is probably best known for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast around the world on Christmas Eve.

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  5. Gibbs' Building

    After the Chapel, Gibbs' is the second oldest building in College. When masons stopped working in 1461 they left a large block of stone in the Front Court. This stone was laid as the foundation stone for the Gibbs Buidling.

    This building, named after its architect James Gibbs , was begun in 1724. It is constructed in White Portland Stone. It was the only part to be built of a large scheme that Gibbs designed, which was planned to include similar buildings on the south and east side of the front court. The Gibbs' Building now contains Fellows' rooms, the Tutorial Office and the Turing Room (student computer room).

    The poet Rupert Brooke lived two years in the rooms on the bottom left of the Gibbs' Building (‘E’ staircase).

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  6. Wilkins' Building

    The Wilkins' Building was completed in 1828. William Wilkins designed the screen, gatehouse, and the main part of the Wilkins' Building. The building work involved the controversial demolition of half the buildings in King's Parade.

    The only part of the Wilkins' Building that is occasionally open to the public is the Art Centre, which is on 'A' staircase and holds art exhibitions by local artists and students. ‘A’ staircase is in the first door of the building (to the far left in the photo).  Rupert Brooke’s first College rooms were at the top left, and EM  Forster lived on this staircase for 30 years as an Honorary Fellow.

    The Wilkins' Building also contains the Hall, where in the past the gowned students would rise as the Fellows entered and walk the length of the Hall to the High Table. After a Latin Grace, intoned by a scholar, the Fellows would wine and dine, while the undergraduates would eat food of indifferent quality, served in the body of the Hall. Women were forbidden in Hall, even as servants, until 1958.  The Hall still forms a major part of day to day College life, serving as a dining room for both canteen meals and formal dinners.

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  7. Library

    The present library was built in 1828, but the College library has existed since 1441 in other buildings.

    Henry VI gave the College land around the country, and his original plans included a tower for storing the papers concerning this land.  The side-chapels of the Chapel were used for these parchments and papers until the middle of the 20th century.  Our oldest document is from 1085.

    The College library contains a vast number of books, periodicals and music scores. It also houses many collections of papers, including those of economist John Maynard Keynes and novelist EM Forster.

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  8. Old Lodge

    The Old Lodge is part of William Wilkins' large project of 1828 which included the Hall, Screen, Gatehouse (Porters' Lodge) and the Library. It is home to the College Office, the main administration office in the College.

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  9. Bodley's Court

    Bodley's Court is a two and a half sided court. The original buildings were finished in 1893 and were added to in 1927 and 1955. The court is an area popular with students as it is an area where they can relax beside the river.

    Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, had rooms in ‘X’ staircase here as a student and a Fellow.

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  10. Back Lawn

    The view over the Back Lawn is probably one of the most famous sights in Cambridge. There is a striking contrast between the late Gothic architecture of the chapel and the classical facade of the Gibbs building.

    In dry weather you can see a small square ‘crop-mark’ just west of the Chapel where the foundations of a wooden bell tower lie under the grass. This tower was built as a temporary accommodation for bells given to the College by Henry VI.  The tower was demolished in 1739 and the five bells were finally sold for scrap in 1755. The proceeds helped pay for the Gibbs' Building.

    The Back Lawn area served various functions in the past. There was a bowling green by the river, a secluded garden for the Fellows, a walled kitchen garden, and the College had its own brewery just in front of where the Gibbs' Building now stands.

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  11. River Cam

    King's is one of the handful of colleges to be next to the river Cam. The river is very popular with tourists, mainly for the traditional Cambridge activity of punting. Just over the bridge stands a marble stone with lines from a Chinese poem inscribed on it. The poem is 'Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again', which was written by Xu Zhimo, who was a research student at Kings 1921-2. It is now one of China's best-known poems.

    The main path through College used to go down the middle of the back lawn, towards the centre of the Gibbs' Building. Originally the bridge was where this path met the river. In 1819 the evangelical preacher Charles Simeon (who could be seen nights walking the top of the Gibbs building in deep thought) paid for most of the cost of building the bridge in its current position further south.

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  12. The Backs

    The Backs is the name given to the strip of land on the opposite side of the river to King's and its neighbouring colleges. The area of the Backs behind King's is called Scholars' Piece. This area is home to a herd of cattle, an unusual sight in the centre of a city.

    In the 15th century the stretch of river which now runs through King’s College was the very heart of the town of Cambridge. Henry VI had to give a £26-a-year tax break to the town for compulsorily taking the land and demolishing the quayside and buildings.  The lumps under the trees are probably the remains of medieval Cambridge.

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