Earliest College Buildings


In this exhibition, we will explore the College buildings prior to the completion of the stonework of the existing Chapel, in 1515. The earliest College buildings comprised the ‘Old Court’, a temporary chapel and the original Provost’s Lodge.

Few records of these original buildings exist, so much of what we know has been revealed through the detailed study of accounts, inventories and engravings. Much of this exhibition is based on the findings of Willis and Clark, arguably the most famous historians of the architecture of the University and colleges, and John Saltmarsh, the former Vice-Provost and historian of King's. Willis and Clark's architectural study was comprehensive and this exhibition is primarily put that in an archival context, with engravings and some of the resources they used.

In any quotations from Willis and Clark which are included in this exhibition, images of the figures they cited are included at the end of the section in which they are quoted.

Introduction (continued)

The Site of the Old Court

Henry VI chose three Commissioners to select a suitable site for his foundation in Cambridge. They were John Fray, Chief Baron of the Exchequer, John Somerset, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and John Langton, Chancellor of the University. These Commissioners conveyed the entire site of what is now known as the “Old Court” to the King in one deed, 22 January, 19 Henry VI (1440-41) and it was granted to King’s College by charter confirmed by Act of Parliament, on 12 February.

The lanes surrounding the site were significantly different to what we see now, with many of the changes having occurred when Senate House was built. The lanes and the College site and the conveyances are described in great detail by Willis and Clark but a plan below, which shows Cambridge in 1458 and the site as intended in the Founder’s Will, illustrates quite clearly the basic scheme.

A charter by the Commissioners (CAM/7, formerly A.76) describes the site as “a piece of ground in School Street, with a bakehouse and other offices lately constructed upon it, next to the new Schools of Theology and Canon Law.” Their description of the site’s abuttals is shared by Willis and Clark.

It is bounded on the west by that part of Milne Street in the Parish of S. John Baptist which is opposite to Clare Hall and Trinity Hall; on the north by a narrow lane under the wall of Gonville Hall garden leading to “Scole lanes,” and by some ground belonging to the University; on the east by the following places, in order from north to south, viz.: a vacant place belonging to a chantry in the Church of S. Mary by the market (Great S. Mary’s) (1); the aforesaid new Schools (2); School lane (3); a tenement (Le Horshede) of Corpus Christi College (4); a tenement of the Master and brethren of the Hospital of S. John (5); a tenement of Robert Lincoln (6); and on the south by a tenement of Thomas Fordham, and a tenement of William Bingham called God’s House.

In addition to the site occupied by the buildings of the Old Court, the College grounds included the whole of the ground on the south as far as the north wall of the present Chapel, and even part of the chapels on the north side, extending eastward about as far as the Chapel itself does. This supplied a garden on the south of the College, and a gate of entrance at the School-lane, or Glomery-lane.

On 17 November 1447, the College obtained the piece at the corner of Gonville Hall Lane and School Street from Michael House.

The Buildings of the Old Court

If the following verse (found at the end of the Register of Papal Bulls, translated in Willis and Clark) is to be believed, the first stone of the Old Court may have been laid in the right or southern turret of the gate towards Clare Hall, on Passion Sunday (April 2) 1441, by the College’s founder.

Seint Nicholas in whos day was born Henry the sext our souerein lord the king

After that his excellence at Eton had leyd the anointed stone

Here stablished this werke hys clergy tenderly remembryng

The yere of oure lorde a thousand foure hundred fourty and one

The secunde day of Aprill that tyme sunday in the passion

The xix yere of reigne here kneling on his knee

To the honour of seint Nicholas first founded this edificacion

With whom in heven to be laureate graunt might the holy trinitee.

However, Willis and Clark noted the following.

The building materials must have been in preparation before the ceremony of laying the first stone, for on 14 February in the same year, the King had granted to the “Rector and Scholars of his new College of S. Nicholas” by way of assistance to them building, the old hall and a chamber next to it in the Castle of Cambridge, then in a state of ruin and wholly unroofed. The work could not, however, have been progressed rapidly, for three years afterwards (16 June, 1444) he issued letters patent to Reginald Ely “head mason of our College Royal of S. Mary and S. Nicholas,” William Roskyn and Henry Beverley, clerks of the works, directing them to impress stonemasons, masons, carpenters, plumbers, tilers, smiths, plasterers, and all other workmen required for the building of the College; and to provide all the necessary materials.

Reginald Ely’s entry in English Mediaeval Architects suggests that Ely had already worked at Peterhouse but ‘that the Old Court in the quality of its design was superior to any college building hitherto erected in Cambridge and the gate-tower was intended to be a splendid feature.’

When the King determined to enlarge the College, the Old Court is said to have been finished off in a temporary manner. The unfinished Gate of Entrance, and portions of the walls of the rooms next to it on the south and north, are the only portions now remaining of these buildings. Willis and Clark were able to work out their arrangement and appearance. Part of their detailed account is as follows.

The court measured about 120 feet from north to south, by 74 feet from east to west; and the aggregate height of the rooms was just 40 feet. The entrance gate was in the centre of the west front towards the street, but rather to the south of the centre in the interior of the court. The south and west sides were occupied by chambers. The Hall was near the east end of the north side, entered by a picturesque wooden porch (fig. 6). Behind the Hall there was a long narrow yard, and east of it a building the use of which is not known. Westward of it stood a timber-house containing the Butteries, and a room called “The Bursars’ Parlour,” in which the three Bursars dined together, apart from the other Fellows. The Audit Room was above this on the first floor. Westward of this again was the Kitchen, lighted by the two large pointed windows shewn in the wall next to the turret (A, fig. 4, fig. 6). It is evidently unfinished, and may have been originally intended for a quite different purpose. On the top of it a small but picturesque belfry was placed. This, which had evidently been removed before Storer’s view was taken (fig. 6), is shewn by Ackerman (fig. 9). The Treasury was over the gate opposite Clare Hall, occupying the room on the first floor. It still contains an original stone fireplace of excellent work, and in good preservation (fig. 8). Those in the other rooms on this side, and on the south side, were of similar design. At the eastern extremity of the south side there was a passage into the grounds south of the College called by the strange appellation “Cow Lane.” As this passage had evidently been constructed before the acquisition of the larger site, it proves that the earlier College must have possessed ground in this direction of sufficient extent to make a ready access to it necessary. It will be shewn subsequently that the Chapel which was used by the Society until the present one was finished, stood on some portion of this ground. The room on the first floor over this passage was used as a Combination Room after the erection of Gibbs’ building.

Noting difficulties posed by the shape of the site, Willis and Clark suggested that the architect must have been ‘of firstrate ability’. They gave the following account of the access to the chambers and the accommodation they provided.

The ground-plan of the gate (fig. 12) shews the system of vaulting, of which the springers alone remain, and are perhaps all that was ever executed of this part. It shews also the difference between the external and internal turrets; the way in which access was obtained into the chambers at the bottom of the staircase-turrets on the side next the court; and the arrangement of the windows on the ground-floor.

Access to the chambers was provided by stone staircases in the form of octagonal turrets projecting from the inner walls of the quadrangle, instead of by the usual internal staircases. Each turret, placed opposite to the alternate partitions of the chambers, gave access to right and left into them, so that on each floor there are twice as many chambers as turrets, as the plan (fig. 4) shews. These staircases are well shewn by Loggan (fig. 5). There were also turrets on the outside walls of the quadrangle, but these, as we see from the two remaining in the ruins of the gate next the street, were merely buttress-turrets (fig. 12). Each chamber had a lofty narrow single-light window close to the turret, as is shewn in Loggan. According to my recollections of the building before its demolition, these long windows lighted by a narrow slip about five feet wide, separated from the rest of the room by a transverse partition. This was again divided by another partition into two portions, one of which, that next the court, served as a vestibule; and the other, lighted by a window in the outer wall, was of course a study. In the first-floor chambers, which were very lofty, this slip was divided by a floor, so as to furnish in addition two other studies in the entresol. The upper part of the long narrow window was divided by two transoms into three parts; and the space between the two middle ones was filled up within so as to conceal the floor and sill wall of the upper study. This peculiar arrangement for obtaining studies, being provided for in the ornamental masonry of the long windows of the court, must have been coeval with the building of 1441. These windows have disappeared with the exception of a fragment of one north of the gateway. Of the small two-light windows on the ground-floor two remain, one of which, with its moldings, is here figured (fig. 13).

From an inventory of the College property taken in 1598, Willis and Clark discerned the following arrangement of rooms.

The order is counted from the gate called “Cow Lane,” and the plan (fig. 4) has been numbered in accordance with this arrangement. The ground floor was appropriated chiefly to the Scholars, four of whom were lodged in each room. The names are as follows:

  1. The low Fellows chamber next the gate.
  2. The first Scholars Chamber next the gate, called Lyons Inn.
  3. 2nd do. Taylor’s Inn.
  4. 3rd do. The Tolebothe.
  5. 4th do. Horsekepers Inn.
  6. 5th do. Colliers Inn.
  7. 6th do. Barbers Inn.
  8. 7th do. The Coblers Inn.
  9. 8th do. The Blockhowse (behind the hall).

The rooms on the first floor were, 1st middle chamber, occupying the space over “Cow-Lane” and the “low Fellows chamber,” 2nd middle chamber, and so on; those on the second floor, 1st upper chamber, 2nd upper chamber, etc. These floors were appropriated to the Fellows, of whom two were lodged in each room. By this arrangement the Old Court was made to afford the precise amount of accommodation necessary for the seventy members of the foundation.

The Buildings of the Old Court (continued)

Original Chapel

The stonework of our current Chapel was not completed until 1515. College accounts provide evidence of the existence of an older chapel by 1448. It stood between the south side of the Old Court and the north side of the present Chapel. It could be reached from the Old Court via a small gate at the end of a passage called “Cow-lane”. Few records of it exist but we know it included antechapel, nave and chancel. Using various entries in accounts, Willis and Clark discovered the following.

[T]hat it consisted of chancel, nave, and ante-chapel (vestibulum); that it had a door at the west end, and east and west windows. Stalls in the choir, a rood-loft, and altars of S. Mary and S. Nicholas are also mentioned. It was richly fitted up, and the services were performed with much pomp of ritual, from numerous allusions to plate, hangings, relics, service-books, vestments, choristers, and large and small organs.

Dr Caius wrote about the chapel, describing it as ‘humile et angustum’.

The original chapel collapsed without warning in 1536 or 1537, one evening after vespers, and no trace of it now remains. According to Dr Caius, nobody was hurt.

Original Provost's Lodge and Clerks' Lodgings

The 10th of the College Statutes states that the Provost must be given a distinct and separate dwelling-house (mansum), as well as requiring the provision of staff, furniture etc. This was in part to ensure that he could entertain visitors and the accounts for 1448-49 record the entertainment of the Provost of Eton in the Provost’s Lodge. As Willis and Clark noted, an inventory of its contents taken 3 July, 1452, only eleven years after the foundation of the College, enumerates a hall, parlour, chamber over the parlour, kitchen, little parlour at the gate, closet chamber, and Provost’s chamber, besides stables, pantry and buttery, to which a private chapel or oratory was soon after added.

We know that the Provost’s Lodge was built before Michaelmas 1450, because of an account “for the Provost’s kitchen, which formerly was the bake-house of Thomas Fordham.” The house had been acquired in 1443. The site can be seen in various engravings shown below.

Mundum Books, early College accounts, record works done on the Lodge from 1452 onwards, including a significant extension in 1536. On these works, Willis and Clark wrote

In 1536 however, workmen are employed “to pull down certain old rooms in the Provost’s dwelling-house that had become ruinous;” and to build “one large room and a gallery, and to repair the rest of the house against the king’s arrival.” The mention of stone brought from the quarry at Weldon, and from other places; the large sum, £140, equal to at least £1400 at the present day, spent upon a portion only of the work; and the length of time it occupied, for it was still proceeding in 1542-43, the next year for which the Mundum-Book has been preserved, all indicate that it must have been both substantial and expensive. In 1546 the porch (fig. 53) is mentioned for the first time; and we learn that it had a room over it, as was so frequently the case in manor-houses of that period. At the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth the decoration of the rooms built in the previous reign was undertaken. In 1560-62 we find charges for “waynscottynge the new studye,” and “the great dynynge chambre” in the Lodge; for canvass “to make a border for the new haull,” and for “the new chamber by the new haull;” for “iiij peces of Norwyche says to hange the new haull and the chamber next vnto yt;” and for “a creast of wainscot” in the same two rooms. In 1592-93 a charge for “seeling le ould Hall” occurs, which proves that part, at least, of the old Lodge had been retained.

They then continue to described the lay-out of the Lodge.

The gallery may be identified with the long building in two floors forming the south wing of the Lodge (figs. 53, 56), afterwards replaced by the “Brick Building”; and the hall with part of a large building, with a high-pitched roof, also in two floors, extending from the north end of the gallery to Trumpington Street. These portions of the Lodge were used for the entertainment of Queen Elizabeth in 1564. The narrative of her visit says “The Guard Chamber was the Lower Hall of the Provost’s Place; the Chamber of Presence, the Lodging over that; the Gallery and other Chambers served for the Queen’s Lodging.” The inventory of 1660 enumerates “The Great Hall” as well as “The Waynscot Hall”; and the term “Neyther Hall” also occurs in the accounts. Again, the quantity of crest used, viz. 100 feet, corresponds with the dimensions of the room on the ground-floor, afterwards subdivided into “ante-room” and “dining-room,” or of that over it, due allowance having been made for windows, doors, and fireplace; but the position to be assigned to “the chamber next to the hall,” which was nearly as large as the former, for it required 80 feet of crest to go round it, is a matter of much greater difficulty, unless we may be permitted to place it on the upper floor. The porch, which existed until 1802, was nearly opposite to the centre of the east end of the Chapel. The older portion of the Lodge stood north of this, where a large room, subdivided into “vestibule” and “Servants’ Hall,” probably represents the old hall, over which was the “Audit-room,” wainscoted in 1648-49 by Richard Chapman. No other changes worth recording took place until the end of the following century. Carter, writing in 1753, remarks that

“The Provost’s Lodge, tho’ it makes not so grand an out-side Appearance as some do, yet within, few exceed it for grandeur and convenient Apartments.”

The site of the original Provost’s Lodge is now clear of buildings. A brief overview of the transactions which resulted in that can be seen in the ‘Grounds and Gardens’ online exhibition. It will come as no surprise that a fuller account can be found in the writings of Willis and Clark.


  • Buildings, Grounds and Gardens section of the College Archive catalogue on ArchiveSearch (see 'Links')
  • Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur, (1907). Bygone King's: Being a Collection of Historical Views of the Buildings at King's College, Cambridge, with Descriptive Notes / by R.A. Austen Leigh. Eton: Spottiswoode. 
  • Clark, J.W. ‘On the Old Provost’s Lodge of King’s College, with special reference to the Furniture’, Communications of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Vol. IV (1876-1880), pp 289-90
  • Clark, J.W. & Gray, A., (1921). Old plans of Cambridge, 1574-1798: by Richard Lyne, George Braun, John Hamond, Thomas Fuller, David Loggan and William Custance / Reproduced in facsimile, with descriptive text by J. Willis Clark and Arthur Gray., Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes.
  • English Mediaeval Architects: a Biographical Dictionary down to 1550. Compiled by John Harvey with contributions by Arthur Oswald, 1954. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd
  • Loggan, David, (1905). Cantabrigia illustrata: a series of views of the University and colleges and of Eton College (Cambridge: Macmillan & Bowes).
  • Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, (1959). An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge. London: H.M.S.O. 
  • Saltmarsh, John (1958), King's College: a short history, Cambridge: Privately printed
  • Storer, J., & Storer, H. S. (1820). Illustrations of the University of Cambridge. Cambridge: W. Styles.
  • Willis, Robert and John Willis Clark, (1866). The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge... vols. I and 4 (Cambridge: University Press).
1888 ordnance survey map, annotated by Arthur Hill (CAM/204).
The Archive Centre's online exhibition on the gardens and grounds of King's.
Henry VII's design for the College (1447-1449)
September 2011 Archive of the Month