King's College Chapel: Up to 1515

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, 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.

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

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.

Phase 1 (1446-1461)

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 Founder's Influence

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.

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.

Reginald Ely

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 Belfry

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.

Downing Tools

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.

Phase 2 (1476-1485)

Work Resumes

Work slowly resumed in 1476, with John Worlich as the second master mason. A fragment of a building account from 1443 shows that he was among the ordinary masons working under Reginald Ely in the first phase. This suggests his appointment had as much to do with familiarity with Ely's intentions, as with his own skills as a mason.

In 1480, Edward IV contributed 1000 marks towards the building of the Chapel, which allowed the work to proceed more rapidly. This was to have been paid in three years, however the College paid a bribe in order to receive it early, such was the sense of urgency with which the work was to resume. The entry in Provost Field’s account below reads:

Regardo dato Egidio Dawebeney armigero pro Corpore Regis predicti, et Johanni Bignell Armigero, pro accelaracione M. marcarum de dono Regis Edwardi quarti in tribus Annis habend’ lxvjli xiijs. iiijd

which translated reads

For the payment given to Giles Dawbeny, Esquire of the Body of the aforesaid King [Edward IV], and to John Bignell Esquire, for the advancing of 1,000 marks [666l 13s 4d] from the gift of King Edward IV which is to come into our possession over three years: 66l 13s 4d

The Real Second Master Mason

In his Essay on the History of English Architecture, published in 1881, George Gilbert Scott credited Worlich with the decision to build a fan vault in the main Chapel and all the necessary changes this entailed. He believed Worlich had been master mason until 1485, but in fact Simon Clerk began in the summer of 1477. In a contribution to English Mediaeval Architects, published in 1954, Arthur Oswald claimed Worlich’s contribution was only minimal, and called Simon Clerk the true second master mason. On Clerk’s contribution he wrote:

Simon Clerk can have been responsible for little in the design of the chapel as it stands, but the tracery of the east window is probably due to him. He may also have designed the internal stone panel-work above the windows and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he made drawings for the high vault, to which Wastell [master mason of the third period] may have owed something.

Harvey and Oswald (1954) p 63

In support of his hypothesis that Clerk had made drawings, he noted the purchase of ‘forel’ (forale), or thin smooth parchment for the chief mason and Martin Prentice (chief carpenter) in May 1480.

Martin Prentice

While much is known about the craftsmen involved in the Chapel, not least through the work of Arthur Oswald and John Saltmarsh, most attention is paid to the master masons. It is worth reflecting on the work of one chief carpenter though.

Chief carpenter during the second period, it was Martin Prentice who created the oak roof covered with lead, under which the five eastern bays of the fan vault were subsequently built. The remainder of the roof was built by Richard Russell (master carpenter of the third period) thirty years later, using Prentice’s design. Prentice’s design is said to contain the earliest examples of tenons with diminished haunches.

Death of Richard III

When Richard III’s short reign (1483-1485) ended, the second period in the building of the Chapel had ended. He had contributed generously towards the costs of the building, so his death led work to stop until 1508, when funds were made available again. It has been suggested that around this time the five eastern bays were closed off with a temporary western wall and a doorway constructed in the fourth western side-chapel.

Phase 3 (1508-1515)

Coffer in which gold and silver were sent by the trustees of Henry VII, about 1510, for the completion of the Chapel. Photograph: Ramsey & Muspratt, 1951. [Coll-Ph-917].

The Death of Henry VII

Besides private contributions in 1508, the next significant donation was once again a royal one. In March 1509, just weeks before his death, Henry VII gave £5000 and told his executors to provide sufficient funds to ensure the completion of the Chapel.

John Wastell

The master mason of the third period in the building of King’s College Chapel was John Wastell. Citing a day-book created by Thomas Clyff (clerk of works), Arthur Oswald has suggested that John Wastell may have acted as a partner of Simon Clerk. There was an age gap of nearly a quarter of a century between them but Clerk may have influenced this ‘rising young mason of ability’ .

Oswald suggested that ‘outside the ranks of the royal master masons John Wastell is perhaps the most significant figure in the last age of Gothic architecture in England’. Other works attributed to Wastell include the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral, St James’ Church in Bury and the retrochoir of Peterborough Cathedral.

If there is any doubt about who designed the fan vault, there is little doubt about its execution. Features which are characteristic of Wastell’s fan vaults include the little pairs of arrows which can be seen in this close-up.

Wastell also created the Chapel’s pinnacles, towers and battlements, for which he was contracted in 1513.

Heraldic Carving

Although the Founder’s Will had suggested that he favoured simplicity, the work of the third period is easily identified by its much more elaborate and secular decoration. Many of the recurring motifs of this phase are heraldic emblems of the royal house of Tudor. As John Saltmarsh noted of the Tudors:

They seem to have taken a deliberate pride in marking off their work, not merely with ornament, but with elaborate secular ornament: symbols of the pomp and the power and the glory of this world below.

Thomas Stockton was the chief carver of this period. Figure sculpture, such as the dragons and greyhounds which appear repeatedly in the ante-chapel, in various moods, bearing the arms of Henry VII are attributed to Ralph Bowman.

Stonework Completed

The third phase of the building of King’s College Chapel is thought to have been completed on 29 July 1515. All that remained to be done was the woodcarving, windows and furnishings. Though 2015 is being celebrated as the 500th anniversary of the completion of the Chapel, the building and its uses continued to evolve.


  • Massing, Jean Michel and Zeeman, Nicolette (ed.) (2014), King's College Chapel 1515–2015. Art, Music and Religion in Cambridge, Harvey Miller Publishers

  • Clark, J.W. and James, M.R. (1896), The Will of King Henry the Sixth : now first printed in full from the original, in commemoration of the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of King's College Chapel, being the twenty-fifth of July, 1896, Cambridge : King's College

  • Clark, John Willis (1921) Old plans of Cambridge, 1574-1798 : by Richard Lyne, George Braun, John Hamond, Thomas Fuller, David Loggan and William Custance, 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

  • Hewett, Cecil A. (1980), English Historical Carpentry, London : Phillimore

  • Mackenzie, Frederick (1840), Observations on the construction of the roof of King's College Chapel, Cambridge : with illustrative plans, sections, and details, from actual measurement, London : J. Weale

  • Saltmarsh, John, ‘King’s College’ in J.P. Roach (1959), A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, vol. III, pp. 376-407

  • Willis, Robert and Clark, John Willis (1886), The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press

  • Royal Commission on Historical Monuments England (1958), An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of Cambridge. Part 1. London : Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

  • Typescript of John Saltmarsh's 'King's College Chapel'. Parts 1-3. Delivered 1962-74. (JS/1/22/7).

  • Typescript of John Saltmarsh's 'King's College Chapel: A History & Commentary'. Copy 8. Parts 1 and 2. (JS/1/74)

For more detailed accounts of the masons and carpenters involved in the building of the Chapel, please see Harvey and Oswald’s English Medieval Architects and John Saltmarsh’s unpublished writings in the Archive Centre at King’s College.

Since this on-line exhibition was created, John Saltmarsh's King's College Chapel: A History & Commentary has been published. For further details see the link below.

Illumination of Queen Elizabeth I (SAC/1)
Index page to the Archive Centre's online exhibitions, which each highlight a particular aspect of the College's history.