A Brief History of King’s College Chapel


Date of Publication: 20 January 2020

In the first post of our Cambridge history series, we take a brief look at the life of the iconic King’s College Chapel.


King’s College Chapel is one of the most iconic and recognisable buildings within the University of Cambridge. 

Playing a vital role in the daily running of the university, today it is used for new student’s matriculation, as well as where fellows are admitted to the college and welcomed. 

The Chapel’s primary role is as a spiritual resource for the college community opening almost on a daily basis for visitors to join services, as well as other iconic choral concerts, such as the Christmas Eve carol concert. 


Firstly, a few facts:

  • King’s College Chapel is the oldest surviving building within the University of Cambridge’s site. 
  • The chapel is the largest in the world, composed of 12 bays with covered fan vaulting.
  • The beautiful fan vaulting is decorated with ghastly beasts, coats of arms and Tudor motifs.
  • The screen between the choir area and the anteChapel features an intricate carving of Henry VIII’s initials wrapped around Anne Boleyn’s.
  • For over 400 years, King’s College admitted only Etonians and approved degrees to its students without them needing to be examined.

1441: The Chapel is founded by 19 year-old Henry VI, as part of his plan to create a college scheme whereby graduates of Eton can attend. His initial plans were to form one side of the Chapel into a grand court, with the three other sides forming residential areas. However, these were never completed.

To make room for his grand Chapel in the then marsh town of Cambridge, Henry forced local landowners to sell him their plots along the river, along with local residents, where he then proceeded to pull down their homes, local shops and even a parish church.


1446: Henry VI instructed his royal architect, Reginal of Ely, to draw up plans for the Chapel, where he then himself laid down the foundation stone for the new Chapel on the 25th July (the day of the feast of St James).


1461: Building continued up until this year, when, during the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was made prisoner by Edward IV. With no Henry to pay them, the builders packed up and left the building unfinished. 

If you visit the Chapel today, take a look at the buttresses, where you can see the early bricks used from this time, such as the white Tadcaster limestone.


1455 – 1485: During this time, both Edward IV (1442 – 1483) and Richard III (1452 – 1495) reigned. There was very little construction of the Chapel under Edward IV’s reign. However, during the two years that Richard III ruled, the first six bays of the Chapel and the oak roof were constructed and used almost daily.


1485–1509: The Tudor Dynasty led to the final and spectacular completion of the chapel.  When Henry VII came to power (after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485), the Chapel was only half-finished, and so he offered the rest of the funds to turn it into a fully constructed building. 

If you visit the Chapel today, head to Chapel Exhibition over the northern side Chapel, where you will be able to see the chest in which his gifted money was carried in.


1515: This is the year in which the main structure of the Chapel was finished, where Henry VIII used the £5000 in his father’s will to complete the vaulting, the glazed windows, the screen and much of the Chapel’s woodwork.


1642 – 1651: Despite being used as a training ground for Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War, the Chapel escaped any major structural damage. Historians believe this could be due to the fact that Cromwell (a University of Cambridge student himself) may have given orders to spare the Chapel.


1939 – 1945: Again, even during WWII, the Chapel was spared of any damage, with the stained glass windows being removed to avoid breakage.

To read more about the Chapel and how you can visit, take a look at the Kings website here.

Alternatively, if you’re interested in studying with us in Cambridge this summer, where you can even study the infamous Kings College Chapel on our architecture course in Cambridge, then please take a look at our academic courses here.

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