The architectural historian G. E. Kidder Smith correctly identifies King’s College Chapel as “one of the great rooms in architecture.” Initiated by King Henry VI in July 1446, it was not completed until 1537. Even then, it was acknowledged by many to be one of Europe’s finest late-medieval buildings. It was an architectural achievement in that it epitomized the English High Gothic, its filigreed stone frame, large windows, and exquisite fan vaulting all demonstrating the pinnacle of structural refinement that had taken almost 400 years to achieve.
Henry VI (1421–1471), described as a “a pious and studious recluse” incapable of governing, succeeded his father Henry V as king of England in 1422. Just a month or so after the infant monarch ascended the English throne, he was also proclaimed king of France. Interrupted by the Wars of the Roses in 1461, his reign resumed in 1470, only to be cut short by his murder the following May. When he reached the age of sixteen he was deemed old enough to rule for himself and, despite a reputedly rebellious youth, by the time he was nineteen Henry had grown to be religious. Neglecting matters of government, he turned his attention to the establishment of two educational foundations: Eton College near Windsor (1440–1441) and the Royal College of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas of Canterbury (now known as King’s College) at Cambridge University (1441) provided for seventy scholars drawn from Eton. Henry set out detailed instructions for both colleges and at both his primary concern was for the construction of a chapel. One writer has obsequiously observed that the king’s “selfless piety accounts for the form of the chapel at King’s, which was conceived … as a personal testament of faith.” Certainly, King’s College Chapel had no precedent in other university colleges; its design has more links with the choirs of the great English cathedrals.
Henry VI laid the first stone of King’s College on Passion Sunday 1441, and over the next three years he proceeded to compulsorily acquire real estate in the center of Cambridge. Houses, shops, and even a church were demolished as the land was cleared for his grand scheme—a great court of which the chapel was to form the north side. In the event, only the chapel would be built. Henry laid its foundation stone on 25 July 1446; the architect was his master mason, Reginald of Ely. The Wars of the Roses impeded progress, and Henry’s chapel was left to be finished by others.
The construction was spasmodic, to say the least. It resumed in 1476 under Edward IV and his architects John Wolrich and Simon Clerk (after 1477) but again ceased when Henry VII succeeded to the throne in 1485. The fellows of the college soon drew his attention to the fact that “the structure magnificently
begun by royal munificence now stands shamefully abandoned.” When the king visited Cambridge in 1506, only five bays had been built, but they had a timber roof, and the open end was boarded and decorated with the arms of the Knights of the Garter painted on paper. Prompted by his mother, and for political reasons, Henry VII decided to finish the chapel. In 1508 work recommenced on a large scale. Although Henry died the following year, his will provided for the work to be completed. By 1512 the stone frame was finished, and his executors found extra money for the magnificent fan vaulting—called by some “the noblest stone ceiling in existence”—designed by the master mason John Wastell. Within three years the structure was complete, and the painted-glass main windows—the most complete set to survive from Tudor times—were finished in 1537. The latter works had been executed under Henry VIII, and when he died in 1547, King’s College Chapel was internationally recognized as an architectural masterpiece.
Much of the unique early design of the chapel can be ascribed to Reginald of Ely, who continued to supervise the work until 1461. The interior is a single vast space 289 feet (88 meters) long and 40 feet (12.2 meters) wide, under a soaring, 80-foot-high (24.4-meter) vault. Some scholars believe that the fan vault was proposed to replace a much simpler lierne vaulting system during master mason Simon Clerk’s appointment. King’s College Chapel has no side aisles, but ranges of minor chapels and vestries are accommodated between the deep buttresses on the north and south sides. The only subdivision of the entire space, and that just in part, is made by a half-height choir screen, above which the intricate forms of the high vaulting can be seen marching in stately procession toward the altar. The carved oak screen (ca. 1531–1536), in the uninformed mimetic manner of the early English Renaissance, was commissioned by Henry VIII; it is emblazoned with his monogram and Anne Boleyn’s. Its clumsy design provides an apt foil for the high refinements of English Gothic architecture seen everywhere else in the building. Almost 70 percent of the walls above the dado (that is, all except the buttresses) are made of painted glass, making the huge interior light and airy and accentuating the stone lacework of the vaults.