Saturday 28 January 2012

King's College Chapel Revisited

A few lesser known facts about the Chapel...

Milne Street

The approach to the Chapel

Approaching via Senate House Passage to the North Porch is a slightly odd experience; the road simply comes to an abrupt end at the iron gates. You are standing on one of Medieval Cambridge's main thoroughfares, Milne Street. When Henry VI conceived his grand plan for his new foundation he probably had no idea of the geography of the town and certainly had no regard for the feelings of the townspeople - he simply had the Chapel built right across the street thereby blocking it off.
It was of course not a wise course of action to oppose the monarch's word and unsurprisingly nobody dared to do so. But you can bet there would have been lots of private mutterings. It was not the first time that the University had behaved in this high handed way and it certainly was not the last. Did Town v Gown rivalry begin as soon as the colleges were founded?

The windows

One cannot but be overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of the windows in the chapel. They constitute the most complete set of stained glass windows from this period. Many artists were employed in designing and making the windows but there is nevertheless a unity of design. The top half of each window represents a scene from the Old Testament, while the lower portion shows a scene from the New. In medieval thinking every event was seen to be either a prophesy or the fulfilment of a prophesy. So the story of Jonah emerging from the whale after three days is seen as a parallel to Christ rising from the dead after three days. Each central light bears the image of a Messenger carrying scrolls, while those to the sides contain images from the story.
If you have time to spare, or want to get your money's worth from the entrance fee, I can recommend taking along a small pair of binoculars and sitting down to examine at least some of the windows in detail.


The Chapel took almost a hundred years to complete and in that time different monarchs were on the throne, fashions altered and building know-how increased, and the building reflects this.

The stone used in the building changed, probably to keep the cost down. Here at the East end of the Chapel only the bottom portion is of white limestone while the rest is in the later honey-coloured stone. As was the custom in those days the eastern end was built first and was at a much greater height when the change of building materials was made. This has an interesting result which can be seen on the buttresses.

Henry VI was a pious man who wanted his chapel to be of plain design, hence the undecorated buttresses at the East end of the Chapel. Later kings, particularly Henry VIII, had rather more swagger and wanted everything decorated with symbols of their power. And, as you can see, they got their way!

Inside the ante-chapel can be seen the royal coat of arms, the Tudor rose, a lion rampant, the portcullis and greyhound which were symbols of the Beaufort family as well as the superbly carved crowns. The choir of the Chapel is less decorated with stone carvings.

When the Chapel was first planned it was almost certainly going to have a lierne vault. But, as work progressed, the fan vault was developed and the plan was changed. This caused a problem in that the windows had been completed in readiness for a lierne vault and the new ceiling was going to be a different shape. The compromise that was reached meant having an area of 'dead wall' above each window; not an entirely satisfactory solution. Despite all these anomalies the Chapel exhibits a power and unity which transcends any minor flaws.

But what's a lierne vault, John?

Well of course I can't show you what wasn't built, can I? Lets step outside and wander round to the West end of the building where there is a fine doorway flanked by roofed niches. Peer up into one of these tiny ceilings and you'll see something akin to a fan vault....

....but in the other is a lierne vault....'ll see it is a complex arrangement of straight lines rather than the radiating curves of the fan vault. I've no idea why these niches have these two different designs or indeed what possessed me to peer up into them to discover this oddity.

An old Romantic?

The great carved screen which divides the Chapel was a gift from Henry VIII and its rich carving deserves a long examination. But lets just point out this little detail, H & A, for Henry and Anne Boleyn.

Take care.


  1. One hundred years to complete, the generation who’d started it didn’t get to see it finished, shame. I’d have never thought ‘bout the bins to check out the stained-glass. While I like ‘simplicity’ and understatement, I look to the old churches for the tantalizing work of the artisans, like the wonderful coat-of-arms displayed here, alongwith that amazing fan-vault construction. Though it may have been a compromise at the time, the area of ‘dead-wall’ as you describe it, really doesn’t seem out of place. My, I do love those fan-vaults though; imagine working on that, up so high, arms above your head. Breakfast of a morning, out the door, and up there for a days work. “but what’s a lierne vault John?” nice touch John; neat post!

  2. Another fine history and architecture lesson from the observant Professor John. Thanks!

  3. I cannot imagine building anything like this now, let alone hundreds of years ago. Truly amazing and impressive. Your narration is a comfortable read too. Well done.

  4. This has been a wonderful peek inside Kings College Chapel with its amazing architecture and stained glass windows and now I know what a Lierne vault is..... very decorative.
    The scrolled initials of Henry and Anne are exquisite .

  5. Such splendid architecture and detail.

  6. I like the uncompromising approach to the North Porch. It stops you dead in your tracks - there is no avoiding the Chapel. But perhaps Henry VI just couldn't figure out where else to put it. We've all had building projects that have stumped us and we've gone ahead with less than ideal plans. All the stain glass and stonework is wonderful. Even old Henry VIII left some beauty behind.

  7. if any of you manages a visit you'll find a brilliant ant informative display in the North Side-Chapels explaining how the ceiling was erected, complete with a scale model. Thanks for your comments.

  8. Hi, John! I’ve heard the King’s College Chapel is so beautiful, and now I understand how so. Not only viewing the artistic architecture and the staind glass but also learning the related history is so intriguing. I like your narratives as well as the photographs.


  9. Lovely to see this magnificent building through your eyes. My daughter's claim to fame is that, in her efforts (as part of her Art History degree at Kings) to study the stained glass you mention, she and her friend crawled through the organ loft - and managed to set off the burglar alarms... cue various security guards rushing in and red faces for two young students!


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).