King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

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Passing the exams for admission to Cambridge University is a major accomplishment, as any of its students will tell you. Remaining there is the other half of the feat. A good place to pray for success is not a bad thing to have on campus.

Perhaps such was on Henry VI’s mind when he decided to have a chapel built on the university’s grounds. King’s College Chapel is the chapel to King’s College of the University of Cambridge, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of late English Gothic, also known as the Perpendicular Style.

Henry VI planned a university counterpart to Eton College, whose chapel is very similar, although unfinished. The chapel is the only part that was built. The Chapel’s dimensions were decided by the king, and the architect appointed was Reginald Ely, who was commissioned in 1444. On 25 July 1446, St. James’ Day, the first stone was laid, the Cambridge College having been begun in 1441. Despite the Wars of the Roses, and by the end of the reign of Richard III (1485), five chapel bays had been completed and a timber roof erected. In 1506, Henry VII (the notorious Henry VIII’s father) visited, paying for the work to resume and even leaving money to ensure that the work would continue after his death. Perhaps between marriages, Henry VIII had the Cambridge King’s College chapel completed in 1515, but the great windows were yet to be made.

Among the chapel’s outstanding features are fan vault, largest in the world, its stained glass windows, and the painting The Adoration of the Magi, by Pieter Paul Rubens, originally painted for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain in Belgium.

The Great Windows of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

The twelve large windows on each side of the Cambridge chapel, as well as the larger windows at the east and west ends, are some of the finest in the world from their era. With the exception of the west window, they are Flemish work dating from 1515 to 1531.

Barnard Flower, the first non-Englishman appointed as the King’s Glazier (window maker in modern parlance), finished four windows. Gaylon Hone with three partners (two English and one Flemish) are responsible for the chapel’s east window and 16 others between 1526 and 1531. Francis Williamson and Symon Symondes completed the remaining four. The Cambridge chapel’s one modern window is in the west wall, done by the Clayton and Bell company, dating from 1879.

In addition to its being actively used as a place of worship, the Chapel also serves as the place for some concerts and college events, in Cambridge. Noted for its splendid acoustics, the world-famous Chapel Choir comprises choral scholars (male students from the college) and choristers (boys educated at the nearby King’s College School), presently under the direction of Stephen Cleobury. The Chapel Choir sings services on most days in term-time, and also performs concerts and makes broadcasts and recordings. The beloved Nine Lessons and Carols is performed and broadcast every Christmas Eve by the BBC from the Cambridge Chapel as it has been for many decades. There is also a mixed-voice Chapel choir of male and female students, King’s Voices, which sings Evensong on Mondays during term-time, in Cambridge.

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