Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

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To me, a chapel is either a small building used for Christian worship, typically by Methodists or non-conformists, or part of a larger structure such as a cathedral. At Oxford and Cambridge the word seems to mean something different altogether. All the colleges have a chapel but in most cases they are really large churches – and, indeed, the chapel at Christ’s College, Oxford is also the city’s cathedral.

While we were in Cambridge recently we visited a few of the colleges, and the “tourist route” around the college usually included looking inside the chapel. King’s College chapel is worth a visit for it’s own sake. It’s a fantastic example of a late Gothic period building – in the style known as “Perpendicular Gothic”.

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King’s College was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI, hence it’s name. He intended to create a prestigious institution and building and obtained and cleared land in the centre of the town for it’s construction. Nobody was in a position to argue with the King if he decided to grab their land for his vanity project!

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Henry Vi (image source Wikipedia)

In those days, the colleges were religious institutions, so the most important building was the college chapel and Henry was determined to make his mark by having a chapel bigger and more beautiful than those of the other colleges in Cambridge and Oxford. The foundation stone was laid by the King in July1446. Building continued even when the Wars of the Roses broke out in 1455 but when  Henry was taken prisoner in 1461  the workmen packed up and went home. Henry was murdered in 1471 and was succeeded by the Yorkist Edward IV. Work stopped but resumed under Edward’s successor, Richard III, the hunchbacked villain of Shakespeare’s play of the same name. It was finished during the reigns of the Tudor kings (who overthrew the Yorkists)  Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. The main structure being completed in 1515. Tudor symbols, including the Tudor rose and the portcullis, the heraldic badge of Henry VII’s mother’s family,the Beaumonts, are evident throughout the building.

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The distinguishing features of Gothic architecture are the pointed arches, buttresses supporting the walls allowing a high proportion of the structure to consist of windows. With Perpendicular Gothic the tracery in the windows and some other structural elements are dominated by strong vertical lines and the vaulting in the ceiling can be highly complex.

The Chapel dominates the view as you walk along King’s Parade towards the Market Square. It’s a tall, massive, very impressive building with distinctive, highly decorated, pinnacles at each corner and on top of the many buttresses which support the walls. The walls themselves almost seem to be composed entirely of stained glass windows.

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Inside light floods in through the windows. During our visit it was a sunny day and the colours from the glass in the windows in the south wall were reflected on the masonry.

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The windows are beautiful, and the masonry highly decorated with intricate patterns and carvings, but the most outstanding feature, which almost takes your breath away, is the magnificent fan vault roof.

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Fan vaulting is a particularly English innovation from the late “Perpendicular Gothic” period. The fan vault in the King’s College Chapel is the largest of them all. The masonry with hundreds of fine ribs radiating across the ceiling resembles, delicate fine lace and looks like it wouldn’t be capable of supporting the roof. I doubt that the masons who constructed fully understood the complex underlying engineering principles. These structures were developed over many years by trial and error, but they knew what worked. And they weren’t wrong – their masterpiece has stood for 450 years and doesn’t look like its about to fall down.

Further information on fan vaulting can be found here, here and here.

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