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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of King’s College, Cambridge

What is King’s College?

King’s College is a grand university college at Cambridge which was founded by King Henry VI in the 15th century.

kings college cambridge

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King’s College History

King’s, formally The King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge, is both the most astounding college and the most confusing. Medieval colleges were designed along a uniform plan: a square courtyard with buildings on all four sides, including accommodation, a chapel, a library, a dining hall, and a porter’s lodge. But as you walk through the screen and gatehouse from King’s Parade, the vast courtyard is not fully enclosed by buildings, and the ones that are there look starkly different in design and age.

This is because King Henry VI had founded the college in the 15th century, and initially set out a highly ambitious plan for a large court based on William of Wykeham’s New College in Oxford. Previously built houses, shops, wharves, and churches were pulled down to make way. On the 25th of July 1446, the king himself set the first stone for the grand chapel on the north side of the court. But it would be the only building of his vision completed. War broke out between the rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the Red Rose against the White Rose; the House of Lancaster against the House of York. The Wars of the Roses depleted funds, the king was deposed, and the plans were left unfinished.

It took nearly 200 years for building works to recommence. The 18th-century Neoclassical architect James Gibbs, who was already busy with Senate House nearby, drew up plans to enclose the court. Yet that project too ran out of money and only the Fellows’ Building, now known as the Gibbs Building, was completed. A century later, William Wilkins, a classical scholar at heart, who had designed the National Gallery in London, finished the job. He was obliged to construct, on the southern side, the library, dining hall, and Provost’s lodge in the Tudor-Gothic style to complement the chapel. He did so admirably.

Wilkins’ screen and gatehouse complete the court and seal off the college from King’s Parade. Its ornate hood moulds, lancet windows, and soaring finials patently show off the Gothic Revival style. For some, the noble classical façade of Gibbs’ building perfectly frames the Gothic college and offers a clever and attractive peak through to the Backs. For others, the magnificent buildings sit oddly together, a curious, hodgepodge product of history.

Originally, King’s only accepted students from Eton College. The school was also founded by Henry VI, though the year before in 1440. Radical reforms in the 19th century changed this and non-Etonians were allowed to enter from 1861. Some particularly notable alumni include: Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham; Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole; the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing; the economist John Maynard Keynes; the writers E. M. Forster, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith; and the poets Rupert Brooke and Xu Zhimo.

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