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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge

What is King’s College Chapel?

King’s College Chapel is a graceful 15th-century chape in Cambridgel that’s the oldest surviving building in King’s College.

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King’s College Chapel History

King’s College Chapel is one of the finest medieval buildings in England and an exquisite example of English Gothic architecture. It took the best part of a century to build, with construction beginning at the behest of King Henry VI on the Feast of St James the Apostle in 1446. 40 years later, five bays and a timber roof had been erected. Henry VII continued to support the creation of the structure in 1506 and on the finishing of the roof in 1515 Henry VIII was able to celebrate its completion.

For an 88-metre-long, 12-metre-wide, and 24-metre-high stone rectangle, the chapel appears light and delicate. It’s split, almost in half, between the antechapel where you enter, and the chapel, or the choir, at the east end. The columns soar straight up in vertical lines, giving an impression of height and splendour. These immense buttresses support the world’s largest fan vault (the fan-like design of the ceiling), constructed by the master mason, John Wastell. The ceiling’s intricate ribs seem to sprout like a canopy from vast trunks of stone, each one adorned with the portcullis and rose of the Tudor dynasty. Between the graceful columns is a shimmering wall of glass. Scenes from the Old and New Testament are captured in ever changing hues, made by glaziers in the early 16th century to Flemish designs. They are some of only a few sets to have survived the iconoclastic Reformation, when many stained-glass windows in churches were smashed and burned.

King's College Chapel

Under Tudor rule, the building became a bastion to their power. Look for the Tudor symbols: crowns, portcullises, roses, greyhounds, and dragons. The greyhound is the symbol of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. The dragon recalls the red dragon of Cadwaladr, the symbol of Wales, taken up by Henry Tudor on his march to the Battle of Bosworth. And the Tudor Rose amalgamated the white and red roses of the houses of York and Lancaster as a potent symbol of the Tudor claim to harmony.

Compared to the austere eastern end, where Henry VI had forbidden ‘busy mouldings’, the western end is replete with heraldic ornaments. Between the antechapel and the choir is a wooden screen of outstanding Renaissance craftsmanship. Look carefully at the stylised flowers, coats of arms, and Italianate vessels, but most of all at the distinctive intertwined initials of Henry VIII and his queen, Anne Boleyn. If the crowds are not too large, it repays to spend time inspecting the 16th-century bronze lectern topped with a small statue of Henry VI, the 17th-century organ, and Peter Paul Rubens’s staggering 1634 altarpiece, The Adoration of the Magi (originally painted for a chapel in modern-day Belgium). For as the poet William Wordsworth wrote, the chapel is an ‘immense / And glorious Work of fine intelligence!’

The chapel is also home to one of the world’s most accomplished choirs, who sing almost every day. Indeed, Wordsworth’s note that it’s a place ‘Where light and shade repose, where music dwells / Lingering’ is still true today. You can join and listen to an Evensong or watch the BBC’s famous broadcast of the choir’s Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.

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