Cambridge was one of the many places we visited last summer and as we are in virtual lockdown at the moment I am returning in my writing to the city. There are many iconic buildings in Cambridge but probably head and shoulders above the rest is King’s College Chapel. Be it on one of those glorious summer days which the East of England is renowned or hosting Carols at King’s in winter the building is highly evocative.
The architecture of the chapel is possibly the most important in English history. Representing the zenith of the perpendicular, that most English of architectural themes, with its tracery on the walls and windows and the stunning fan valued ceiling. The building can also be said to recount much of the stormy politics of England of the day.
Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor kings all enter the story in turn. The founder, the pious but ineffective Henry VI, saw it as his great educational legacy along with Eton College on the Thames. The design was based on the great perpendicular choir at Gloucester Cathedral, the last of the great royal choirs of the fourteenth century still standing (St Paul’s and St Stephen’s in London both being destroyed by fires)
The Yorkist kings, after almost destroying the Lancastrian dynasty in 1471 at Tewkesbury, spent lvery little money on King’s focussing their attention on there own legacy at Windsor. Their fortunes were reversed at Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry Tudor (HenryVII) spent much of his reign justifying his usurpation of the crown and little investment took place at either King’s or St George’s at Windsor. What Henry did which was fundamental for the completion of the building was his attempts at canonising his uncle and, more importantly, providing money in his will for the completion of the college.
Henry VIII was the king responsible for completing the magnificent chapel using his fathers money. With the best of Europe’s stonemasons, wood carvers and stained glass artists he created this most magnificent building which marks the closure of English medieval architecture.
Do visit the inside of this chapel if you can and, amongst its treasures, look for the interesting transition between the two halves. The east end evokes the piousness of Henry VI with its lack of wall decoration. This is a space to look for Henry’s Lancastrian piety. But then go to the west end and witness a carnival of stone carving. The decoration of the walls is explosive in its messaging. Symbols, portraits, heraldry. All the glory of the Tudor dynasty is here. It is saying “we may be usurpers but we are here to stay and we will make England Great.7
Political influence continued into the twentieth with the redesign of the east end to replace the original Tudor altar decoration with Rubens ”Adoration of the Magi” because it would ’look good’ on television. So when you watch Carols at King’s or punt on the River Cam in high summer consider the political upheavals and acknowledge the birth of the modern English nation that this glorious architectural gem heralds in.