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Secrets of King's College Chapel

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Today, King's College Chapel is the iconic image of the City of Cambridge.The chapel was founded in 1446 by the mystically-inclined King Henry VI, known in his time as "the royal saint". The king gave his builders complete instructions for a magnificent chapel of cathedral dimensions, every part of which had a mystical and spiritual meaning. This "final flowering of the Great Work' was designed from the principles of sacred geometry, laid out and orientated by the ancient geomantic practice of the operative masons who built it.This book gives an historic overview of the chapel, and a summary of its construction, notable for its stunningly beautiful fan-vaulting and exceptional stained glass which still exists in its entirety. Although the chapel's original significance as a symbolic structure has been eroded over the centuries, it remains a place of wonder and reverence for countless thousands of visitors and those who watch on television the annual Christmas carol festival broadcast from there every year.

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1. The Location, Nature and Accessibility of Cambridge

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Few cities are named after a bridge, so the very name of Cambridge attests to its importance as the crossing-point of the River Granta. The town was called Cambridge long before the river was known as the Cam, the name being a development (or corruption) of Grantebrycge and its variants – Granta bridge, from the original name of the river, Granta. From the tenth century until the time of Edward the Confessor, who died in 1065, coins were minted at Cambridge bearing the place-mark GRANT. The city’s name is still Caergrawnt in modern Welsh. Once the name Cambridge became established, people assumed that the bridge stood over a river called the Cam, and so it did. But the old name, Granta, never quite died. The bridge in question was once called The Great Bridge, but since the construction of several other bridges, it is now, usually, called Magdalene Bridge, after the nearby college.

In origin, Cambridge is a dual town. The original settlement appears to have been Roman, and to have borne the name of Durolipons. This was on the left bank, the north side of the river, and the street called Mount Pleasant follows the defensive ditch of part of the western and northern side. The north-south cardo of the Roman town is still in use, for it was the Roman road called the Via Devana, whose final objective was Chester. Until the nineteenth century, this part of the town was called The Borough. On the southern side of the river is the part of the town that was the main centre in medieval times, containing the market places and most of the historic churches and colleges. In early medieval times, the riverside on the right bank area, close to the Great Bridge known as the Holm (around the present St Clement’s church), contained wharves of overseas traders, ‘Irish Merchants’ who may have been Danes from Dublin. In the year 878, Cambridge became part of the Danelaw. This Anglo-Danish town was burnt during the northern wars in the year 1010. The tower and some other parts of the oldest building in Cambridge, St Bene’t’s, dates from the reconstruction that followed.

 

2. King Henry VI’s Foundation

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On Passion Sunday, the 2nd of April 1441, the saintly King Henry VI founded King’s College of St Nicholas of Bari, the patron saint of scholars, whose saint’s day, 6th December, was also the King’s birthday. King’s College of St Nicholas originally had provision for a Rector and twelve scholars. The land for the college was conveyed to the king in January 1440/1, and the foundation stone was laid on Michaelmas Day (29th September 1441), by the Marquis of Suffolk on behalf of the king, who was only nineteen years of age at the time. The build ings were of three full storeys and work proceeded slowly, finally being finished in a makeshift manner (which lasted for three hundred and eighty years). The original college was expanded in 1443 into a society consisting of a Provost, seventy scholars, ten conduct priests (chaplains), six clerks, sixteen choristers and a master. Its name was the College Royal of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas of Cambridge.

The first chapel stood between the south side of the Old Court (the original foundation) and the north side of the present chapel, now a dark and secluded open space. It con sisted of a chancel, nave and ante-chapel, a door at the west end, and east and west windows. These were presumably made of painted glass, since we know that in 1449 Henry VI brought John Utnyam from Flanders to make glass of all colours for Eton and the King’s Colleges. The chapel was richly furnished. There are records of plate, hangings, relics, ser vice books (illuminated manu scripts), vestments, choristers and both large and small organs. This original chapel was consecrated by the Bishops of Salisbury and Lincoln in 1443. The original overseer of the works, John Langton, was consecrated there as the Bishop of St. David’s, on the 7th of May 1447.

 

3. Building the Chapel

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To the honour of Almighty God, in whose hand are the hearts of Kings; of the most blessed and immaculate Virgin Mary, mother of Christ; and also of the glorious Confessor and Bishop Nicholas, Patron of my intended College, on whose festival we first saw the light.

Dedication by King Henry VI

When the question of who actually designed the chapel is addressed, the initial concept, that is the ground-plan and dimensional lay-out, definitely stems from King Henry VI, himself following Roman Catholic tradition. As Geoffrey de Vinsauf observed in his Poetria Nova, written around the year 1210: ‘If a man has to lay the foundations of a house, he does not set his hands to work in a hurry. It is the inner line of the heart that measures out the work in advance. The inner man works out a definite scheme of action. The hand of the imagination designs everything before the body performs the act. The pattern is first the idea, then the physical reality’

Sacred measure is a constant theme both in ancient Jewish tradition and in the temples of the gods of Greece and Rome. Medieval Christian architecture has elements that are derived from both of these traditions, as well as from the carpentry of ancient northern Europe. The Tabernacle of the Israelites, designed by Bezazel and Aholiab, was a complex ritual structure of timber, precious metal and textiles, constructed according to a system of proportion in which the ratio 26:15 appears. The proportions recorded in scriptural accounts, as well as numerical and geometrical traditions received through the works of Pythagoras, Euclid and Vitruvius, were influential in the symbolic designs of Christian sacred places. The dimensions given by King Henry VI for his chapel are concerned largely with internal measures, for it is these that defne the sacred space within. Thus, the building is treated as an interior space, literally, a sacred vessel. Sacred dimensions of buildings given in Biblical texts define the inner spaces: Solomon’s ‘House of the Lord’, the House of the Forest of Lebanon and the ‘Holy of Holies’ of Ezekiel’s vision. External dimensions are given for smaller liturgical paraphernalia; the Ark of the Covenant, the Altar of Full Offering and the acacia wood table. The measurements of Noah’s Ark have usually been seen as referring to the internal dimensions of the symbolic vessel.

 

4. Finishing the Chapel

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One of the most magnificent features of the chapel is the lacelike stone fan vaulting, which never ceases to impress first-time visitors. On the 8th of February 1511/12, 5,000 was granted to the college by the executors of the king’s will, on condition that it was to be vaulted according to ‘the form of a plat’. In 1512, John Wastell commenced the vaulting, in Weldon Stone, costing 100 per severy (bay), the time stipulated being three years for completion of the twelve. Geometrically, the masterly fan vaults are in the form of rectangular portions of the four quadrants of an inverted concave conoid, mitred into one another at their junctions.

Fan vaults appear to have been developed as skeuomorphic replicas of textile hangings suspended as a tabernacle over coffins during lyings-in-state and funerals. Hung from posts erected at the four corners of the catafalque, a wish to make them more permanent seems to have led to these pall-cloths being reproduced in other, more durable, materials. Where the custom originated is not known, but it seems to have been some time in the thirteenth century. A notable stone tabernacle of this kind was made at Tewkesbury for Sir Hugh Despenser, who died in 1349. Wooden ones were also made. One was installed over the tomb of Edward, the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral (1376).

 

5. The Almost-Sainted King and Glazing the Chapel

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King Henry VII desired the Church to canonize King Henry VI. Although several kings of pre-conquest England had become saints (Ethelbert of Kent; Ethelbert and Edmund of East Anglia; Oswald of Northumbria; Edward, King and Martyr), no post-conquest king had been made into a saint. France had St Louis, and, the argument went, ‘why should not England receive the like favour, being no less beneficial to the Church of Rome?’ The fact that King Henry had been deposed was deemed no hindrance to canonization, ‘for God’s best servants often suffer the worst afflictions’. Henry VII seems to have believed that Henry VI had prophesied his elevation to the throne, with the story that when the civil wars between Lanca ster and York first began, Henry VI, seeing the young future Henry VII, remarked to his courtiers: ‘See this youth will one day quietly enjoy what we at this time so much fight about.’ This prophetic claim echoes the story told about Henry V.

Fuller claims that this ‘made the King with much importunity to tender this his request unto the Pope. A request the more reasonable, because it was well nigh forty years since the death of that Henry, so that only the skeletons of his virtues remained in men’s memories, the flesh and corruption (as one may say) of his faults being quite consumed and for gotten’.

 

6. Internal Fittings, the Chantries and Alterations

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The west window was glazed with plain glass, as money for stained glass had run out on Archbishop Fisher’s imprisonment for opposing Henry VIII’s divorce (October 1530). Only in the years 1878–79 was it finally glazed with coloured glass by the company of Clayton and Bell, with the theme of the Last Judgement. In the early 1530s, once most of the painted glass was in the windows, the next job was installing the interior fittings. At this point, the original Perpendicular architecture was abandoned, and a wooden screen in the Renaissance style was made and erected by foreign craftsmen, probably Italian, between June 1533 and May 1536. A high altar, carved with images by Magistro Antonio, was delivered in 1554–55.

The screen is as wide, and in the same position, as the stone one stipulated by the founder. The money for it was provided by Henry VIII after a petition from the college to complete a great deal of the outstanding work. This included the high altar and sixteen others, of stone; the entire paving; the screen; the metal fittings; stalls; doors; images and painting and gilding the main vault. To ft the wooden screen, some of the heraldic stonework was smashed. The cost was estimated at 2,893. The oaken stalls, also Renaissance in style, date from between 1536 and 1538.

 

7. The Altered Surroundings

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The chapel is the only major building that was built according to the plans of Henry’s projected college. Fuller, in his church history, writes ‘The whole college was intended conformable to the chapel: but the untimely death (or rather deposing) of King Henry the Sixth hindered the same’. Stow, in his Chronicle, says ‘I suppose that if the rest of the House had proceeded according to the chapel already finished as his (Henry VI – N.P.) full intent and meaning was, the like College could scarce have been found again in any Christian land.’

For many years, the only college buildings were the chapel and Old Court. Brick Building, south-east of the chapel, was built in the seventeenth century, and completed in 1693. It lasted until the nineteenth century. The separate timber-frame bell tower fell into disrepair and was removed in the eighteenth century. The site of the bell tower, thirty yards from the west door, appears as ‘crop-patterns’ in aerial photographs. Early artists’ depictions of the college show a pair of bowling greens next to the river, the space between them and the chapel being exactly the size of the cloister direct ed by the founder, but never built. These disappeared at the laying out of King’s Lawn in 1772.

 

8. Location and Orientation

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In the middle ages, the techniques and traditions of craftsmanship were taught according to the traditional guild system, through which ancient skills and wisdom were transmitted directly from master to apprentice. The creation of artefacts was in no way separated from the spiritual dimension of existence. Techniques had been developed continuously from the beginning of the respective crafts, and had come unchanged in essence through changes in prevailing religion, being based upon transcendent true principles. The sacred principles embodied in building craftsmanship were essentially the same whether employed in making temples, churches, mosques or synagogues. In medieval times, craftwork was made mindfully of God, manifesting as far as possible what was seen as His divine harmony. Whatever was created was primarily for use, instruction or delight, made with a loving and respectful spirit for the service of God and the community.

In medieval Europe, then, no church or mosque was built merely as an ornamented shed, its dimensions deter mined by the amount of money available, or even the size of the plot upon which it was to be built. The ‘shed’ way of building is the common, profane form of building in modern times, but this careless way of making is alien to the spiritual arts and crafts practised by medieval craftsmen. King’s College Chapel is something different from careless modernity. It is the epitome of a sacred building. Its site was investigated for its spiritual qualities, and in its dimensions it reflected a sacred language translated into number. Number, in turn, ruled the system of proportion and linear dimensions to which the chapel was constructed.

 

9. Name and Number

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Folklore and commentators alike frequently stress the importance of symbolic number in churches. There are numerous instances of churches whose numbers of windows, pillars, niches, pinnacles and bays reproduce the number of months, weeks and days of the year. For example, St Paul’s Cathedral in London is equal in height, in feet, to the number of days in the year. In her highly speculative Druidical book Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles, (1925) Elizabeth Gordon writes of Henry VI: ‘It is recorded that the King frequently attended Divine Service in St Mary’s College Chapel and impressed with the beautiful proportions, the sacred numbers employed in the “days” of the large windows and the ground plan in the form of the ancient T-shaped cross, determined to reproduce Wykeham’s plans in every detail, only on a more magnificent scale, for his own colleges at Eton and Cambridge.’ St Mary’s College Chapel is part of Winchester College, or the School of St Mary Winton, founded by William of Wykeham in the time of King Edward III according to spiritual principles.

 

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