Tax not the royal Saint with vain expense,
With ill-matched aims the Architect who planned—
Albeit labouring for a scanty band
Of white-robed Scholars only—this immense
And glorious Work of fine intelligence!
Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore
Of nicely-calculated less or more;
So deemed the man who fashioned for the sense
These lofty pillars, spread that branching roof
Self-poised, and scooped into ten thousand cells,
Where light and shade repose, where music dwells
Lingering—and wandering on as loth to die;
Like thoughts whose very sweetness yieldeth proof
That they were born for immortality.
(‘Inside of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge’ – William Wordsworth)
Henry VI, the ‘royal Saint’ in Wordsworth’s poem, wasn’t a great success as a king. He lost almost all his lands in France, his English kingdom fell apart under his rule, and he ended up deposed, imprisoned, and, most likely, murdered on the orders of his successor. And despite Wordsworth’s capital S, Henry never made it to official sainthood, because his canonization procedure was brought to an abrupt end by the English Reformation. Many miracles were attributed to Henry after his death, but if a building can be deemed miraculous, then King’s College Chapel may be his best claim to sainthood.
King’s College was the eighth of the Cambridge colleges, founded in 1441 by Henry, when he was just nineteen years old. He may have been lousy at warfare and statecraft but he was a pious, studious man, and took an intense interest in his new foundation. When it came to designing the college chapel, Henry took on the task himself. In a document of 1448, he set out his plan for the new chapel. This specification included not just the main dimensions of the building, but such details as the number of windows and lights, and the sizes of the pavements, the rood screen, and the altar.
Building work on the new chapel began in the early 1450s. But Henry’s political and dynastic problems were mounting and by 1455 the War of the Roses was underway. In 1461, Henry was deposed by Edward of York, who took the throne as Edward IV. College tradition has it that all the masons working on the chapel downed tools and walked off the site. Whatever the truth of that story, building work continued only in fits and starts until Reginald’s death in 1471, by which time the main structure and several of the side-chapels were completed, and some of the internal carving had been done in the plain style that Henry specified.
By then, the chapel was viewed by the Yorkist kings as a Lancastrian project and no more money came from the royal. It wasn’t until Henry VII, another Lancastrian and the first Tudor king, came to the throne that work recommenced. This Henry gave the tidy sum of £5,000 for the completion of the building but did not live to see its completion in 1515.
It was yet another Henry, the VIII, who coughed up for much of the glazing and interior decoration, and by the end of his reign the chapel looked much as it does today, other than the west window and some of the side-chapel decoration. Another aspect of the miraculous here is how a building that required three kings, four master masons, and one hundred years to reach completion turn out so well, so coherent, so magnificent.
Standing in King’s College Chapel, gazing up at the astonishing fan vaulting, it’s easy, perhaps even trite, to wonder why our contemporary culture is incapable of producing such beauty and grandeur. Part of the answer, of course, is that the religious feeling that inspired this work has either drained away completely or attenuated into a desiccated Christian humanism. It’s certainly not a question of money. The world is awash with wealth. In Britain alone, there are about 20 billionaires. Of course, few of those are Christians. But none of them is splashing their cash on magnificent secular buildings either.
Another reason might be, and this applies particularly in the UK, the enormous bureaucratic and political obstacles that have to be overcome to build anything ambitious in conception and scale. Even so, medieval kings and cardinals thought that part of their duty was to beautify and sanctify the public sphere. Our modern magnates, on the other hand, entranced with space travel, vaccination programmes, and leftist causes, seem oblivious to our shared human environment.