King's College, Cambridge

King's College is a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, England. The college's full name is "The King's College of our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge", but it is usually referred to simply as "King's" within the University.

The college was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI, soon after its sister college in Eton. However, the King's plans for the college were disrupted by the civil war and resultant scarcity of funds, and his eventual deposition. Little progress was made on the project until in 1508 King Henry VII began to take an interest in the college, most likely as a political move to legitimise his new position. The building of the college's chapel, begun in 1446, was finally finished in 1544 during the reign of King Henry VIII.

King's College Chapel is regarded as one of the greatest examples of late Gothic English architecture. It has the world's largest fan-vault, and the chapel's stained-glass windows and wooden chancel screen are considered some of the finest from their era. The building is seen as emblematic of Cambridge. The chapel's choir, composed of male students at King's and choristers from the nearby King's College School, is one of the most accomplished and renowned in the world. Every year on Christmas Eve the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (a service created by a Dean of King's especially for the college) is broadcast from the chapel to millions of listeners worldwide.


King's was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. His first design was modest, but by 1445 was intended to be a magnificent display of royal patronage. There were to be a Provost and seventy scholars, occupying a substantial site in central Cambridge whose drastic clearance involved the closure of several streets. The college was granted a remarkable series of feudal privileges, and all of this was supported by a substantial series of endowments from the King.

King Henry VI had admired the achievements of William of Wykeham, who had founded the twin colleges of New College, Oxford (King's College's Sister College) and Winchester College in 1379. He subsequently modelled the establishment of King's and Eton College upon the successful formation of Wykeham's institutions. Indeed, the link that King's College and Eton College share is a direct copy of the link shared between New College and Winchester College. The four colleges continue to share formal ties to this day.

Originally, the college was to be specifically for boys from Eton College. It was not until 1865 that the first non-Etonian undergraduates arrived to study at King's, and the first fellow to have not attended Eton was elected in 1873. The connection with Eton is now weak, but a scholarship to attend the college, exclusively available to students from Eton, is still awarded each year.

The very first buildings of the college, now part of the Old Schools, were begun in 1441, but by 1443 the decision to build to a much grander plan had been taken. That plan survives in the 1448 Founders Will describing in detail a magnificent court with a chapel on one side. But within a decade, civil war (the Wars of the Roses) meant that funds from the King began to dry up. By the time of his deposition in 1461, the chapel walls had been raised 60 ft high at the east end but only 8 ft at the west; a building line which can still be seen today as the boundary between the lighter stone below and the darker above. Work proceeded sporadically until a generation later in 1508 when the Founder's nephew King Henry VII was prevailed upon to finish the shell of the building. The interior had to wait a further generation until completion by 1544 with the aid of King Henry VIII.

It has been speculated that the choice of the college as a beneficiary by the two later Henrys was a political one, with Henry VII in particular concerned to legitimate a new, post-civil war Tudor regime by demonstrating patronage of what was by definition the King's College. Later building work is marked by an uninhibited branding with the Tudor rose and other symbols of the new establishment, quite against the precise instructions of the Founders Will. Henry VI is not completely forgotten at the College, however, the Saturday after the end of Michaelmas term each year is Founder's Day which begins with a Founder's Eucharist in the chapel, followed by a Founder's Breakfast with ale and culminating in a sumptuous dinner in his memory called "Founder's Feast" to which all members of College in their last year of studies are invited.

King's College Chapel

The College Chapel, an example of late Gothic architecture, was built over a period of a hundred years (1446–1531) in three stages. The Chapel features the world's largest fan vault, stained glass windows, and the painting "The Adoration of the Magi" by Rubens.

The Chapel is actively used as a place of worship and also for some concerts and college events. The world-famous Chapel choir consists of choral scholars (male students from the college) and choristers (boys educated at the nearby King's College School). The choir sings services on most days in term-time, and also performs concerts and makes recordings and broadcasts. In particular, it has broadcast its Nine Lessons and Carols on the BBC from the Chapel on Christmas Eve for many decades. Additionally, there is a mixed-voice Chapel choir of male and female students, King's Voices, which sings evensong on Mondays during term-time.

The Chapel is widely seen as a symbol of Cambridge, as seen in the logo of the city council.

Education at King's

The unofficial Tompkins Table comparing academic performance ranked King's nineteenth out of a total of twenty-nine rated colleges at the University of Cambridge in 2008; the college's position has fluctuated between tenth and twenty-first over the years 2000–2008.

King's offers all undergraduate courses available at the University, except for education, Land Economy and veterinary medicine, although Directors of Studies for Anglo-Saxon Norse & Celtic, Geography, and Management Studies all visit from other colleges.

Since its foundation, the college has housed a library, providing books for all students, covering all the subjects offered by King's. Around 130,000 books are held: some available for teaching and for reference, others being rare books and manuscripts.

Intake and access profile

The college has gradually broadened its intake to include many students from state schools, often having the highest proportion of maintained school acceptances of the undergraduate colleges. Inevitably this has led to accusations of reactionary bias against public school pupils and of affirmative action (positive discrimination), although the relatively high proportion of state-school students reflects the far greater number of applications from pupils at maintained schools in comparison to other Cambridge colleges. King's has established a Schools Liaison Officer post in order to provide support to students, whatever their background, and schools and colleges of any type to find out more about the University of Cambridge and the college.

In general, the atmosphere at King's is considered to be a little easier than that of other colleges to integrate into if you come from a working class or minority background. Having said this, a survey conducted by Varsity Newspaper in January 2009 revealed that the average parental income of students at King's is slightly higher than that of most other Cambridge students.

Student life

As with all Cambridge colleges King's has its own student unions both for undergraduates (King's College Student Union or KCSU) and for graduates (King's College Graduate Society or KCGS). Having a reputation for being more politically active than other colleges, students at King's have used both organisations to assist in the decision-making processes in the College itself and the University.

The student union has a long record of left wing activism. In the eighties a long rent strike against the college's investment in apartheid South Africa was organised. King's has also been known informally as 'Red King's' especially by the media and members of other Cambridge colleges. As recent as 2011, republican students influenced the burning of a large Union flag, the centrepiece of the Student Union's decorations to celebrate the royal wedding. This event, however, was carried out by 2 members of the college, the other 300-400 were in the bar celebrating the royal wedding. Following the event, the KCSU (kings college student union) spokesmen expressed their anger regarding the issue in an intra-college email and subsequently spoke to the tabloids and newspapers to further show up the culprits. As well as this, many members of King's College then displayed Union Jack flags from their rooms.

King's students successfully established a university-wide rent strike, through the formation of the King's Access Alliance, during the 1999–2000 academic year in response to increased living costs (which, they believed, would deter potential applicants and thus affect the college's access profile); a second rent-strike in 2003 was, however, much less successful, due partly to a failure to secure support outside of the college and the hard line taken by the then Provost.

King's has a venue known as the Cellar Bar, a small room in the basement of the college, which regularly acts as a music venue. The main bar at King's is far older, and is the site of more informal meetings between students. The bar has been traditionally painted a socialist red, including a depiction of a hammer and sickle. In 2004 it was redecorated, with the walls painted yellow and the overall décor lightened. A hammer and sickle survives in a frame on the wall, a source of some controversy. King's also has a dedicated Coffee Shop adjacent to the bar. A Vacation Bar, or "vac bar", also sometimes operates during the summer vacation, run by (and mainly for) the graduate students who remain in College throughout the year.

Whereas most Cambridge colleges celebrate May Week with a May Ball (which actually falls in June), since the early 1980s King's has instead held a June Event (a more informal version of a May Ball) known as King's Affair. The down-scaling followed a huge invasion of crashers over the backs when the Stranglers played at the last King's ball. The annual budget is around £85,000 and the event has always sold out. The enduring popularity of the June Event is due largely to its affordability; a ticket generally costs around £60 rather than the £90–200 which is common for the May Balls of other colleges.

While not enjoying a reputation for sport, much sporting activity occurs at King's. Most intercollegiate sports events are entered and most people will be able to find something to participate in at a suitable level. The largest sports club in the college is the King's Mountaineering and Kayaking Association, running weekly rock climbing and kayaking sessions during the term along with outdoor pursuits trips during the holidays. The second largest is the King's College Boat Club, which has recently enjoyed a run of success.


Time Magazine published, in 2000, a list of what it considered the most 'influential and important' people of the twentieth century. In a list of one hundred names, King's was the only European institution that could claim two: Alan Turing and John Maynard Keynes who had been both students and fellows at the college. Other alumni of King's College have included prime ministers, archbishops, presidents and the novelist E.M. Forster. More recently they have included authors Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie, politician Charles Clarke, journalist Johann Hari, folk musician John Spiers and comedian David Baddiel.

Montague Rhodes James, celebrated ghost story writer and mediaevalist, spent much of his life at King's as student, don and Provost. Many of his finest stories were read at Christmas to friends in his rooms in the College.

Once someone has been admitted to the College, they become a member for life. For this reason, King's alumni are referred to as 'Non Resident Members'.

See also: Category: Alumni of King's College, Cambridge and Category: Fellows of King's College, Cambridge

In popular culture

King's College features in the Yes Minister episode "The Greasy Pole" as the setting for the 'coincident' meeting between Jim Hacker and Professor Henderson, a Chemistry Don. In this exchange, Jim Hacker attempts to persuade Henderson to soften the phrasing of his governmental report, to allow Hacker the political flexibility to bow to public demand.

The 1987 film Maurice, based on the novel by E. M. Forster, himself a student and fellow at King's, was filmed in the college.

In 1930, a Cambridgeshire Constabulary Detective Sergeant was shot dead by an estranged pupil who also shot his tutor, on the first door on the left of the dorm houses.

The 2010 film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens with a panorama of the Gatehouse of King's College.