Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:50 am
Every Christmas Eve, millions of people all round the world tune in to their TVs or radios to listen to carols from King’s – or ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ – from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The broadcasts are an essential part of Christmas for many; for some, they mark the beginning of the Christmas celebrations, or provide a marker that the toil of the year is almost done and a period of quiet reflection is possible before the New Year. It is astonishing that this tradition means so much to so many, not just in the UK, but far beyond these shores; it has a timeless quality, almost as though it has always been there. Of course, it hasn’t; but it is the product of more than 500 years of history, bringing us to a point where the paths of the past meet, forged through the offices of long-dead kings, the humble, the proud, lovers of song – and despite of, or even inspired by, terrible war.
Henry VI (1421-71) is often judged to be one of England’s more unfortunate monarchs. The very opposite of his warlike father, Henry V, peaceful and pious Henry VI’s unsuitability to rule is frequently cited as one of the main causes of the awful dynastic struggle known as the Wars of the Roses. Plagued with mental instability, poor old Henry was hopelessly out of his depth in this conflict and died – almost certainly murdered – abandoned and lonely, in the Tower of London. However, in 1441, when still a young man and before things started to go horribly wrong, Henry founded King’s College, Cambridge. The year before that, he had founded Kynge’s College of Our Ladye of Eton besyde Windesore. The original plan for Eton was to provide free education for 70 poor boys and Henry then decided that its sister institution in Cambridge, the College roial of Oure Lady and Seynt Nicholas, would only admit scholars from Eton. And, for 400 years, that’s exactly what happened.
The construction of King’s College, next to the River Cam, was a major development in what had hitherto been a built up part of medieval Cambridge’s bustling town centre, commencing with the demolition of houses, riverside port facilities – even a church. Hard to imagine now. It took three years just to purchase and clear the land. Construction of the chapel itself began in 1446, but came to a sudden stop after the defeat of Henry’s army at the Battle of Towton in 1461. Thereafter, not much happened until Richard III’s brief reign (1483-85), when he instructed that work should resume with all speed. It was Richard’s nemesis, though, Henry Tudor, victor of Bosworth, Henry VII, who ultimately made completion of the chapel possible – though he did not live to see it, either. Henry VII died in 1509, to be succeeded by his son, Henry VIII; the chapel’s structure was finished by 1515, but final fit-out, as it were, ran on until 1544. The different stone used in each phase of the chapel’s construction can be seen quite clearly outside, providing an interesting kind of architectural project timeline.
It was the college founder, Henry VI, who determined that the chapel should have a choir. He wanted poor boys, under twelve years old, of “honest conversation” and able to read, for choristers – though they would undertake other duties as well, such as waiting at table in Hall. The composition of the choir is laid down in the College Statutes of 1453, which stipulate that there should be sixteen boy choristers in addition to scholars. The boys were given their meals, clothing and board, but had to obtain permission to venture outside the college grounds. Except for a few years in the 1550s, and during the Commonwealth of the 1650s, when choral services were suppressed, King’s College choir has been singing services for over 500 years
Entering King’s College chapel today produces one of those, “Oh, wow!” moments. Well, that was my experience anyway. Television did not prepare me for the size, space, luminescence and sheer beauty of this medieval building. It is long – 289 feet (88 metres) – disproportionately slender – 40 feet (12 metres) – and the breathtaking fan-vaulted ceiling, the largest of its type anywhere in the world, soars 80 feet (24 metres) above your head. Tudor iconography is all around: the hugely symbolic Tudor rose, uniting the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York; the portcullis, badge of the Beaufort family of Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort; the Dragon of Cadwallader, representing Henry VII’s father’s Welsh origins. Each of the figures is unique. Coloured light streams through the stained glass windows, making patterns on the floor, walls, people; it really is quite extraordinary. All of the chapel’s stunning windows were completed in the 16th century, except for the huge west window, which is Victorian.
The choir area is warm, and familiar from photographs and TV. Entrance to it is through a massive oak screen, a gift from Henry VIII; it bears his initials, and those of his executed queen, Anne Boleyn. At the east, altar, end, beneath the great window, is Rubens’ ‘Adoration of the Magi’, painted in 1634 for the Convent of the White Nuns at Louvain, Belgium, and donated to the college in 1961. Smaller chapels – chapels within a chapel – flank the main area. Each one is beautiful, and interesting; and there is a fascinating exhibition which explains some of the construction techniques. One of the side chapels, the Chapel of all Souls, serves as a memorial chapel for members of the College, Choir School and staff who fell in the two world wars. The poet Rupert Brooke, who died in April 1915 on the island of Skyros, on his way to fight at Gallipoli, is remembered there.
And it was out of the dreadful experience of the First World War that the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, came to be. To be fair, there are other, and older, festivals of Nine Lessons and Carols, but it is the service from King’s that has captured the imagination, and whose simple format continues to be imitated in churches around the world today. The structure of the service tells the story of the Nativity in nine Bible readings, with carols in between, and was first created in 1880 by the Bishop of Truro, Edward White Benson. It was a young clergyman and decorated military chaplain, Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), who introduced it to Cambridge.
Milner-White, apparently a shy but very kind young man, got a first in history at King’s and was appointed chaplain in 1912. He volunteered as an army chaplain after war broke out in 1914, served on the Western and Italian fronts, was mentioned in despatches, awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and returned to Cambridge in 1918, where he was made dean of King’s. Scarred by war, the new dean wanted a special, but straightforward, service for Christmas – something that would make sense to those who, like him, were trying to come to terms with their experiences. So, he adapted Edward White Benson’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, simplifying it, and held the service in the chapel on Christmas Eve 1918. It has taken place every year since and the essential structure of the service, always opening with ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, has been the same since 1919 – though the carols that punctuate the readings change. These days, the opening verse of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is a solo performed by a young boy chorister. Several lads train together for it and the chosen soloist is only told just before the performance, to help prevent an attack of nerves.
Eric Milner-White’s new service quickly gained popularity in the Cambridge area. Then, in 1928, the BBC broadcast it over the radio. It has been transmitted worldwide since 1938, including during the Second World War, when it inspired prisoners of war to attempt their own services; beacons of light in the darkness that surrounded them. The BBC wartime broadcasts could also be heard in enemy and occupied countries, by anyone able to listen. Since 1963, a shorter service, ‘Carols from King’s’, has been televised. Carols from King’s is recorded earlier in December by BBC TV and shown on the evening of Christmas Eve, with the Nine Lessons going out live on radio at 3pm, UK time. Attendance at Carols from King’s is by invitation only, but there are limited spaces to attend Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s for those who are prepared to queue from the early hours of Christmas Eve morning. Some people go every year; there is no charge, but you could easily be disappointed. Visit King’s College website for details of how to attend.
So, that’s it; a tale of kings (and king’s) and carols. Before you leave, have a listen to King’s College Choir performing O Holy Night…
And here’s Once in Royal David’s City…
You can also take a virtual tour of King’s College Chapel via the King’s College website.