The King's Glass: A story of Tudor Power and Secret Art, By Carola Hicks

Glittering reflections of the past in a chapel window

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In high summer the stained glass windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, "blaze into life, walls of floating light and colour that sparkle and ripple to the changing rhythm of the clouds and sun," writes Carola Hicks. In mid-winter they loom like "great shadowy jewels".

The King's Glass contains some of the most powerful decorative art of the early Tudor period, but as Hicks points out in her enlightening history, "masterpieces can bloom in unexpected places". Medieval Cambridge, on the edge of the dismal Fens, was an uninspiring setting. Yet thanks to the monks and solitaries who were to transform the town into a centre of learning, a chapel arose whose glittering glass and soaring vault have made visitors gasp ever since.

It was the disaster-prone Lancastrian king, Henry VI, who founded his college in the 1440s and helped devise the windows for the new chapel. But dynastic skirmishes and depleted royal coffers meant that the panels weren't set in place until the Tudors were firmly at the helm. The glazing of the windows conveniently dovetailed with Henry VIII's marital and theological dramas, providing this self-promoting monarch with a bejewelled visual timeline on which to display the iconography of a new age.

A former curator of the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral, Hicks, who died in 2010, is as knowledgeable about the manufacture of glass-making as Tudor politicking. While Henry VII studded the windows with the squat hawthorn bushes of Bosworth Field and the Beaufort portcullis, Henry VIII ordered his fashionable Flemish glaziers to blot out the faces of his growing list of ex-wives. As time went on, the panels started to reflect the influence of the Renaissance masters and the new aesthetics of the Reformation.

Written with gusto and clarity, Hicks's history follows the fate of the windows over the subsequent centuries. The glass failed to crack in the face of Puritan iconoclasm and, thanks to JM Keynes, the college's multi-talented bursar who had the panels dismantled during the war, even escaped the German bombs.