As you stride past the glass and concrete edifice that is the street frontage of King’s College London’s Strand Campus, you could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the site is equally wedded to the 1970s. Forgiven, yes, but wrong – if you pass through the brutalistic facade, you come to the elegant 19th century King’s Building – at the heart of which lies an exquisite hidden gem: the university’s chapel.
Modelled on the Classical basilicas of early Christianity, this quirky little space is picked out in jewel box colours, its columns and walls astonishingly busy with decorative tiles, roundels, and looping patterns.
It was designed by Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott (of St Pancras Station and Albert Memorial fame) in 1864, but after suffering damage in the Second World War, incredibly the chapel’s walls were whitewashed plain. It has since been restored to its eclectic glory, however.
I recently took part in a concert performance of Princess Ida here, which has got me thinking about some of my other favourite chapels in London and further afield. Whatever your religious leanings, they are all beautiful, contemplative places – and all of them have fascinating stories to tell.
St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
A little further to the east, within the walls of the Tower of London, is the little white chapel royal of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains). Built in c.1500, the chapel is the official parish church of all those who live and work in the Tower – but in 1848 it was described by the historian Thomas Babington as ‘the saddest place on earth’ – and with good reason.
Beneath the floor of this building lie the graves of many of the unfortunate individuals who were executed on the orders of Henry VIII. Two queens – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard – were laid to rest here after Henry had them beheaded for adultery (which, for the king’s wife, counted as treason) – together with Anne’s unfortunate brother George, one of the men she was accused of having a affair with.
Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, two of Henry’s favourites who fell spectacularly from grace – for refusing to recognise Henry’s break with Rome, and arranging the king’s disastrous fourth marriage to the unappealing Anne of Cleves (it barely lasted 6 months) respectively – are also buried here.
Not that the upheaval or the executions ended with Henry’s death: among the chapel’s other occupants are Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guildford Dudley, who were put to death by Henry’s daughter Mary, after her short-lived half-brother, Edward IV, nominated Jane, a fellow Protestant, as his preferred heir. Jane reigned for just nine days before she was declared a usurper, and executed at the age of 16.
Because of its rich history, St Peter ad Vincula is often full of tourists, but if you can catch it at a quiet moment, this is a powerfully poignant place.
Chapel of St George, Windsor
Another royal chapel – though a rather more triumphant one – is St George’s at Windsor. It was founded by Edward III, who had a keen interest in chivalry – it was he who pushed for the knightly St George to become England’s patron saint, in preference to Edward the Confessor, who had been regarded as a national saint for centuries before.
It is the grandiose final resting place of a fair few branches of the English royal family tree. Among their number: Henry VIII and Jane Seymour (wife #3, who won her place as his favourite by bearing his longed-for and long-awaited son, and dying nine days later before Henry’s roving eyes had time to wander); Charles I (executed during the English Civil War, and here reunited with his head); the great nemeses of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI and Edward IV; and more recent figures including the current queen’s parents and sister.
Easy to reach from London by train, this is a grand place packed full of history.
Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace
Completing my hat trick of regal favourites, Hampton Court’s Chapel Royal is also truly beautiful to behold. The palace was taken from Cardinal Wolsey by Henry VIII after he fell out of favour for failing to persuade the Pope to let him divorce Catherine of Aragon, and its chapel has witnessed many important Tudor events, from the baptism of little Prince Edward, later Edward VI, and the lying-in-state of his mother, Jane Seymour, whose heart is buried beneath the altar.
Subsequent monarchs have also left their mark. It was spared by Edward VI, who chose to worship amongst its gothic beauty and vibrant colours, even as his Protestant Reformation saw churches across the kingdom whitewashed and stripped of all ornament – but when Charles I was held prisoner in the palace during the Civil War, most of its decorations were removed.
There was one feature spared that hints at its original splendour, though: the spectacular Tudor ceiling, painted in gold-streaked blue and spangled with stars, which was too high for the vandals to reach. The chapel was restored by William III in 1697 and completed by Queen Anne, whose royal motto semper eadam (always the same – it was also used by Elizabeth I) can be seen all over the walls.
A small but stunning space.
St Bride’s memorial chapel, Fleet St
Moving back into central London, St Bride’s is one of the capital’s earliest church sites, with religious structures recorded here back into the 7th century. The present building was designed by Christopher Wren in 1672 to replace a church completely destroyed by the Great Fire of London. Although this church too suffered devastating damage during the Blitz, its tower has endured.
This tower gives the church a distinctive silhouette, not just because of its height (St Bride’s is Wren’s second tallest church, after St Paul’s Cathedral), and its shape is thought to have inspired the design of tiered wedding cakes.
John Milton was a parishioner, and Samuel Pepys was baptised here, but what I love about this church is its crypt, which is open to the public. Here you can see a wealth of archaeological finds, mostly Roman and Medieval, plus a nifty bodysnatcher-proofed coffin – as well as the foundations of earlier structures, and a rather unusual chapel.
Because of its location on Fleet Street, St Bride’s has long been associated with journalists, and its beautiful, strikingly modern memorial chapel is dedicated to Associated Newspapers staff who died during the World Wars.
For someone who works in the media, this is a really resonant place to visit.
My last two choices take us far away from London, to two of my other favourite parts of the country: Norfolk, and Cambridge.
The Slipper Chapel, Walsingham
This elegant, cosy chapel is the national Roman Catholic shrine in England, but it is a fascinating place to visit for people of all faiths and none.
Built in the 14th century, it lies a mile outside the medieval pilgrimage site of Walsingham, and is called the Slipper Chape because pilgrims would pause here to remove their shoes to walk the final mile of their journey barefoot.
Even if you don’t fancy getting your feet out (I didn’t, as my visit was in deepest winter), it’s a lovely walk along a stream and the edges of hare-haunted fields, and past a fabulous ruined monastery.
After the Protestant Reformation the chapel was taken into secular hands, and reincarnated as a forge, a cowshed, and a barn, but it was bought and restored to the Catholic Church in 1896 and finally reconsecrated in 1938. Whatever your religious beliefs, this is a quietly moving, thoughtful place to visit.
Christ’s College chapel, Cambridge
All dark wood and chequerboard floors, this is a gem of a chapel, tiny and compact; beautifully simple and simply beautiful.
I’m biased, of course, having spent many happy evenings singing here in the college choir, but for me, this is a fabulous, intimate space – especially when illuminated only by candlelight – that I much prefer to grander college chapels like King’s, which you can feel a little lost in.
The college was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, and the chapel is one of the original buildings from this period that frame the college’s lovely First Court, with its round lawn and wisteria climbing the walls.
I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about it…
And what about you? If you have a favourite chapel, or want to flag up a hidden holy hidden gem, do let us know in the comments below.