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Chapel History

The site of St John's College was, in the thirteenth century, the home of the Augustinian Hospital of St John. In its early days it was a flourishing institution, and in 1280 a large new chapel was built. However, by the sixteenth century the Hospital was in a state of decay and it came to the attention of John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and a leading figure in the University. Fisher was confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII, and he persuaded her to build a College in place of the old Hospital. She died before any progress had been made on this new plan and it took Fisher a further two years to obtain the necessary approval to use the funds she had intended for the purpose; the Charter of the College of St John the Evangelist was finally granted on 9 April 1511.

When the executors of Lady Margaret's will took over the buildings of the dissolved Hospital they found them in a state of ruin. The old thirteenth-century hospital building was abandoned; however the Chapel was incorporated into the new College, which was developed around a single court to the south.
The appearance of the Chapel before it was altered to form the chapel of the College was simple and uniform. It was a long and lofty building with a very high pitched roof and a slender square tower slightly off centre rising from it. The walls were strengthened by buttresses at regular intervals. The windows were placed between the buttresses and were in the Early Decorated style.
In 1512 the building was altered for the use of the College in a fundamental way, changing from the Decorated to the Perpendicular style. Where the roof of the original building had a very steep pitch, the ceiling put on by Fisher was almost flat. The tower was removed and a low battlemented wall was built in front of the east end. The fenestration was altered and gave way to smaller perpendicular windows.

Whilst the Chapel was of adequate size for the beginning of a new college, the growth in numbers of residents left accommodation increasingly strained. In 1684, Peter Gunning (then Master) recognised the inadequacies of the size of the Chapel and left provision in his will for '£300 to St John's College towards the beginning of the building for themselves a new Chapel' (Thomas Baker, vol.II p659). Nothing was done at the time, but within two years Robert Grumbold was preparing 'a new ground plott modell of ye old and new designed chappell' (Audit book 1686-7, Reparationes Domi).

Whether the size of the Chapel during the decline in membership through the eighteenth century was a topic for conversation is unrecorded, but after the completion of New Court voices amongst the seniors must have been raised for a new chapel. It was the famous sermon preached by William Selwyn D.D., Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity during the annual Commemoration of Benefactors in 1861 at the Festival of St John Ante Portam Latinam, that finally stirred the Fellowship to action. He selected his text from the second chapter of the prophet Haggai:

'Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, saith the Lord; and be strong, O Joshua, son of Josedech, the high priest; and be strong, all ye people of the land, saith the Lord, and work: for I am with you, saith the Lord of Hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of hosts. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts.'

He applied the words to the College, exhorting it to mark the seventh jubilee of the foundation of the Old House by commencing proceedings for a new chapel. As a consequence of the excited feelings stimulated by the sermon, a meeting of the Master and Fellows was held on 28 May 1861, when a resolution was adopted to undertake the work.

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