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Chapel History

The Wren Chapel – Consecrated 1665

Pembroke College was the first in Cambridge to have a Chapel of its own: earlier Colleges worshipped in the nearest parish church. To secure this privilege the foundress, the Countess of Pembroke, obtained special licences from the Pope. Her Chapel was at the north-west corner of the front court, the room now called the Old Library.

chapel pew

To Matthew Wren is due the building of the present Chapel. Admitted Watts Scholar 1601, Fellow of the College 1605 and later President, Master of Peterhouse 1625-1634 (where he had a chief part in building their Chapel, still Gothic, in 1632), Bishop of Hereford, then of Norwich, then of Ely, he was a strong supporter of Archbishop Laud and was kept a prisoner in the Tower under Cromwell 1642 to 1659. While there he vowed to devote, if ever he should be released, a certain sum of money to ‘some holy and pious employment’, and for this he chose the building of a new Chapel for the College.

The Chapel is the first building of Christopher Wren, consecrated in 1665. Its new classical style set the fashion for other College chapels and continues to afford a fine setting for Christian worship and music.

The Chapel is not only Christopher Wren’s first work, but almost the first English church or chapel in the Classical style, preceded only by Inigo Jones’s church of St Paul, Covent Garden, now rebuilt after a fire in 1795.

As designed for a community of fewer than eighty Fellows and students, this ornamented but restrained, panelled building must have been very spacious, enhanced by its high proportions and a splendid plaster ceiling flooded with light from the great windows including, what Wren afterwards ceased to favour, an east window (the stained glass featuring benefactors of the College is a late addition of 1906 in honour of the mathematician George Stokes).

The view west to the organ gallery is also handsome. The organ is not the original one, having been installed in 1708; it was restored in its fine double cases to baroque configuration by Manders in 1980.

Further reading: Building Pembroke Chapel: Wren, Pearce and Scott by A.V. Grimstone (published 2009; ISBN 9780956321305)