History of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (from King’s College programme)

Our Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first held on Christmas Eve 1918. It was planned by Eric Milner-White, who at the age of thirty-four had just been appointed Dean of King’s after experience as an army chaplain which had convinced him that the Church of England needed more imaginative worship. The music was then directed by Arthur Henry Mann, Organist 1876–1929. The choir included sixteen trebles as laid down in King Henry VI’s statutes, but until 1927 the men’s voices were provided partly by Choral Scholars and partly by older Lay Clerks, and not, as now, by fourteen undergraduates.

A revision of the Order of Service was made in 1919, involving rearrangement of the lessons, and from that date the service has always begun with the hymn ‘Once in royal David’s city’. In almost every year some carols have been changed and some new ones introduced by successive Organists: Arthur Henry Mann; Boris Ord, 1929–57; Harold Darke (his substitute during the war), 1940–45; Sir David Willcocks, 1957–73; Philip Ledger, 1974–82 and, from 1982, Stephen Cleobury. The backbone of the service, the lessons and the prayers, has remained virtually unchanged.

The original service was, in fact, adapted from an Order drawn up by E.W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the wooden shed, which then served as his cathedral in Truro, at 10 pm on Christmas Eve 1880. AC Benson recalled: ‘My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve – nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop.’ The suggestion had come from GHS. Walpole, later Bishop of Edinburgh.

Almost immediately other churches adapted the service for their own use. A wider frame began to grow when the service was first broadcast in 1928 and, with the exception of 1930, it has been broadcast annually, even during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King’s could not be broadcast for security reasons. Sometime in the early 1930s the BBC began broadcasting the service on overseas programmes. It is estimated that there are millions of listeners worldwide, including those to Radio Four in the United Kingdom.

In these and other ways the service has become public property. From time to time the College receives copies of services held, for example, in the West Indies or the Far East and these show how widely the tradition has spread. The broadcasts, too, have become part of Christmas for many far from Cambridge. One correspondent writes that he heard the service in a tent on the foothills of Everest; another, in the desert. Many listen at home, busy about their own preparations for Christmas. Visitors from all over the world are heard to identify the Chapel as ‘the place where the Carols are sung’.

Wherever the service is heard and however it is adapted, whether the music is provided by choir or congregation, the pattern and strength of the service, as Dean Milner-White pointed out, derive from the lessons and not the music. ‘The main theme is the development of the loving purposes of God …’ seen ‘through the windows and words of the Bible’. Local interests appear, as they do here, in the bidding prayer, and personal circumstances give point to different parts of the service. Many of those who took part in the first service must have recalled those killed in the Great War when it came to the famous passage ‘all those who rejoice with us but on another shore and in a greater light’. The centre of the service is still found by those who ‘go in heart and mind’ and who consent to follow where the story leads.

1 Once in Royal David’s City

2 Good Christian Men, Rejoice

3 The Angel Gabriel

4 Seven Joys of Mary

5 I Sing of a Maiden

6 Ding Dong Merrily On High

7 It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

8 The Cherry Tree Carol

9 Away In A Manger

10 Three Angels

11 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

12 We Three Kings

13 Silent Night

14 In the Bleak Midwinter

15 Nowell, Nowell

16 Love Came Down At Christmas

18  Hark The Herald Angels Sing

19 Von Himmel hoch

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly:  Kim Lawton Interviews re: Lessons and Carols

WILLIAM EDWARDS (Editor and Author, “The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”): You have to visualize December 1918 in Cambridge. You’ve got a congregation which is probably largely made up of widows, girlfriends—in those days they’d have been called fiancées—children there to somehow deal with this horror that they’d just been through. I think he wanted to deliver some level of comfort, that all this pain and suffering and death had some meaning.


Throughout the early 1920s, more and more people would attend the service, and by 1928 it was well known enough that the BBC, which was then in its infancy—I mean we’re talking radio 1928—picked it up to broadcast throughout the British Isles, and then two years later throughout the world.


Some churches don’t actually sing carols until right before Christmas, so their congregations have developed Advent Lessons and Carols services for early December using Advent hymns instead of carols. At New York’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, they turned their entire Advent Lessons and Carols service into a processional, with the choir moving to every corner of the church. Advent lessons and carols tend to be more reflective, while the Christmas versions take on a more joyous mood.

Kim Lawton’s interview in New York City with the Rev. Canon Victoria Sirota 12/6/2009, pastor and vicar of the congregation at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the author of Preaching to the Choir: Claiming the Role of Sacred Musician (Church Publishing, 2006):

Talk a bit about the service of Nine Lessons and Carols and what it means.


The Festival of Lessons and Carols, in a sense, is a vigil. How do you spend time waiting for something to happen that hasn’t quite happened yet? What do you do if you’re with friends waiting for something? Well, you tell stories, you pray, you sing songs, and that’s exactly what Lessons and Carols does. From a theological standpoint, and actually from a visual standpoint, it is getting that wide-angle lens and moving back and seeing the whole story, seeing the panorama of God’s plan for salvation for humankind and why that was even necessary, so we have to start at the beginning. We start with Genesis.

Tell us more. Why start with Genesis at Christmas?

Well, the story of Adam and Eve is evocative of profound truths about humanity and our relationship to God, and what you get from that story is this vision of Adam and Eve walking in the evening with God when the cooler breezes are blowing—from having a relationship with the divine, being able to walk with God in the Garden of Eden, which is Paradise, and then disobeying God, feeling shame about it, blaming each other, and then Eve blames the serpent. So they’re always blaming “other”—“‘it’s not my fault, it’s because so and so told me to; it’s not my fault it’s because…,” which immediately sets up a block into your relationship with the Holy One, so they can’t walk in the garden anymore. That’s the saddest thing about that story—that they have lost that ability to be present with the Holy in Paradise, and that story still speaks to us today. We understand that, and I think we long as human beings to get back to a place of Paradise, to get back to a place where things are right and just and beautiful, where there is not anger and fear and evil, and where we are at one with God.

In the service several Old Testament passages are read. Talk more generally about how that leads to Christmas.

In the readings in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah especially, we have some beautiful passages about the people of Israel being in exile and longing for Messiah to come, longing for a Savior, longing to return to the city of Jerusalem, longing for that reconnection that is proof that their relationship to God has been reconciled, and so we have promises of the Shoot of Jesse, promises of the House of David, promise that a Messiah will come, and Christianity has taken all of those beautiful promises, and we use them as showing that Jesus was foretold. Probably the most powerful place that that happened for us happened musically, and that’s when George Fredrick Handel decided to choose all those beautiful Isaiah passages and to set them to music in “Messiah,” and we hear that all the time now Christians—actually everyone in the world is aware of those particularly wonderful passages because they have been set to music so wonderfully, and we do of course sing them a lot at this time of year.

Why is it important and meaningful to weave the scripture readings with the carols and the music?

The Scripture is the basis for our understanding how God operates. We are leaning on the experiences of souls of light before us who have felt connected to the divine, and those are the people that—we really stand on their shoulders. We look to them, the great prophets, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah—we ponder their stories, their struggles with God, and from that we glean how to have a relationship with God. So those stories are showing us more profound truths. In a sense, the hymns and carols—most of them are based on biblical sources, so they are interpreting for us, and it’s interesting with carols and hymns you have two different things happening at least: You have someone who wrote the text. You possibly have a translator—some of the texts were in Latin or other languages. And then you have a musician, a composer who either wrote the music for that carol or wrote it for something else, and it gets turned into a carol. So it’s very interesting how that process works and how people who sing actually make the decision what it going to end up in that song.

The Scripture and the music build on each other, interpret each other. How does that work?

The music really tells you how to feel about the text. It’s not a small thing. For example, “Joy to the World”: As soon as you start singing it it’s on a high note, you have to support your breath, you’re joyful even singing it. “Silent Night” is more of a lullaby, and it makes you think more of a little baby coming into the world at night time. It settles you into a different place. “O Come All Ye Faithful” is a procession. You can see people lining up and walking. That first verse—seven times the words “O come” are in there, “O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord”—so it’s inviting people to join this procession of faithful people across the ages. I think most churches will use it as the opening procession, because it’s a march tempo.

Let’s talk about the difference between Advent and Christmas.

Advent is the church’s preparation for the second coming and also for that first coming again, so we prepare for Christmas, but we also are preparing for the eschaton, for the final things, the second coming, the end of the world. Like Christians always say in Advent, “the end is near,” and we don’t like to talk about that, and the secular world pretty much jumps to Christmas. That’s a much safer place to be than talking about the final judgment and what will happen then. But for Christians it’s important to be thinking every year—it’s like cleaning house, it’s sweeping out, it’s preparing and trying to remember what it is that is really important in our lives and getting back to that, so it’s letting go of our need to try to be in control and remembering to let God be in control so that there is a place to invite God into our hearts.

And how is that reflected in the music?

The music of Advent—a lot of it has to do with John the Baptist, who was the prophet who came before Jesus just a little bit, enough for him to be baptizing people in the River Jordan when Jesus showed up and was calling people to repent and saying the kingdom of God is at hand, make yourself ready, and that’s the message of Advent. The message of Advent is this time is coming. I think the Advent hymns and carols tend to be more eschatological. They’re talking, again, about larger issues other than just a baby Jesus being born. They’re talking about opening our hearts to what heaven is really about. When we then move closer to Christmas and we talk about the Angel Gabriel coming to Mary, then it gets much more specific in preparing for Christmas. We tend to be more comfortable with that. A little baby Jesus is coming, and that’s great, and we know we are all loved by God. But when we get this bigger John the Baptist yelling in our ear from the desert “you should repent,” you should figure out what’s important and follow the truth, follow God, work toward authenticity—that’s a little harder to take.

Christians talk during this time of year about the Incarnation, and a lot of the music of Christmas speaks to that.

Yes. Incarnation means coming into the flesh, literally, so it’s becoming human. What’s wonderful about Incarnation is God actually lowering God’s self to become human and in doing so reminding us of how awesome it is to be human. That original sin with Adam and Eve and that break between divine and human which was so huge—the whole thing changes when God becomes Jesus as a little baby, and now we are reminded that our humanity is not something to be thrown away or discarded. That God would use the Virgin Mary, would use a human mother, that a mother could be the mother of God changes how we think about ourselves, and I would just say in our own lives that often God comes to us in the form of someone else always, and it’s always a human being, and if I go back in my own story about my own conversion as an adult, re-conversion, I can tell you the people who have touched me, where I saw God in them, I saw Christ in them, I saw a love beyond what I could understand and imagine. So, in a sense, God Incarnate is coming to know love in a very personal, very real, and very human way.

You have talked about the God who is far away and the God who is close. Can you talk about that concept and relate it to Christmas?

The transcendent God is God who is the skies, above us, so far away that we often don’t feel any connection whatsoever, or we’re so fearful of God that we can’t imagine approaching God in that form. “Imminent” means that God is right here with us, God’s presence is here now, and that’s the gift of Jesus coming into the world, of being born as a child. In the Christian world, one of the great, great gifts we have been given is the gift of Communion, of Eucharist, of being able to break bread with each other and drink wine, and in that simple act of sharing these very basic things, bread and wine, we believe that Christ is present again with us and becomes incarnate anew, so that every time that we join together in a service of Holy Communion we are reenacting this Incarnation, and God comes in us.

We also spoke about a tie between Christmas and Easter. How are they related, and how does the music show us this?

Well, the interesting thing about Christmas music is that we love best the ones that just tell the story clearly about Jesus being born, about shepherds coming, about angels singing, about wise men coming. We sort of like to leave it there. But there are some carols that hint at what is to come. Our Advent lessons and carols [service] today is going to end with a wonderful hymn “Lo! He Comes!” that really talks about Jesus now having to go and to suffer and die for our sins and then to be resurrected. Also, it’s interesting that Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”—the very last chorus in it is beautiful and joyful and has a wonderful trumpet solo, but the music is the same music that we sing to the chorale “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” so Bach is speaking very theologically, knowing that, yes, this is joyous, this is the end of the Christmas festivities, but you know how the story ends.

The themes of hope and joy are really present, and the music highlights that.

“The hopes and dreams of all the years are met in thee tonight”: That’s part of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and in this particular carol Phillips Brooks had been in Bethlehem three years before, and he had stood on the hills where the shepherds might have been and looked down at the little, sleepy town of Bethlehem. So here he is at his job as a priest, a young man, and he’s asked to write a text, or a carol, for the Sunday school, and he thinks about looking down at this little town of Bethlehem, and then Lewis Redner, who was not only his organist but also the Sunday school supervisor, was in charge of composing a tune for it, and he couldn’t. Nothing came to him, it didn’t come, and then Christmas Eve he finally had a dream, and the tune was given to him, and it’s chromatic, it’s thorny, it’s beautiful. We know it so well as the American tune for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” But what it does is it captures the darkness, the sadness, the fear and then also turns it to this hope and this joy in the baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem. The words have meaning, but the melody tells you what that meaning is and how to listen to it. We’re used to Redner’s version in America, but in England they’re used to a different tune, “Forest Green.” The two versions give you a very different sense of those texts. The Lewis Redner—“St. Louis” is the name of the tune—has a much more profound sense of the darkness of being in the city and hoping for something beyond ourselves and of longing that God will come to us. The “Forest Green” version sounds like it’s Christmas morning already. Everything has happened already, and we are safe in heaven with God.

Hope is deep in our communal soul. We want to be saved. We understand that we as human beings somehow let our pride, our egos, take over and when we do that it tends to alienate us from other people. We tend to cut ourselves off. The people who really are the happiest are not the people necessarily with the most things. It’s often people who have a community that they care about, a family where there is love that prevails even in the times of darkness. Almost anything that we face as human beings—if we can face it with other people of faith, other people who share love with us, they can be endured, and I’ve seen this again and again watching couples who have been so in love with each other, and one partner dies and being honored to be able to step into this holy place and to witness this extraordinary love that finally transcends the grave. It’s absolutely clear to me that there is something beyond, and there is a part of us that wants to be part of God, that wants God to dwell within us. I believe we’re happiest when we give. I think we are happiest when we are able to love. This season with the beautiful carols, many of them sentimental, many of them more lullabies, many of them helping us deal with the darkness—they are reminders to us that we are loved and that we are loveable, and in getting to that place it actually allows us not only to give gifts, but to receive love in a way we didn’t think was possible.

The amazing thing about Christmas is that it allows us to celebrate a really profound joy, the joy of being re-found by God, of opening our hearts to that love in a new way and of receiving this light that will transform us and reconcile us not only with God, but with each other.

And the themes of darkness and light?

Advent really is dealing with the fact that our days are getting shorter and that we are losing light, that we feel a sense of darkness encroaching and that the true light of the world now will come in the form of this baby, and if you think of a dark room and just one small, tiny candle, that will indeed make a difference. You will see that. So we’re reminded that even when things seem the darkest, seem the most impossible, seem absolutely like we have lost our way that we look to that light of Christ, and we invite that light within us.

Candles and the verses about darkness and light are important: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Absolutely, and I believe those lights, the Christmas lights, the lights in the store, the shiny baubles that get reflected light—I think that’s our society’s way of trying to be mystical, and I think it works.

What about the meaning that “O Come, O Come Emanuel” transmits?

“O Come, O Come Emanuel” is one of the hymns that is based on Latin chant and is at least nine centuries old or more, and there were “O” antiphons that were written for every day before Christmas, for the eight days before Christmas, and each one had a different word for who was coming, a different word for God: O Come, O Come Emanuel; O Come O Wisdom; O Come O Root of Jesse. But it’s inviting God in, and that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s asking, pleading with God—this yearning, this desire to be reconciled, to get it right once more. Hymns such as “O Come, O Come Emanuel,” which has been chanted through the ages by monks and nuns in processions of faithful Christians—you have this sense of a timeless melody, and you join all these fellow souls of light and the communion of saints when you sing it.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is very typical in the lessons and carols service.

Charles Wesley, one of the great hymn writers of all time, wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and the story goes that he was very moved by the sound of the bells ringing on Christmas morning and that inspired him to write that song. The other interesting fact about it is that Felix Mendelssohn’s music was actually from another secular work that he had composed, and Mendelssohn didn’t think it was appropriate at all, but we have so taken over that tune, and we so accept that as wedded to that particular text that, for us, that is the angels at Christmastime.

What do people feel when they sing that?

This is where heaven and earth meet. In our society I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of Halloween. We have horror movies at Halloween that remind us that evil is present in the world, and I don’t think in our secular society we’re ever going get rid of Christmas, because we need those angels. We need that image of something outside ourselves, and somehow we know that. Often I talk to people who say they’re atheists, they don’t believe in God, struggle with that, there’s nothing out there, but I have to say that when people who proclaim that to me are then in some grave difficulty, health problems or someone they love is dying, that my conversation is always very different to them, and I don’t need to talk anyone into believing in God. But I have to say in my own experience with life and death and with being with people who are dying and have died that there are mystical things that happen that I cannot explain in any rational way. I’m aware that if we live in a place of hope and faith that opens the door to beautiful things happening, wonderful coincidences that we can’t explain that change our mood from one of darkness and despair to one of joy. Christina Rossetti’s wonderful text “In the Bleak Midwinter” makes this point very well about this moment between heaven and earth coming together in the second verse: “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him / Nor earth sustain; / Heaven and earth shall flee away / When He comes to reign: / In the bleak midwinter / A stable-place sufficed / The Lord God Incarnate / Jesus Christ.” So that brings together the sense of Advent, when we’re looking towards the end time, and then focusing it finally on this little baby who saves the world.

Is it the words, is it the melody? Is it both?

It is always a combination of the words and melody, as far as I’m concerned. When we sing “Gloria” in “Angels We Have Heard on High” we’re singing this long melisma, all of these notes on one word that allows us to get into a place where we’re actually going beyond the verbal. The music is going to tell you how to feel about it, and oftentimes it will flip you into a nonverbal place of ecstasy. Many, many notes to the same syllable is a way of trying to express the ineffable. We are trying to express what cannot be expressed. We are trying to get to a place of ecstasy that is beyond our normal experience.

How does sitting in a service of lessons and carols take us through all of this?

The gift of lessons and carols is that it takes time, and that you sit there and at the beginning you’re thinking about all those things you should be doing, and hopefully you just take out a piece of paper, write them down, and let them go. And then you let the music, the carols, the texts, the prayers wash over you, and if you do it well you will open your heart into a place of deeper and more profound meditation, and the light will break through. Some text, some image, some musical phrase will change you, and that’ll be the gift you get.

Many different kinds of churches and congregations have taken the traditional lessons and carols service but have changed it, adapted it. What does that say?

The idea of lessons and carols probably comes from the oldest service we have, which is the Easter vigil, and that was very early Christianity, so it’s the idea of waiting around for something to come. What are you going to do? Well, you’re going to sing, you’re going to read scriptures, etc. So for us to keep changing the order of what is read and what carol is sung is absolutely appropriate. It is good and right for us to keep recreating something so that it speaks to us now.

Some people coming to a lessons and carols service may expecting that it’s going to be all the old carols that they know so well, but there may be some carols they are not as familiar with. How does that work into their experience of it?

Lessons and Carols is not a concert. It’s not where you’re going to applaud after everything. You’re going to allow yourself to meditate at a much deeper place. It can be very annoying if you’re expecting to sing carols that you know and are confronted with hymns you’ve never heard before, that go into different places. But my best suggestion is rather than being annoyed at it, talk to God about it, and say, okay, why are you telling this to me now? And then if you open your hearts you’ll find that all of the anthems, all of the carols are going to show you a different side of what you know in the familiar carols , but they’ll help you to attach it to your life now, in the present. Sometimes when we sing carols, we forget the text altogether, and we are at our grandmother’s knee, or whoever first taught that to us. But the gift of new carols is that God is working among us today, even now, inspiring us anew with the Holy Spirit breaking through in new ways, and often the Spirit is talking to you right now, and it could be that that most annoying new anthem or carol is just for you.

full rehearsal

rehearsal with interview

concert recording 2012

All Bells in Paradise, John Rutter:  introduced in 2012

Here is a historical recording, Christmas Past and Present

of interviews with key staff/singers at Kings College from 2008

Kim Lawton’s interview in New York City with William Edwards December 6, 2009.  Edwards is author of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (Rizzoli, 2004):


Tell us how this service got started.

The service as we know it started in 1918 in King’s College Chapel, and it was started by the chaplain, Eric Milner-White. He had taken a concept that had been used in 1880 in Truro by Ezra Benson, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, so it wasn’t a new idea, but he made it what it is today. You have to visualize December 1918 in Cambridge. This is a university where somewhere in the area of half of all of the undergraduates had gone off to war, and a third of them never came back. On December 24, 1918, six weeks after the end of the war that was going to end all wars, you’ve got a congregation which is probably largely made up of widows, girlfriends—in those days they would’ve been called fiancées—children there to somehow deal with this horror that they’d just been through. Most Americans, because we weren’t as deeply involved in the First World War, don’t understand the impact that war had on Europe. I grew up, we all grew up, really, being talked to about appeasement and how we gave Hitler too much and blaming [Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain, but in fact if you look at what the British had gone through less than twenty years before you can understand. I mean, 900,000 Britons were killed in that war compared with only 300,000 in the Second World War, even with the Blitz and everything else. The war had taken the best and the brightest, and [Eric Milner-White] put together a service of what he called Nine Lessons and Carols, and the nine lessons were things from the Scriptures in, at that point, of course, the King James Bible. There were four from the Old Testament foretelling the birth of Christ, four from the New Testament telling the Nativity story, and one from the Book of John, “In the beginning was the Word,” and so on, and he interspersed them with carols.

What do you think he wanted to do? How would this Christmas service have had an impact on those who had suffered so much?

I think he wanted to deliver some level of comfort, that all this pain and suffering and death had some meaning. There was so much rationalization about the war. We’ve heard the term “the war to end all wars.” They wanted to believe it made sense. We now know from the perspective of the rest of the century that the war proved nothing. It killed millions of people, and it only led to the Second World War, which killed many millions more, and from our perspective it seems insane sending men out of the trenches to be mowed down by machine guns. But, in any case, he also wanted to restore more of a sense of a traditional liturgy in the chapel, and this was relatively High Church Episcopal at the time. He was appointed the chaplain earlier that year, and this was really his first meaningful effort, and it turns out, of course, here we are almost 100 years later, and the service is unchanged from what it was then. The only change he made, and it was a very important change in the service in 1919, he inaugurated the use of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the processional hymn at the beginning of the service, and to most people who think of the service they think of that single boy soprano singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” as the choir begins to come into the church. Most—not all, but most churches that have picked up in some way the Nine Lessons and Carols use that carol at the beginning of the service.

At King’s College I know they have a special tradition about the boy who sings that.

In the process of doing my book, I interviewed Stephen Cleobury, who has been the director of music there since 1982, and he said that it used to be that they would tell the boy who was going to be the chosen boy a week or two before so he could tell his family, and what happened was the boy, in several cases, got so nervous that he didn’t perform well. And so what they now do is a system where there are three boys, and they say, “It’s going to be one of you,” and then at the very beginning, just before they begin the procession, they tap the one boy on the shoulder and say, “You’re it,” and that boy starts. Now I will say this. The year I was working on the book, and I went over there and interviewed everybody, they had me interview two choristers, and one was this big, husky boy who was obviously a soccer player and just a delightful working-class kid who was in this boy’s choir at school. It was clear that he was expected to be the chosen boy, and indeed he was. I have a feeling that somehow or other, through body language or something, he had picked up the message before the beginning of the service, but he had so much self-confidence it wasn’t going to be an issue for him. But normally there are three boys, and each one does not know if he’s going to be the boy.

Talk about from that first service in 1918, how it was received, and how it kept getting more and more popular, not only in England but around the world.

I don’t know, and there isn’t much documentation as to how—because it was primarily word of mouth how people learned from year to year. But what did happen throughout the early 1920s, more and more people would attend the service, and by 1928 it was well-known enough that the BBC, which was then in its infancy, I mean we’re talking radio 1928, picked it up to broadcast throughout the British Isles, and then two years later throughout the world, so obviously there was a lot of word of mouth. I have not been able to find much of anything in ephemera, magazines, newspapers, anything like that of that period that says “this is a wonderful service, come to it,” but the word got around very quickly so that by the 1930s everybody, and once it was on the radio everybody in Britain knew what it was and, you know, you’ll ask anybody British, and they’ll say, “Well, that’s when Christmas begins.”

What about beyond Britain? How did it spread around the world?

I think you have to start with the BBC World Service, which was broadcasting the service on short-wave starting in the 1930s, and I’ve always loved the idea of people, particularly in the beginning of the war, and we think of December 7, 1941 as when the United States got into the war, but it’s also when the British were first attacked in the Far East. In fact, the fall of Singapore was, to Churchill, one of the great shames of the British efforts in the war. He was outraged that Singapore had fallen. But during December of 1941 Singapore was under siege, and nobody knew what the Japanese could do. The British also, of course, controlled Hong Kong and obviously were closely tied to Australia, and there were a lot of British people there, and nobody knew how big this was going to be, whether ultimately the Japanese were going to take all of the Pacific, and they did of course conquer Singapore, and it must have been a great comfort to turn on the radio and hear this sound of home in December of ’41 and throughout the war. During the war, they took all of the glass out of the—because of the English Reformation, much of the glass from churches that existed before that was lost, but because the chapel was on a university campus, it was protected from the worst outrages of the Reformation, the destruction of the monasteries, and so forth, and the glass is some of the best late medieval glass you can find anywhere, and what they did, they took the glass out of the chapel throughout the war for fear the Germans would bomb Cambridge, and when they went on the radio they would talk about how this was a service being conducted in a church in England, and they didn’t identify it. But of course everybody knew. Presumably the Germans didn’t know or chose to ignore it.

Talk about today and how it’s grown.

It’s grown such that people start lining up four or five days before the service, and it’s kind of fun to see, you know. It’s a tradition. People come every year, and they know, they have friends, and they wait on line. Most of the people—and I was there like on midnight the night before the service, and at that time I imagine there were probably 75 people waiting on line for a service that wasn’t going to start until 3:00 the next afternoon. Fortunately, it wasn’t cold, and it wasn’t raining, but they’re prepared for that too, and they trade off places in line—hold my place in line so I can go get some sleep, whatever.

Are they waiting for tickets or a good seat?

They’re waiting for a good seat. The best seats are behind the choir screen where the choir is, and there’s a relatively limited number of those, and a bunch of them go to VIPs from the university, so only a handful go to the general public. But basically the church fills up, and if you go at 8:00 in the morning you will see hundreds of people on line. They come from all over the British Isles to stand on line, and the service was really almost unknown in this country until Minnesota Public Radio brought it in. I first learned about it in the late ’60s because I had a Fulbright, and I was living in London, and it was part of the atmosphere, but it wasn’t until 1978 that Minnesota Public Radio, under the leadership of Nick Nash, brought the service to the United States, and Minnesota Public Radio is still the producer of the show which now is heard on every public radio station.

You were there in person at King’s College. What was it about the service that touched you so much?

First of all, it’s a little bit like a pilgrimage. You know, you’ve wanted to do this for years and years. I mean, in my case, I had wanted to go see that service in Cambridge for the better part of forty years, so to finally be there and see it was really quite a wonderful experience, and I guess I’ve always been something of an Anglophile. I’ve lived there, and the research for my unfinished PhD thesis was all done there, and my daughter was born there. There is something—even though I am myself a lapsed Congregationalist, there is something about the organized liturgy of the Anglican Church that is very appealing and very friendly and open.

Why, for you, has this become part of Christmas?

Well, for years even before the service came over the air on Minnesota Public Radio I had whatever recordings I could get of the King’s College Choir singing Christmas hymns, and those we played at Christmas at great length because it’s a unique sound, the King’s sound, and anyone who has heard it will see it as just as unique as hearing Pavarotti or Caruso, one of those unique voices. Once the service was in this country, I started going to various local churches to hear how it had been interpreted and performed by, in my case, Protestant churches running the gamut from Episcopalian to Congregational to Methodist to Lutheran, because so many churches in this country have some version of Nine Lessons and Carols, and what Eric Milner White felt and I think everybody at King’s has felt all along is that, yes, you listen for the music, but the important part is the so-called lessons, which are these simple readings from Scripture that are the same every year.

….the enduring power of the service?

Well, I think even if we were not in this economic catastrophe we’re in, we’ve lived through a materialistic age which has not yielded most people what they hope they’d gotten. So it’s not surprising that more and more people are going to some version of Nine Lessons and Carols every year. It’s not surprising that over 100,000 people, growing at ten percent every year, are walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain every year from all over the world—did it myself this spring. It’s about finding, I think, some kind of spiritual component in life that people are missing. You asked about the relationship of the lessons to the music, and I think anyone who listens to the service from Cambridge, and particularly it’s helpful if you’ve downloaded the program from the King’s website.  You’ll see the relationship. Each carol is intended to illustrate the lesson that went before. That’s why in “The Fall of Man,” which is the first lesson, where they have a chorister talk about how Eve got Adam to eat of the apple and wasn’t that a terrible thing, they always follow it with the only carol I know that is related to the apple, and that is “Adam Lay Ybounden” which is a medieval or Renaissance, I guess technically, carol about why Adam took the apple, and blessed be the apple, and so on. But if you listen through the nine lessons, each carol that is sung is illustrative of the lesson that preceded it.

Tonight ungather’d let us leave
This laurel, let this holly stand:
We live within the stranger’s land,
And strangely falls our Christmas-eve.

Our father’s dust is left alone
And silent under other snows:
There in due time the woodbine blows,
The violet comes, but we are gone.

Let cares that petty shadows cast,
By which our lives are chiefly proved,
A little spare the night I loved,
And hold it solemn to the past.

But let no footstep beat the floor,
Nor bowl of wassail mantle warm;
For who would keep an ancient form
Thro’ which the spirit breathes no more?

Be neither song, nor game, nor feast;
Nor harp be touch’d, nor flute be blown;
No dance, no motion, save alone
What lightens in the lucid east

Of rising worlds by yonder wood.
Long sleeps the summer in the seed;
Run out your measured arcs, and lead
The closing cycle rich in good.


History of the Chapel

The following history of the Chapel is taken from the King’s College Chapel guidebook, a beautifully illustrated 32-page booklet which is available from the Chapel Shop. You might also be interested to read a history of the whole College.

Henry VI – The Royal Saint

Henry VI in stained glass from the Chapel

Henry VI was only 19 when he laid the first stone of the ‘College roial of Oure Lady and Seynt Nicholas’ in Cambridge on Passion Sunday, 1441. At the time this marsh town was still a port so, to make way for his college, Henry exercised a form of compulsory purchase in the centre of medieval Cambridge, levelling houses, shops, lanes and wharves, and even a church between the river and the high street (now King’s Parade). It took three years to purchase and clear the land.

Initially King’s was to have a Provost and 12 impoverished students (the number of the apostles) but after work had begun on the Old Court, Henry decided on a much grander plan. He now intended King’s to have 70 scholars (representing the 70 early evangelists chosen by Jesus) drawn exclusively from the king’s other foundation at Eton. For over 400 years King’s College admitted only Etonians and claimed the privilege that its students should receive degrees without being examined.

Henry drew up detailed instructions for Eton and King’s, and at both places his first concern was the chapel. He went to great lengths to ensure that King’s College Chapel would be without equal in size and beauty. No other college had a chapel built on such a scale: in fact, the building was modeled on the plan of a cathedral choir, the architect being Henry VI’s master mason, Reginald Ely.

The foundation stone of the Chapel was laid on the feast of St James, 25 July 1446, by the king; it was the first step in his plan for a great court, of which the Chapel was to form the north side. Henry explained everything in his ‘wille and entent’ of 1448, but only the Chapel was ever completed.

The Yorkist Kings – Royal Murderers?

In 1455 the Wars of the Roses broke out when Edward Duke of York challenged Henry’s right to the throne. The subsequent story of the building of the Chapel and the Wars of the Roses are closely intertwined. For the first 11 years of unrest, building continued under Henry’s patronage, even though the annual grant of £1000 from the king’s family estates, the Duchy of Lancaster, became irregular and then ceased altogether. Then, in 1461, Henry was taken prisoner. On hearing the news the workmen packed up and went home; a half-cut stone, it is said, lay where they left it and was eventually used as a foundation stone for the neighbouring Gibb’s building in 1724.

Chapel elevation  showing periods of construction

After 15 years of building, the foundations of the Chapel had been laid and the walls rose irregularly from east to west. A white magnesian limestone, from quarries at Tadcaster which belonged to the College, was used for much of this early phase and the upper limit of this, most clearly discernible in the buttresses (see photo below), marks approximately the level the building had reached by 1461.

Henry was murdered in the Tower of London on 21 May 1471. He had inherited two great kingdoms (England and France) from his father, and lost them both. He had, however, founded two of England’s greatest colleges.

The new king, Edward IV, passed on to the College a little of the money that Henry had intended for his Chapel, but very little building was done in the 22 years between Henry’s imprisonment and the death of Edward IV in 1483.

Work began again through the generosity of Richard III, who was later to be popularly depicted as a sinister hunchback. Richard gave instructions that ‘the building should go on with all possible despatch’ and to ‘press workmen and all possible hands, provide materials and imprison anyone who opposed or delayed’. By the end of his reign the first six bays of the Chapel had reached full height and the first five bays, roofed with oak and lead, were in use.

Henry VII and Henry VIII – The Tudor Dynasty

It was left to the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to achieve the final, spectacular completion to the Chapel.

Henry VII's chestA chest belonging to Henry VII, now in the Chapel exhibition

Henry VII defeated and killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Initially he was preoccupied with bringing the country under control, and building work on the Chapel virtually ceased for another 2 years, despite the College’s petition to the new king that ‘the structure magnificently begun by royal munificence now stands shamefully abandoned to the sight’. Then, in 1506, Henry VII came to Cambridge and the St George’s Eve service of the Knights of the Garter was held in the first five bays of the Chapel, which had a timber roof but no stone ceiling vaults. The open end was boarded up and decorated with the coats of arms of the Knights of the Garter painted on paper.

Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, had pledged herself to carry through the various pious projects begun by Henry VI and, prompted by her, Henry shrewdly perceived that his new dynasty needed the authority which ‘the royal saint’, Henry VI, could give. He decided to finish the Chapel that his uncle had begun, and sent some of the money to pay for it in the chest which can still be seen in the Chapel.

In 1508 work began again on a grand scale, and although Henry VII died in 1509 the terms of his will ensured that money was provided to ‘perfourme and end al the warkes that is not yet doon in the said chirche’.

Chapel buttresses showing differences in stone

By 1512 the shell was finished and roofed throughout its length in timber and lead. Henry VII’s executors gave a further £5000 to pay for vaulting the Chapel, and by 1515 the main structure was complete. This work, and most of the glazing of the windows, was done during the reign of his son, Henry VIII, who was responsible for the screen and much of the Chapel woodwork.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, just over a hundred years after the laying of the foundation stone, King’s College Chapel was recognised as one of Europe’s finest, late medieval buildings. It was in truth ‘a work of kings’.

The Master Masons

Carving of a face in the Chapel

Four master masons were responsible for the superb craftsmanship at King’s College Chapel.

Reginald Ely, who is thought to have also designed part of Queen’s College, was commissioned in 1444 and can also be credited with much of the early design of the Chapel. He continued to work on the building during the first period of the Wars of the Roses until work stopped altogether in 1461. During that time, under Provost Robert Wodelarke, there were evidently money problems since records show that Ely had not been paid in 1459, and money was still owed to him when he died in 1471.

Building started again in 1476, in the reign of Edward IV, under John Wolrich. Simon Clerk, who had been master mason at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and at Eton College, took over in 1477. It was perhaps at about this time that a decision was made to change the great vault from a simpler lierne (‘ivy’) design to the fantastic fan vaulting which decorates the stone ceiling.

John Wastell, the last and perhaps most brilliant master mason who worked on King’s, took charge in 1508. He is the architect of the beautiful fan vaulting – ‘the noblest stone ceiling in existence’ – which was built in just three years between 1512 and 1515.

King’s over the centuries


The Adoration of the Magi’ by Rubens, which forms the altarpiece of the Chapel

Henry VI’s designs for a ‘Great Court’ were never carried out and for nearly 200 years there was little more than the Old Court for the everyday life of the College.

In the early 18th century a new plan for a great court was drawn up but only the Fellows’ building, designed by James Gibbs, was built. Another hundred years was to pass before the court was completed by the building of the William Wilkin’s Gothic pinnacled gatehouse and stone screen, dining hall and library and what is now called the Old Lodge, in 1824-28. The fountain (1874-1879), with a statue of the College’s saintly Founder, stands in the centre of the Front Court. In 1829 Old Court, the original buildings of King’s College, were sold and became part of the University’s Old Schools.

Over the centuries one characteristic that was soon to become evident was the College’s openness and tolerance of ideas other than those of the status quo. This was demonstrated particularly in the way King’s weathered religious upheavals. The rood, a crucifix upon the screen, and a high altar in the Choir, for example, were all removed under Edward VI, restored under Mary, modified under Elizabeth, elaborated under Archbishop Laud, and removed again under Oliver Cromwell. Similarly, in the turbulent 17th century Benjamin Whichcote’s sermons were a model of moderate and liberal churchmanship; he believed in tolerating differing opinions and characteristically insisted on half his stipend going to his banished predecessor.

The windows miraculously and mysteriously escaped the ravages of the Civil War, although one royalist observer claimed that, in inclement weather, the Chapel was used as a parade ground by Cromwell’s troops: ‘nor was it any whit strange to find whole bands of soldiers training and exercising in the royal Chapel of King Henry the Sixth’. (Querela Cantabrigiensis)

The reforms of the 1860s brought about changes to college life, the most obvious being the admission of non-Etonians to the College in 1873 and, in keeping with the College’s tradition of religious tolerance, there was an influx of Nonconformist students which may well have helped to consolidate the liberal traditions of King’s. The College grew rapidly, both in terms of student numbers and buildings, and by the beginning of the 20th century there had been a marked improvement in the quality of education which enhanced the College’s academic standing. The patrician habits of the old King’s were beginning to die out: to be eligible for a college stipend (or dividend) Fellows had to live in Cambridge, and the Dean no longer rode to hounds direct from the Chapel.

Once again King’s College Chapel escaped unscathed during the Second World War, when the glass of most of the windows was removed for safety. The opportunity was taken to clean, repair and photograph it. Only the West Window remained in place, appreciated at last in the absence of unfair competition.