Finding the foundation and walls of Saint George's Chapel much dilapidated and decayed, Edward the Fourth resolved to pull down the pile, and build a larger and statelier structure in its place. With this view, he constituted Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury, surveyor of the works, from whose designs arose the present beautiful edifice. To enable the bishop to accomplish the work, power was given him to remove all obstructions, and to enlarge the space by the demolition of the three buildings then commonly called Clure's Tower, Berner's Tower, and the Almoner's Tower.
The zeal and assiduity with which Beauchamp prosecuted his task is adverted to in the patent of his appointment to the office of chancellor of the Garter, the preamble whereof recites, "that out of mere love towards the Order, he had given himself the leisure daily to attend the advancement and progress of this goodly fabric."
The chapel, however, was not completed in one reign, or by one architect. Sir Reginald Bray, prime minister of Henry the Seventh, succeeded Bishop Beauchamp as surveyor of the works, and it was by him that the matchless roof of the choir and other parts of the fabric were built. Indeed, the frequent appearance of Bray's arms, sometimes single, sometimes impaling his alliances, in many parts of the ceiling and windows, has led to the supposition that he himself contributed largely to the expense of the work. The groined ceiling of the chapel was not commenced till the twenty-seventh year of the reign of Henry the Seventh, when the pinnacles of the roof were decorated with vanes, supported by gilt figures of lions, antelopes, greyhounds, and dragons, the want of which is still a detriment to the external beauty of the structure,
"The main vaulting of St. George's Chapel," says Mr. Poynter, "is perhaps, without exception, the most beautiful specimen of the Gothic stone roof in existence; but it has been very improperly classed with those of the same architectural period in the chapels of King's College, Cambridge, and Henry the Seventh, at Westminster. The roofing of the aisle and the centre compartment of the body of the building are indeed in that style, but the vault of the nave and choir differ essentially from fan vaulting, both in drawing and construction. It is, in fact, a waggon- headed vault, broken by Welsh groins -- that is to say, groins which cut into the main arch below the apex. It is not singular in the principle of its design, but it is unique in its proportions, in which the exact mean seems to be attained between the poverty and monotony of a waggon- headed ceiling and the ungraceful effect of a mere groined roof with a depressed roof or large span -- to which may be added, that with a richness of effect scarcely, if at all, inferior to fan tracery, it is free from those abrupt junctions of the lines and other defects of drawing inevitable when the length and breadth of the compartments of fan vaulting differ very much, of which King's College Chapel exhibits some notable instances."
Supported by these exquisite ribs and groins, the ceiling is decorated with heraldic insignia, displaying the arms of Edward the Confessor, Edward the Third, Edward the Black Prince, Henry the Sixth, Edward the Fourth, Henry the Seventh, and Henry the Eighth; with the arms of England and France quartered, the holy cross, the shield or cross of Saint George, the rose, portcullis, lion rampant, unicorn, fleur-de-lis, dragon, and prince's feathers, together with the arms of a multitude of noble families. In the nave are emblazoned the arms of Henry the Eighth, and of several knights-companions, among which are those of Charles the Fifth, Francis the First, and Ferdinand, Infant of Spain. The extreme lightness and graceful proportions of the pillars lining the aisles contribute greatly to the effect of this part of the structure.
Beautiful, however, as is the body of the chapel, it is not comparable to the choir. Here, and on either side, are ranged the stalls of the knights, formerly twenty-six in number, but now increased to thirty-two, elaborately carved in black oak, and covered by canopies of the richest tabernacle-work, supported by slender pillars. On the pedestals is represented the history of the Saviour, and on the front of the stalls at the west end of the choir is carved the legend of Saint George; while on the outside of the upper seat is cut, in old Saxon characters, the twentieth Psalm in Latin. On the canopies of the stalls are placed the mantle, helmet, coat, and sword of the knights-companions; and above them are hung their emblazoned banners. On the back of each stall are fixed small enamelled plates, graven with the titles of the knights who have occupied it. The ancient stall of the sovereign was removed in 1788, and a new seat erected.
The altar was formerly adorned with costly hangings of crimson velvet and gold, but these, together with the consecrated vessels of great value, were seized by order of Parliament in 1642 amid the general plunder of the foundation. The service of the altar was replaced by Charles the Second.
The sovereign's stall is immediately on the right on the entrance to the choir, and the prince's on the left. The queen's closet is on the north side above the altar. Beneath it is the beautiful and elaborately- wrought framework of iron, representing a pair of gates between two Gothic towers, designed as a screen to the tomb of Edward the Fourth, and which, though popularly attributed to Quentin Matsys, has with more justice been assigned to Master John Tressilian.
One great blemish to the chapel exists in the window over the altar, the mullions and tracery of which have been removed to make way for dull colourless copies in painted glass of West's designs. Instead of
-" blushing with the blood of kings, And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings"
steeping the altar in rich suffusion, chequering the walls and pavement with variegated hues, and filling the whole sacred spot with a warm and congenial glow, these panes produce a cold, cheerless, and most disagreeable effect.