Henry VI attached the greatest importance to the religious aspects of his new foundation and ensured that the services would be conducted on a magnificent scale by providing an establishment of 10 priest Fellows, 10 chaplains, 10 clerks and 16 choristers. There were 14 services each day, in addition to which prayers were said, and Masses offered for the souls of the Founder’s parents and, after the Founder’s death, for the Founder instead. This last provision reflected the strongly held belief in the late Middle Ages that prayers and masses for the soul of a dead person hastened the progress of that soul from Purgatory to Paradise.
All these arrangements befitted a church that was intended to become one of the great places of pilgrimage in Europe. For about a decade pilgrims, attracted by the Indulgences and the relics, flocked to Eton at the Feast of the Assumption in August. A fair lasting six days was held on the playing fields to meet the needs of pilgrims.
For almost 40 years before the present Chapel was completed, services were held in the old parish church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin and, until demolished about 1480, situated on the site of the present graveyard. In the crisis of the 1460s the annual influx of pilgrims ceased and the large establishment of clergy was permanently reduced in size.
Today the Chapel services retain their important position in the life of the college: boys attend once on Sundays and at a number of other voluntary services throughout the week. The number of boys in the school so expanded that a second church, Lower Chapel, was built in 1890.
The wall paintings in the Chapel are the most considerable work of art in the College. They are the work of at least four master painters who, with their assistants, took eight years to complete them (1479–87). In the Flemish style, they decorate the stone sides of the Chapel. On the north side the paintings depict miracles of the Virgin Mary (to whom the Chapel is dedicated), while those on the south side tell a popular medieval story about a mythical Empress.
The paintings have an interesting life history. They were whitewashed over by the College barber in 1560 as a result of an order from the new Protestant church authorities, banning pictures of fictitious miracles. They remained obscured and forgotten for the best part of 300 years before rediscovery in 1847: it was not until 1923 that they were revealed by the removal of stall canopies and the paintings were subsequently cleaned and restored.
A bomb that fell on Upper School in 1940 shattered all the Chapel glass except that in the window above the organ. The east window was inserted in 1952 and is the work of Miss Evie Hone of Dublin. With its deep colours, the Crucifixion in the centre and the Last Supper below, it is considered by many to be one of the masterpieces of modern stained-glass art. The designs for the windows flanking it, four on each side, are by John Piper and were executed in glass by Patrick Reyntiens. The subjects are divided into four miracles on the north side and four parables on the south, each built around a general theme of success and failure. The miracles are: The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the Stilling of the Waters, and the Raising of Lazarus. The parables are: The Light Under a Bushel, the House Built on the Rock, the Lost Sheep, and the Sower.
At first sight the roof appears to be late medieval fan-vaulting, but it was in fact completed in 1959, superseding the old wooden roof which had become unsafe owing to damage caused by rot and the death-watch beetle. The new roof, carrying out the Founder’s original intention for a stone vault, is of stone-faced concrete hung from steel trusses. An interesting comparison can be made with the exquisite fan-vault of Lupton’s Chapel, finished in 1515.