King's was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. His first design was modest, but by 1445 was intended to be a magnificent display of royal patronage. There were to be a Provost and seventy scholars, occupying a substantial site in central Cambridge whose drastic clearance involved the closure of several streets. The college was granted a remarkable series of feudal privileges, and all of this was supported by a substantial series of endowments from the King.
King Henry VI had admired the achievements of William of Wykeham, who had founded the twin colleges of New College, Oxford (King's College's Sister College) and Winchester College in 1379. He subsequently modelled the establishment of King's and Eton College upon the successful formation of Wykeham's institutions. Indeed, the link that King's College and Eton College share is a direct copy of the link shared between New College and Winchester College. The four colleges continue to share formal ties to this day.
Originally, the college was to be specifically for boys from Eton College. It was not until 1865 that the first non-Etonian undergraduates arrived to study at King's, and the first fellow to have not attended Eton was elected in 1873. The connection with Eton is now weak, but a scholarship to attend the college, exclusively available to students from Eton, is still awarded each year.
The very first buildings of the college, now part of the Old Schools, were begun in 1441, but by 1443 the decision to build to a much grander plan had been taken. That plan survives in the 1448 Founders Will describing in detail a magnificent court with a chapel on one side. But within a decade, civil war (the Wars of the Roses) meant that funds from the King began to dry up. By the time of his deposition in 1461, the chapel walls had been raised 60 ft high at the east end but only 8 ft at the west; a building line which can still be seen today as the boundary between the lighter stone below and the darker above. Work proceeded sporadically until a generation later in 1508 when the Founder's nephew King Henry VII was prevailed upon to finish the shell of the building. The interior had to wait a further generation until completion by 1544 with the aid of King Henry VIII.
It has been speculated that the choice of the college as a beneficiary by the two later Henrys was a political one, with Henry VII in particular concerned to legitimate a new, post-civil war Tudor regime by demonstrating patronage of what was by definition the King's College. Later building work is marked by an uninhibited branding with the Tudor rose and other symbols of the new establishment, quite against the precise instructions of the Founders Will. Henry VI is not completely forgotten at the College, however, the Saturday after the end of Michaelmas term each year is Founder's Day which begins with a Founder's Eucharist in the chapel, followed by a Founder's Breakfast with ale and culminating in a sumptuous dinner in his memory called "Founder's Feast" to which all members of College in their last year of studies are invited.