At the corner of Tremont and School Streets in Boston, early on the path of historic Boston locations known as the Freedom Trail, is King’s Chapel and the neighboring King’s Chapel Burying Ground.
The burying ground actually predates the chapel itself. From it’s opening in 1630 until the Granary Burying Ground was established in 1660, it was Boston’s only cemetery. The City of Boston obtained the land for the burying ground from Isaac Johnson, who legend holds was then the first person ever buried here when it opened.
The affiliation between King’s Chapel and the cemetery that now bears its name is really no more than nominal. In 1688 Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros wanted to build an Anglican church in Boston, but no one would sell any land for a non-Puritan church. King James II ordered Andros to simply seize suitable city land, which he did, marking off a corner of the old cemetery for his new church.
The church, named King’s Chapel, opened in 1689. It was a tiny wooden structure, and within a few decades it was deemed too small for the growing congregation. So construction of a new church on the same spot took place from 1749 to 1754. This is the stone building that survives today.
The new building, designed by Peter Harrison of Newport, was built around the existing wood building. When the outside structure was largely completed, the smaller wooden building within was disassembled and the wood passed through the windows. (The wood was preserved and ultimately used in the construction of a church in Nova Scotia.)
The church is not entirely stone. The exterior Corinthian columns are in fact carved wood painted to look like stone.
Inside seating is in box pews, which were rented by congregation members who were free to decorate them to their individual taste. In the 20th century this was discontinued, and all the pews given a uniform appearance.
One of the most striking features of King’s Chapel is its bell, which was cast in England and added to the church in 1772. Decades later it cracked, and was recast by Paul Revere, the last bell he was to cast in his life. It is still in the church today.
King’s Chapel remains a functioning church. Today it houses an independent congregation affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The adjacent King’s Chapel Burying Ground, which remained owned by the city, continued burials through about the end of the 18th century. Many of the gravestones were moved at that time and repositioned into rows, so there is no longer any necessary connection between the location of a gravestone and the location of the grave below that it was supposed to mark.
In the cemetery are buried many of the first generation or so of Boston residents (since it was the only cemetery for 30 years). Some of the notables buried here include John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts; Dr. Comfort Starr, the founder of Harvard College; Mary Chilton, the first woman to step off the Mayflower; Puritan theologians John Cotton and John Davenport; Elizabeth Pain, a woman who may or may not have been the inspiration for Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; and William Emerson, the father of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Probably not here, despite rumors and legends, are Paul Revere’s companion for his midnight ride William Dawes (he was initially buried here, but his remains were evidently later moved by his family to another cemetery), or famous pirate Captain Kidd (he was executed and buried in England, and the legend that his body was later moved here has never been substantiated).
There is no admission charge to see King’s Chapel and the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, but remember that the church is still a church, not just a tourist site, so you don’t want to interrupt or in any way be disrespectful if services are being conducted.
“A Brief History of King’s Chapel.” King’s Chapel.
“King’s Chapel.” The Freedom Trail.
“King’s Chapel Burying Ground.” The Freedom Trail.
“King’s Chapel Burying Ground.” Boston Discovery Guide.
“King’s Chapel & Burying Ground.” Celebrate Boston.