The existing Chapel is the third on the site. The first was under construction by 1309 and more or less finished by 1328, when the Abbot of Reading assisted with gifts of money, tools, and materials. But the College had an approved private oratory even before that. The second Chapel was built 1521–1529: memoranda of contracts with Master Masons William Eist, John Lobbens and William Jonsons survive. It was pulled down in 1856.
William Butterfield was the architect for the present building (1857). His design has been much attacked, and there was a serious offer to pay for demolition and reconstruction in 1912 which the College rejected as a waste of money.
Inside, most of Butterfield’s furnishings and decorations have been replaced, and the most interesting features are either later (e.g. the Jowett memorial by Onslow Ford, c.1894, and the silver gilt altar, 1927) or survivals from the Chapel he demolished (the crowned brazen eagle lectern of c.1630, the Jacobean pulpit, and the stained glass). The memorial tablets are mostly post-1860 and do not commemorate actual burials. A few which do, from the old Chapel, were put together by Butterfield in a corner of the Antechapel – there were probably more, but not many more, as the nearby Parish Church of St Mary Magdalen seems to have been the College’s usual burial place.
In the entrance passage to the Chapel are the war memorials listing Balliol members who died in the First and Second World Wars. An exhaustive list of all the memorials in the curtilage of the College and those named on them, compiled in 1998–1999, is available here.
The altar cloth was hand embroidered by Mary Addison to commemorate the Balliol’s 750th anniversary in 2013 (she was Library Assistant at the time).
The stained glass, which is mostly of the 16th and 17th centuries, was reset in 1912. The east window was provided by Laurence Stubbs (President of Magdalen College 1518–1525) in 1529, shortly after the death of his brother Richard (Master 1518–1525). The main panel (which is actually a Victorian replacement) depicts scenes from the suffering and resurrection of Christ, but the bottom row includes portraits of Lawrence (second from left) and Richard Stubbs (second from the right). The second window from the east on the south side and the fourth window from the east on the north side contain glass of 1529–1530, depicting various saints, some of them incomplete or made up with alien fragments. The first two windows from the east on the north side show the sickness and recovery of Hezekiah; they were made by Abraham van Linge in 1637. The third window from the east on the north side contains panels of 1431, 1529 and 1637. The principal kneeling tonsured figure is Thomas Chace (Master c.1410–1425). The facing windows in the Ante-Chapel were also made in 1637 by van Linge; they show the story of St Philip preaching to the Eunuch from Ethiopia, and were, of course, originally intended to be seen side by side.
The first window from the east on the south side tells the legend of St Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the College to whom the first Chapel was dedicated. Her festival (25 November) is celebrated each year with a traditional dinner, in accordance with a custom which was already well established by 1550 (in which year the accounts show that a peacock was served). Her day was no doubt the College’s main feast day from its foundation, and her Catherine wheel symbol is to be found in many places in Balliol.
Detailed illustrated notes on the history and interpretation of the stained glass can be found here.