Reformation, Iconoclasm and Restoration

Stained Glass in England c1540-1830

Sarah Brown


  Detail of stained glass window showing the bearded and haloed head of a prophet
  The head of a prophet, c1340, in the choir clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey (all photos by the author unless otherwise stated)    

We tend to think of hostility to imagery in stained glass as something confined to the Reformation of the 16th century, but this is a misconception. In the middle of the 12th century, for example, St Bernard, founder of the austere Cistercian order, prohibited the use of imagery in the churches of his order on the grounds that it distracted the monks from their devotions. In the late 14th century, the poet William Langland famously criticised donor portraits in stained glass as an expression of vainglory. Despite these criticisms, stained glass remained immensely popular with the wealthy patrons of England’s thousands of parish churches, as the extraordinary display in the windows of the Church of All Saints, North Street, York, attests.

The greatest stained glass losses were, of course, a consequence of the wholesale dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation. From a 21st-century perspective it is almost impossible to imagine the scale and impact of the tidal wave of destruction and despoliation that ensued. Of the thousands of examples of monastic medieval glazing schemes, only a handful escaped through the adaptation of monastic churches for secular cathedral or parochial use, as at Gloucester, Tewkesbury and Great Malvern. But even here there were casualties. At Tewkesbury, for example, the monastic choir clerestory windows may have been preserved as part of the new parish church (above), but the redundant Lady Chapel was swept away, its windows and monuments with it. The fate of the enormous Benedictine abbey church of St Mary in York is more typical of the fate of most monastic churches. It was reduced to a ruin within only a few years of its dissolution, leaving almost no traces of its once extensive glazing scheme.

Although the windows of the parishes and the secular cathedrals remained largely untouched throughout Henry VIII’s reign, in 1538 the King declared Thomas Becket a traitor and decreed that images of the saint be destroyed, which must have occasioned the loss of some stained glass. The extensive early 16th-century Becket cycle that once adorned the windows next to a Becket altar in the parish church of St Michael le Belfry next to York Minster was probably one such target. Completed only a few years before the prohibition that caused their dismemberment, the windows were based on the narrative in William Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend, containing exotic apocryphal detail concerning the parentage of Becket (below).

  The baptism of Becket's mother  
  The baptism of Becket’s mother, early 16th century, in St Michael le Belfry, York (Photo: Revd Gordon Plumb)  

Four panels can still be seen in St Michael le Belfry and their survival in the church is probably due to their similarity with the depiction of the sacraments of baptism and marriage. Of those panels removed from St Michael’s, some were used at various times to provide patch material for the repair of windows at the Minster, the church’s neighbour and patron. In 1959 the scenes that survived this dismemberment were finally relocated to the east window of the Minster’s chapter house. The true identity of this intriguing collection has only emerged in recent years.

In 1547, during the brief reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, imagery in windows was specifically singled out for scrutiny and reformation for the first time. Even so, the high costs of re-glazing a large church probably stayed the hand of many a reformer. Only in the most stalwart citadels of Protestantism were concerted efforts made to strip the church of its medieval stained glass. In Norwich, for example, several parish churches spent large sums removing images that were ‘contrary to the King’s majesty’s injunctions’, while at Durham Cathedral zealous reformer Dean Horne destroyed the 15th-century cloister windows depicting the life and miracles of St Cuthbert.

Elsewhere, those damaging stained glass windows were prosecuted for their acts and in York, with its Minster and its parish churches full of medieval stained glass, very little seems to have been done in response to the Edwardian injunctions. A policy of expediency was probably the order of the day through most of England. Some glass was removed and preserved against the day when traditional religion was restored, while elsewhere it was whitewashed to obscure the most ‘problematic’ images – the stained glass equivalent of knocking the head off a statue. Even in Canterbury, with its extensive Becket cycle, there was little appetite for iconoclasm where the cathedral’s windows were concerned. Becket’s glorious shrine was an early casualty of reform, but little damage was sustained to the glass until the 17th century.

After a brief return to Catholicism under Queen Mary, the reign of Queen Elizabeth witnessed a significant amount of restoration in churches and cathedrals although by then the number of skilled glaziers and glass-painters had probably declined significantly. At Salisbury Cathedral, for example, surviving shields of arms dated 1569 attest to the re-glazing that went on under Bishop Jewel (Bishop of Salisbury from 1559 to 1571).

Under Elizabeth’s Stuart successors, stained glass even enjoyed a revival of popularity, although by now the techniques employed relied less on the cutting, painting and leading of coloured glass in a mosaic combination and more on the application of coloured enamel to large expanses of white glass (below). Several of those closest to Charles I were said to have admired medieval stained glass, especially the windows in the chapel of The Vyne and the parish church of Fairford in Gloucestershire. In the struggle between Charles and his Puritan opponents, attitudes to stained glass emerged as a measure of both political and religious correctness. When the King’s chief minister, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury was impeached in 1644, his patronage of stained glass in the chapel of Lambeth Palace was specifically mentioned as evidence of his popery and treason, for which he was duly executed. Stained glass had become a weathervane of both political and religious opinion.

  Jonah being devoured by a distinctly snake-like 'whale'  
  Jonah and the Whale, 1629-30, by Bernard van Linge, in Lincoln College, Oxford  

In the English Civil War and the Commonwealth that was to follow, stained glass was among the casualties of war. Parliamentary commissioners organised a forcible reformation of Canterbury Cathedral in 1643. The Becket miracle windows were attacked and Puritan divine Richard Culmer took a pike staff to the Royal Window of 1482-3, destroying a large image of Becket and the accompanying scenes of the Joys of the Virgin Mary. In East Anglia the iconoclastic exploits of William Dowsing, responsible for destroying scores of stained glass images in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, is another well documented example of officially sanctioned action against ‘superstitious’ images. Other losses, such as the medieval glazing of Worcester and Peterborough Cathedral cloisters, were the unfortunate result of an unruly soldiery.

It is easy to overemphasise the extent of the losses incurred during this period. When the city of York fell to parliamentary forces in July 1644, the intervention of the parliamentary commander, and Yorkshireman Lord Thomas Fairfax, ensured that the articles of surrender stipulated ‘that neither churches nor other buildings be defaced’. While a quantity of plate, three copes and the monumental brasses were lost in the aftermath of the surrender, the Minster’s medieval windows remained largely unharmed. It has been suggested that damage to the heads of the figures of archbishops in the 14th-century Great West Window reflect deliberate iconoclasm, but the deterioration of the medieval glass is just as likely an explanation.

Writing in the 1690s, antiquarian James Torre was able to describe in considerable detail stained glass in almost every Minster window, although he described one window in the north aisle as having been plain glazed as a consequence of the glass being removed and sold during ‘the late Troubles’. His reticence in identifying the religious subjects depicted in the windows may reflect a continued anxiety about the popish associations of the medium.

Despite Fairfax’s efforts, not all the windows of the city churches escaped unscathed, as in 1645 superstitious images in the windows of St Martin’s Coney Street were ordered to be ‘taken away or defaced’. The damaged Trinity images in the churches of St Martin (below left) and Holy Trinity, Goodramgate may well also reflect iconoclasm at this time, as parliament had renewed injunctions intended to stamp out images of the three persons of the Trinity.

  Trinity image at St Martin's, York Crucufuxion scene at St Mary, Fairford in which the face of Christ has been replaced by a blank panel
  Above left: Damaged 15th-century Trinity image, St Martin’s, Coney Street, York. Above right: An early 16th-century Crucifixion in the east window of St Mary, Fairford, with head of Christ removed, prior to restoration by Barley Studio (Photo: Barley Studio)

Elsewhere, parishioners went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to protect their windows from loss. In the Gloucestershire parish of Fairford, for example, the 28 windows containing medieval glass survived the Reformation, despite the Puritan zeal of Bishop John Hooper, the second bishop of the newly formed diocese of Gloucester. The windows enjoyed considerable celebrity and in the early years of the 17th century attracted the attention of two Oxford poets. The arrival in nearby Cirencester of parliamentary troops in the summer of 1643 brought danger. In Cirencester much damage was done, and in anticipation of iconoclasm William Oldisworth, to whom the Fairford rectory had been leased, took action to safeguard the glass. Rather than remove the windows wholesale, key details, especially heads and upper part of figures, including the head of the Crucified Christ in the east window (above right), were removed for safekeeping, in some cases never to return. In 1648, while the Commonwealth still prevailed, the parish commissioned local glaziers John and Edward Scriven, to restore the windows, although in 1716 antiquarian Thomas Hearne reported that some glass removed during the civil war had still not been returned to the windows.

Hearne’s account also reveals that the aged parish clerk, blind Richard Walklett, conducted guided tours of the window, reciting from memory the words of an old ‘Parchment roll’ that had since been stolen. Walklett’s commentary shows that scenes of pre-Reformation Catholic apocryphal legend had been transformed into scenes of impeccable protestant Bible history, preserved for their didactic value. The scene of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate, for example, had become ‘the salutation of Zacharias & his wife Elizabeth’, while the birth of the Virgin and her reception into the temple had become ‘the birth of St John the Baptist and the Virgin’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth’.

  Detail of The Great East Window of York Minster with intense blues and yellows and detailed, realistic faces
  The Great East Window of York Minster (1405-8), with a large medieval head (middle row, second from left) used as a stop gap, perhaps during the restoration of 1825-7 (Photo: The York Glaziers Trust)

The post-Reformation maintenance of York Minster’s windows illustrates only too well the impact of the Reformation on the craft of stained glass. The craft which had once been so prominent in the life of the medieval city had dwindled away and although the Minster’s windows continued to be repaired, the task was entrusted to plumber-glaziers such as Edward Crofts, with apparently limited glass-painting skills. When the nave windows were repaired in the second half of the 18th century, the Minster’s own glaziers undertook the glazing repairs, while new painted glass was provided by William Peckitt (1731-95), the self-taught stained glass painter who was to become the best-known exponent of the craft of his day.

Some of Peckitt’s earliest work for the Minster was less than a success and his 1754 figure of St Peter for the south transept failed and was removed to be replaced with a new and technically more proficient version in 1768. His provision of painted glass for the restoration of the west window and the two west windows in the nave aisles (1757-8) cannot be judged to be entirely successful either. However, he was careful to renew only those parts of the heads that were missing, and in the adaptation and reinstallation in the Minster of the late 14th-century Jesse Tree in c1765 Peckitt showed remarkable sensitivity to the historic glass. In his later south transept figures of the 1790s (Abraham, Solomon and Moses), the influence of late medieval canopy design at New College, Oxford, can clearly be seen (below left).

  Depiction of Solomon with crown and sceptre at York Minster  
  Solomon by William Peckitt, 1780, in the south transept of York Minster (Photo: The York Glaziers Trust)  

It has been suggested that Peckitt may have had a hand in the restoration of the Minster’s Great East Window, the masterpiece of Coventry glass painter John Thornton, made between 1405 and 1408. The complicated post-Reformation history of this medieval masterpiece will become much clearer thanks to the conservation programme currently under way, thanks to the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund. By the time James Torre described the window in the 1690s at least four panels were in the wrong position, suggesting that some repairs necessitating the removal of panels had already been undertaken. The number of misplaced panels had risen to 17 by the time Thomas Gent published his guidebook to the window in 1762. The name of 14-year-old plumber-glazier Thomas Clarke and the date 1794 and 1795 is scratched on the window, evidence of the continual trickle of small scale repairs.

Between 1825 and 1827 the firm of Thomas Noton and Son was entrusted with the complete re-leading of the Great East Window. The names of the glaziers employed by Noton – H Bewlay, J Jackson and R Snowdon – are scratched on panes in the tracery of the window. The re-glazing was not achieved without cost: the original coloured edges of all the tracery panels were lost at this time, probably as a consequence of the careless removal of the glass from the tracery. This intervention probably saved the window from disaster, however, for in 1829 the choir was engulfed in fire, set by the mentally unstable arsonist Jonathan Martin. The newly re-glazed window survived the worst of the flames and this near-miraculous survival no doubt fuelled the interest in stained glass that was to culminate in its triumphant revival in the course of the 19th century, resulting in a resurgence of production unprecedented since the Middle Ages.



Recommended Reading

  • Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster, Scala in association with the Dean and Chapter of York, London, 1999
  • Sarah Brown, ‘The Survival, Preservation and Reinterpretation of the Medieval Stained Glass of St Mary’s, Fairford, Gloucestershire’ in Virginia Raguin (ed), Art, Piety and Destruction in the Christian West 1500-1700, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010
  • Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1992
  • Thomas French, York Minster: The Great East Window, Corpus Vitrearum Summary Catalogue 2, Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995
  • Richard Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, Routledge, London, 1993
  • Julie Spraggon, Puritan Iconoclasm during the English Civil War, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2003



Historic Churches, 2010


SARAH BROWN has published widely on stained glass of all periods. She is currently the director of the York Glaziers Trust and a lecturer in history of art at the University of York where she is course director of the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management.

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