The popish past in glass

This striking panel is part of a magnificent medieval stained glass window in the choir transepts of York Minster donated by Beatrice, Dowager Countess of Ros around 1414. It depicts a pilgrim visiting the shrine of the twelfth-century archbishop St William at York, which stood behind the High Altar. He brings a wax leg in pious hope or gracious thanksgiving for a cure. Although the ecclesiastical injunctions that accompanied the English Reformation ordered the destruction of ‘monuments of feigned miracles’ and pilgrimages, ‘so that there remain no memory of the same in walls, glass windows, or elsewhere’, the prohibitive cost of reglazing ensured that many painted lights were simply left to decay. The survival of this image reflects the limits of the royal programme of iconoclasm not merely in the mid-sixteenth century, but also during the Civil War, when vestiges of the Catholic past were the target of renewed puritan zeal. It also attests to changing attitudes towards the aesthetic remnants of the Middle Ages. Lauded as ‘a lover of antiquities’, the Parliamentary general Thomas Fairfax was credited with saving the Minster’s treasures from destruction during the siege of the city in 1644. His efforts to preserve the windows were commemorated by a tablet erected in the Chapter House by one of his descendants in 1932. AW

Stained glass panel from St William window, choir transepts, York Minster, c. 1414.

Image by kind permission of York Minster.

Further Reading

Thomas Gent, The antient and modern history of the famous city of York; and in a particular manner of its magnificent Cathedral, commonly call’d, York-Minister ([York, 1730]), pp. 54–5.

Margaret Aston, Broken Idols of the English Reformation (Cambridge, 2016), ch. 7.

Sarah Brown, Stained Glass at York Minster (York, 2017).

David E. Connor, ‘The Stained and Painted Glass’, in G. E. Aylmer and Reginald Cant (eds), A History of York Minster (Oxford, 1977), pp. 313–93.

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