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The Wildman at Belsay

Fig. 1. Detail of the Wildman in the Belsay panel © English Heritage/ Bob Smith.
Fig. 1. Detail of the Wildman in the Belsay panel © English Heritage/ Bob Smith.

Fig. 1. Detail of the Wildman in the Belsay panel © English Heritage/ Bob Smith.

A new display that explores the mythical Wildman has opened at Belsay Hall, Northumberland. A part of European folklore since the medieval period, the Wildman – a creature from forests and mountain wildernesses on the edge of civilized society – was adopted as a symbol of the Middleton family of Belsay Hall from the fifteenth century. He appears as a crest on the family’s coat of arms, in wall paintings, as a carved stone statue, and was even stamped onto cutlery in the twentieth century. Over 600 years, the look of the Wildman has changed, as fashion, art and design have developed, but through all his representations the Wildman of Belsay has retained the same basic characteristics, being shown as hairy, strong and proud, and carrying his tree [Fig. 1]. The display looks at the history of the Wildman at Belsay, and exhibited alongside two late seventeenth-century statues of the man and woman, silver cutlery and books bearing the Wildman’s image, and a figurine of the Roman god Silvanus (one of the origins of the Wildman myth) is a rare seventeenth-century painted window [Fig. 2].

Belsay Castle has been the seat of the Middleton of Belsay family for over 700 years. John Middleton built the existing tower house before his death in 1396, and this was extended into a manor house in the early seventeenth century. A further wing was constructed in the early eighteenth century, but this was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, when the castle was remodelled; it is now a ruin. Belsay Hall, a large neo-classical hall, was completed in 1817 by Sir Charles Monck. The ex situ window had been stored in a first-floor room at Belsay Hall since at least the early 1990s, after parts of the Belsay estate were taken into state guardianship and placed under the care of English Heritage. In 2010, the window was removed to English Heritage’s Archaeology Store in Helmsley for assessment, research and conservation treatment. Based on historical evidence, the window is likely to have been produced at the end of the seventeenth century and installed in the early eighteenth century. It is the only surviving painted window from Belsay, and is a painted armorial still set in its original oak frame. The panel depicts a shield of arms surmounted by a baronet’s helm, topped with a wild man holding an erased and fructed oak tree; below the shield is a cherub head with golden wings above the motto ‘LES SIS DIRE’ with a red rose and a yellow narcissus on long stalks. The shield depicts the arms of the Middleton and Lambert families, and are those of Sir John Middleton, 2nd Baronet (1678–1717), who married Frances Lambert of Calton, Kirby Malham (granddaughter of General John Lambert) on 15 June 1699 at Kirby Malham.

Fig. 2. The window. © English Heritage/ Bob Smith.

Fig. 2. The window. © English Heritage/ Bob Smith.

The painting of the panel can most likely be assigned to Henry Gyles (1645–1709), a master glass-painter and part of the Virtuosi group of the city of York in the seventeenth century, and the hearts of the lead cames of the inner section of the window are impressed with the legend ‘*EDMOND*GILES*OF*YORKE*1665*’ – Henry continued to use his glazier father Edmond’s lead mill throughout his career.

Although Gyles usually signed his work, the window does not exhibit a signature, but it is possible that he signed a pane missing when the window was found. The painting matches a number of Gyles’s works stylistically; the dull red and now failing green enamels are indicative of his work, and he had a friendship with Frances Lambert’s father, John Lambert, providing further evidence that he painted this window.

The exhibition is being held in Belsay’s Pillar Hall and is open daily 10am – 6pm.

Further Reading

David Dungworth and Susan Harrison, Belsay Castle, Belsay, Northumberland: Scientific analysis and historic interpretation of decorated window glass by Henry Gyles of York, English Heritage Research Department Report Series 97-2011, online here.