A Late Medieval Urban Glazing Scheme Revealed
June 2006 saw the publication of the CVMA’s first monograph on the glass of a parish church, The Medieval Stained Glass of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, by David King. The church is the most important of the more than thirty medieval churches in Norwich, the county town of Norfolk, and is located in a prominent position on the market place, overlooking the Guildhall and within sight of the Norman castle. Rebuilding of the church began in the late fourteenth century as part of a programme of civic renewal to promote the city’s recovery after the Black Death, but the eastern arm of the church, from which the surviving glass comes, was not completed until mid-fifteenth century. The remains of several windows are now in the east chancel window. More glass is extant in a few other windows of the church, at Felbrigg Hall (Norfolk), and in the Burrell Collection (Glasgow).
The importance of the church’s glazing has long been known. From as early as the last quarter of the sixteenth century, the church was visited by a series of antiquaries, keen to record the windows’ heraldry, inscriptions and subject matter, whilst more recently Christopher Woodforde, one of the founders of the modern study of medieval glass, described the church’s glazing as ‘the collection with which other examples of Norwich glass-painting must be primarily compared’: praise indeed in the context of a city that was among the largest and wealthiest of medieval England and of a county particular rich in the medium. Events in the course of the church’s history, however, inflicted serious damage on the medieval glazing. National injunctions at the time of the Reformation against, for example, Marian imagery of the kind featured in the church, along with later and more local disasters, such as an accidental explosion nearby of enormous quantities of gunpowder in the mid-seventeenth century, combined to reduce the church’s glass to a small fraction of its late medieval extent.
By the early nineteenth century, almost all of the surviving remains had been collected together in the east window of the chancel, where they can today be found. Filling almost the entire eastern façade and casting a kaleidoscope of colours over the chancel interior, the window certainly preserves something of the original aesthetic of the late medieval church, where ‘walls of glass’ illuminated and softened the soaring, frequently stark, contours of Perpendicular architecture. The exceptional quality of the glass painting is also evident. Yet any broader understanding of the original glazing scheme, of the figures and stories it incorporated, of their location within the church, and of those responsible for the glazing, has traditionally been fragmentary at best. This summer’s publication of the lavishly illustrated volume by David King, research fellow in the School of History at the University of East Anglia, addresses all of these questions by making use of extensive documentary and antiquarian evidence, and locates the glass in the wider socio-political context of medieval Norwich.
The stained glass surviving from the main lights of the church’s windows comprises almost entirely panels from cycles narrating stories from the Gospels and saints’ lives, a form of glazing that was highly fashionable in fifteenth century England. The glass’s subject matter appears to respond to a combination of factors, sometimes reflecting the dedications of the church’s various altars, and displaying the interests of the individual donors of the glass. The windows of the south chancel chapel, for example, contained imagery relating to the ancestry of Christ and the Virgin, appropriate to the space’s function as a Lady Chapel. Alongside these, however, were panels depicting St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Margaret, whose presence in the glass may relate to the visit of Queen Margaret of Anjou to the city in 1453, and images associated with the Order of St Francis, which may reflect the concerns of the window’s donor. Other narrative groups include a life of St Peter, and a life of St John the Evangelist, which is remarkable for the depiction of St John’s gaoler with a pig’s head, a reference to Richard III.
The window for which we have the most evidence was in the north chancel chapel and depicted the scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. King shows that it was made for Robert Toppes, the richest merchant in Norwich at the time and, as mayor, actively involved in the city’s political life. Surviving and recorded coats of arms in the church’s glass, along with records of benefactors, indicate that Toppes was not alone within his social group in making gifts to Mancroft, and it has been suggested that the painters responsible for the execution of the glazing reflected in the glass’s details the interests and identities of those who commissioned it, incorporating urban landscapes and lavish cloths of the type traded in the city.
Although the product of at least three glazing campaigns, all of the surviving stained glass was painted in the city of Norwich, an important centre for glass painting, second only to York in the late Middle Ages. Stylistic links between the glass at Mancroft and other Norfolk churches have also been established, with the painting style of the window given by Toppes particularly comparable with that in the east window at East Harling. The gift of similarly elevated donors, the East Harling glass and, in turn, the Toppes and much other glass at Mancroft, was almost certainly produced by the workshop of John Wighton, alderman. The working practices of Wighton, and other glaziers at the church, were complex and sophisticated, particularly in their drawing on a wide range of textual and visual sources to create their compositions, and in deploying their craftsmen with an apparent eye for efficiency and awareness of individuals’ particular abilities to execute the designs. Wighton’s associates include John Mundeford (a Dutchman), John’s wife Helen, and their son.
These are some of the findings from King’s work on the glass of St Peter Mancroft, but the significance of this research extends well beyond this parish church. For historians of Norwich and its glass, the appendices bring together a fascinating array of previously unpublished information, including biographical information relating to all known Norwich glaziers from 1400 to the Reformation. More generally, for stained-glass studies, the volume provides opportunities for the discussion of narrative, display and audience: all key current areas of research, for which important suggestions are made.
David King’s book on the glass at St Peter Mancroft can be purchased via the CVMA’s website.