Pious gift, medieval financial scandal or smart business move? : reinterpretation of a York Minster nave window

Dr David Reid

When the nave of York Minster was rebuilt in the early fourteenth century a band window scheme was adopted for the clerestory, with two registers of coloured glass sandwiched between three of clear glass in geometric patterns.  The lower coloured register is of heraldic glass and the upper of figurative subjects.  It seems that patronage was sought for this upper register but with only limited success.  Only about a quarter of the windows seem to have been supplied with new fourteenth-century panels; the rest were filled with re-used twelfth-century glass.  For only one of the windows of fourteenth-century panels (window N24) do we have any specific evidence of the donor.

The figural panels of N24 are filled with a sequence of images traditionally identified as [1]:
N24 4a    An archbishop (fig. 1)
N24 4b    St Edmund flanked by large arrows (fig. 2)
N24 4c    St Peter (fig. 3)
N24 4d    A king and a bishop (heads restored) (fig. 4)
N24 4e    An archbishop  (fig. 5)

Fig. 1. N24, 4a. An archbishop.

Fig. 1. N24, 4a. An archbishop.

Fig. 2. N24, 4b. St Edmund flanked by large arrows.

Fig. 2. N24, 4b. St Edmund flanked by large arrows.

Fig. 3. N24, 4c. St Peter.

Fig. 3. N24, 4c. St Peter.


Fig. 4. N24, 4d. A king and a bishop.

Fig. 4. N24, 4d. A king and a bishop.

Fig. 5. N24, 4e. An archbishop.

Fig. 5. N24, 4e. An archbishop.

Some sources suggest that the bishop and king in N24 4d might be Paulinus, the first bishop of York, sent by Augustine in the early seventh century, and Edwin, the Northumbrian king whom he baptised, although there is no firm iconographic or contextual support for this interpretation.
Below these figures runs an inscription, identifying the window’s donor as Robert of Waynflete, the Abbot of a Benedictine monastery at Bardney in Lincolnshire. It is why Waynflete should have made his donation at York, and, through the exploration of that question, the reinterpretation of the iconography of the window that is the focus of this piece.




What, then, do we know about Robert and Bardney around the time of his abbotship? By the early fourteenth century, the Bardney monks had a long history of involvement in law suits concerning their churches and other property [2].   These took their toll financially, and the community at Bardney was not fortunate enough to secure abbots able to help it through these difficulties.  In 1275, abbot Peter of Barton was deposed by the bishop of Lincoln, probably for mis-management of the abbey, although restored for a while on appeal to the archbishop of Canterbury.  In 1278, he and the convent petitioned Parliament stating that their debts had brought them to the verge of ruin and asking permission to be relieved of their obligation to provide hospitality, and to disperse themselves to other houses, leaving one brother to manage the estates and pay off their debts.  They were referred to Chancery, but it does not seem that their petition was granted.  In 1280 abbot Peter resigned.

His successor was Robert of Waynflete.  Robert had been one of four monks sent away to other houses after a visitation by archbishop Kilwardby sometime between 1275-1278, but was ordered to be received back by Kilwardby’s successor, archbishop Pecham.  Robert is nevertheless alleged to have been excommunicated by abbot Peter on his return in November 1279.  Despite all this, Robert was elected abbot in April 1280, and confirmed by Royal assent the following month [3].  It seems that Robert’s abbacy did not improve the condition of the house.  Like his predecessor, Robert’s relations with his monks were strained, and his administration of discipline – he was more ready to enforce discipline on others than to submit to it himself – brought him into collision with bishop Dalderby of Lincoln.  He was accused of dilapidation and alienation of monastic property [4].   In September 1303 bishop Dalderby wrote to the king informing him that Robert had been deposed.  In January 1304 Robert is referred to as the former abbot and in February that year a royal custodian was appointed.  But by May the order to depose him had been reversed by the Court of Canterbury on appeal, and the royal keeper ordered to allow Robert full administration.  He was absolved by the pope from excommunication in 1306, though in July 1307 the king was informed that the Roman Curia had confirmed his deposition and was requested to treat the abbey as vacant!  From 1305 Robert was several times abroad and visited Rome in 1310.  In 1311 he was restored as abbot in compliance with a papal request, though by December 1314 he had been excommunicated again by the bishop of Lincoln.  In September 1316 the abbey was granted to the king’s cousin for keeping in the absence of the abbot abroad, again, in Rome.  By November 1317 his dispute with the bishop had not been resolved but he was ready to renounce his status in exchange for a pension.  In January 1318 he appeared before the bishop, withdrew his action, ceded the abbey, and was granted provision. On 12 February 1318 royal confirmation of the episcopal provision was issued and from this date Robert would no longer have been able to call himself abbot, having held the post for 38 years.

We also know that the monks of Bardney had petitioned the king in 1315 ‘that the king attest to the pope that he has ordered an inquest concerning the dilapidations made to their house by Robert de Wainfleet…’ [5]   And in 1318 there is another petition to the king by the monks of Bardney requesting financial assistance [6].

This all clearly paints a picture of a very unhappy house, and against this background we have to ask: why was the abbot of a monastery in obvious financial difficulty donating an expensive window to the metropolitan cathedral church of York, not even of his own see which was Canterbury?  There are various possibilities.  The first is that Robert foresaw his likely removal and was taking to heart the parable of the unjust steward (Luke: 16: 1-12).  In this story the steward, who had mis-managed his master’s affairs, on hearing of the master’s return, invited his master’s debtors to write out lesser debts, which he signed on his master’s behalf, in the hope that, when he was dismissed, some would be grateful and take him in. This is a strange parable, seemingly condoning fraud.  A second possibility is that Robert wished to take advantage of the various indulgences granted when the nave at York was under construction to anyone who contributed to the fabric: in particular, in June 1304 by archbishop Thomas of Corbridge, and in May 1306 by archbishop William de Greenfield (each granting 40 days remission) [7].   We do not know exactly when Robert’s gift was made, though in the light of events already recounted this seems a reasonably likely period [8].   But there may have been other motivations for Robert’s donation too, associated with the history and identity of the abbey of Bardney.

Bede implies that Bardney was an ancient foundation, already in existence before being further endowed sometime between 679 and 697 by king Æthelred and his wife Osthryth to preserve the bones of her uncle, Oswald, described by Bede as ‘the most Christian king of Northumbria’ [9].   Oswald had, like his uncle Edwin before him, sought to unify the separate kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria, and also like Edwin, had died in battle fighting the Mercians, in 642 [10].   Now here we do have a direct connection between Bardney and York, for it was Oswald who had completed the first church at York, started by Edwin, and in which Edwin had been baptised by Paulinus the first bishop. St Oswald, king and martyr, along with saints Peter and Paul, were the dedicatory saints of the abbey of Bardney.  But by the early fourteenth century Bardney no longer had the remains of St Oswald: these had been translated by Æthelflæd, the effective ruler of Mercia, and her husband king Ethelred, to St Oswald’s monastery in Gloucestershire in 909 when Bardney was destroyed and in Viking territory [11].

The Gloucester monastery had fallen into decline and the monks replaced by canons sometime before the Conquest, and by the time of Domesday it was in the hands of the archbishops of York, who then held Worcester in plurality [12].  Sometime between 1108-1114 Archbishop Thomas II of York had been involved in a further translation of St. Oswald’s relics at Gloucester, and an Oswald relic recorded at York in the mid-thirteenth century may date from that time [13].   York’s jurisdiction over St Oswald’s priory was confirmed by popes Paschal II in 1106, Calixtus II in 1120 and Alexander III in 1177.  Notwithstanding this, however, there were ongoing disputes over ownership involving claims by the archbishops of Canterbury and bishops of Worcester, who did not abandon these claims until the beginning of the fourteenth century.  In 1307 the bishop of Worcester took his complaint to the king at Carlisle but was inhibited from exercising any jurisdiction over the priory, and the Crown further supported York in the matter in 1318 and again in 1374 when the see of York was vacant.  In fact St Oswald’s priory continued to be under the control of York until suppressed in 1536.

So was it possible perhaps that Robert Wayneflete, sensing that Canterbury’s claim was ebbing away and York’s position becoming unassailable, was seeking through his gift of the window to curry favour with the archbishop of York and revive Bardney’s ancient association with this early medieval northern saint?  One could see the attraction, particularly if a case could be made for the return of part of the relics originally given to Bardney abbey.  Were Bardney to become a pilgrimage site, its financial problems might rapidly be resolved.  But whether or not this was the motive for the gift, do these connections perhaps give us a clue as to the correct iconographic interpretation of the images in the window?

The two outer panels (4a and 4e) provide little opportunity for detailed iconographic interpretation. Both depict archbishops, nimbed in green and set against red backgrounds. Apart from differences of colour in their robes, the only differentiator is that the cross staff of the left hand figure is somewhat more elaborate than that on the right. It could indicate a slight difference in the figures’ status – for example Canterbury and York – but both staffs are modern replacements and how faithfully they copied the original forms is not known.

In the centre panel (4c) is depicted a seated, nimbed and unshod figure holding an object in each hand. That in the right hand could be a church, or more likely the donated window.  That in the left hand has been interpreted as a key, and thus the figure has been identified as St Peter.  Given the dedication of York Minster to St Peter, it makes perfect sense that the donor is choosing to show St Peter receiving the gift of the window on behalf of his church.

The panel to the left of St Peter (4b) shows a king, apparently holding an arrow, and flanked by two large arrows [14].  The orthodox interpretation of this figure is St Edmund, whose normal attribute is an arrow [15].   But there is no particular connection known between St Edmund and either Bardney or Robert Wayneflete [16].   The arrows could simply indicate a king who had been killed in battle, and the image may therefore just as well represent Edwin or Oswald, the latter, as already indicated, having specific connections with both Bardney and York.

And what of the panel to the right of St Peter (4d)?  The hypothesis that this represents Edwin with Paulinas is problematic.  There is no connection between either of them and Bardney.  When Edwin was killed, Paulinus accompanied Edwin’s wife and family south for safety and Paulinus ended his days at Rochester [17].   Paulinus had been awarded a palium, the mark of an archbishop, by pope Honorius I, though not before he had left York [18],  but there is no sign of a palium on the figure depicted (notwithstanding that paliums are clearly shown on the two archbishops in the end panels).

Bede, writing around 731, so less than a hundred years after the events reported, tells us that after Edwin’s death Oswald spent some time in Ireland (the kingdom of Dál Riada then extended from north-east Ireland into Argyll and the Western Isles, including Iona) and after his return and re-taking of his kingdom he asked the Irish to send him a bishop.  The monk Aiden from Iona was ultimately chosen and consecrated bishop in about 634.  He established his see at Lindisfarne rather than York, which was not an archbishopric until a hundred years later [19],  so Aiden would not have been shown with a palium. It was Aiden, much more than Paulinus, who was responsible for the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity, and (because Oswald’s overlordship appears to have extended south of the Humber into Lindsey and Mercia, and perhaps even as far as Sussex) probably for the conversion of a great deal of central England as well.  He is therefore a much more significant figure than is often recognised, and was described by Bede as ‘a man of outstanding gentleness, devotion and moderation, who had a zeal for God…’ [20].
There is no sign of Aiden’s emblem, a stag, or of Oswald’s raven in the panel, but the composition suggests one aspect of these two figures’ relationship.  Whereas Oswald was thoroughly familiar with the Irish language (a celtic-based tongue), from his time in exile, Aiden was not completely familiar with the Anglo-Saxon language of Northumbria, a Germanic dialect.  Thus Bede recounts that ‘It was indeed a beautiful sight when the bishop was preaching the Gospel to see the king acting as interpreter of the heavenly word for his ealdermen and thegns…’ [21]   So is this what is being depicted in the fourth panel?  If so then the panel may support the conjecture that Robert’s gift might have been part of a strategy to revive interest in the Oswald connection, and perhaps thereby to attempt to solve the abbey’s financial problems.

Fascinating in itself, Robert Wayneflete’s gift to York also flags broader themes: the importance, and rewards, of considering a window’s historical context and the connections of its donor; and also the variety of ways in which donors chose to be commemorated through their gifts, and their motivations for benefaction. Apart from identifying himself in the inscription as donor, Robert Wayneflete has not sought personal representation, either directly or indirectly, in the images of his gift, yet this does not detract from the possibility, maybe even probability, that there was a deeply personal underlying agenda to Robert’s gift: one that involved both the promotion of his deeply troubled monastery, through an emphasis on its associations with York, and also perhaps the hope of personal spiritual benefit through pious donation.


1. See Brown, S, ‘Our Magnificent Fabrick’ York Minster, An Architectural History c1220-1500, 2003, p. 290.

2. See W. Page, A History of the County of Lincoln: Vol. 2, 1906, pp. 97-104.  See also ‘British History Online, Houses of Benedictine Monks, The Abbey of Bardney.

3. The source for the rest of this paragraph is D. M. Smith & U. C. M. London, The Heads of Religious Houses, England and Wales II, 1216-1317, Cambridge, 2001.

4. The accusation of alienation could of course refer to the gift of the York window.

5. National Archives, Kew, ref. SC 8/2/94.  The petition goes on ‘…who calls himself abbot of Bardney which has been returned into Chancery, but that Robert has purchased an exemption so that the bishop of Lincoln, ordinary of the place is not able to visit it or examine his deeds, and by his long reign has confounded the house and the king’s arms forever.’

6. National Archives, Kew, ref. SC8/181/9025.  The request is for ‘financial assistance for their house, as they have incurred great expense in suing the articles recently promulgated against Waynflete at Northampton, and many of their monks have left.’

7. Brown (2003), p. 90.

8. It is unlikely the nave clerestory was sufficiently complete to receive windows much before 1304, while after 1307 his absences abroad and ongoing disputes make it less likely (though not impossible) that he would be engaged in such matters.  Between the restoration of Robert’s temporalities in 1311 and the conclusion of his law suit against the king’s escheaters in 1314 is another possibility.

9. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III Chs. 9 & 11.  The earlier foundation of the abbey is implied by Bede’s story that the monks had initially been reluctant to accept Oswald’s remains as he had ruled over them as a foreign king, but they had changed their mind when, overnight, a bright light was seen to rise up to heaven from the cart in which the remains were held, which they took as a sign of his sanctity.  According to Bede (III, Ch.12) Oswald’s head and arms were cut off when he was killed and buried separately, the head at Lindisfarne and the arms at Banburgh, and according to one tradition, one arm was moved to Peterborough, though William of Malmesbury (Ch. 180) doubts the latter claim.

10. For the legend of Oswald and history of his relics see C. Stancliffe & E. Cambridge, Oswald, Northumbrian king to European Saint, Stamford, 1995.

11. The destruction had occurred in 870.  The monastery of St Oswald, according to William of Malmesbury, was built by king Alfred, his daughter Æthelflæd and her husband, and well-endowed by them.  (There seems to have been a connection with Malmesbury.)  Oswald’s remains were translated there from Bardney in 909.  But when later threatened by an attack by the Danes, the monks had ‘melted away’, and the archbishop of York brought in canons to replace the monks and the monastery became a priory.

12. The source for this paragraph is W. Page, A History of the County of Gloucester, Vol.2, 1907, pp. 84-87.  See British History Online, Houses of Augustinian Canons, The priory of St. Oswald, Gloucester.

13. J. Raine, ‘Fabric Rolls of York Minster with an Appendix of Illustrative Documents’, Surtees Society 35,1859, p.151 mentions a relic of St. Oswald (king) in a possibly mid-thirteenth century list of relics on the fly-leaf of a manuscript copy of the Gospels in the office of the Dean and Chapter.  William of Malmesbury (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, Ch. 155) says that archbishop Thurstan (1114-40) restored the shrine at St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester so could also have been responsible for acquiring this relic for York.

14. I say apparently because the lower part of the object in his hand can be seen on the reverse to comprise replacement glass so it may not originally have been an arrow – it could simply be a sceptre, the more usual attribute of a king.

15. Almost nothing is known of St Edmund and in particular there is nothing to connect him with Bardney.  Two Danish plunderers, Hinguar and Hubba, who had landed in the mouth of the Tweed in 870 marched south, plundering and levelling abbeys, including Bardney, Crowland, Peterborough, Ely and Huntingdon, before engaging Edmund’s East Anglian forces at Thetford, and eventually killing Edmund.  There is no evidence that Edmund sought to intervene in the plunder at an earlier stage so no reason for Bardney to owe any debt of gratitude to him.  See Alban Butler The lives of the Fathers, martyrs and other principal Saints, 1756-9.

16. There was an altar to St Edmund at York recorded in a survey of 1364, and it may have replaced one in the previous Norman church, but it was at the opposite (eastern) end of the nave and on the south side; there seems no particular reason why Robert Waynfleet should have referred to this altar.

17. Bede, II Ch. 20.

18. Paulinas received his palium after he had left York for Kent, where he became bishop of Rochester.

19. Around 732.

20. Bede, III, Ch. 3.

21. Translation from Oxford World Classics edition, pp.113-4.

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