Panel of the Month

Each month, Vidimus show-cases a different panel from the wealth of medieval stained glass in England. The panels are chosen with the aim of providing, collectively, a sense of the great range of surviving window glass, in terms of date, subject matter and the kinds of institutions for which it was made. The selected pieces will also relate, in various ways, to some of the broader issues being raised in the study and conservation of medieval glass, such as fashions in window forms and techniques, or approaches to the restoration of medieval glass.

Hugh II Despenser (ex. 1326), NIV, north choir clerestory, Tewkesbury Abbey

Hugh II Despenser (ex. 1326), NIV, north choir clerestory, Tewkesbury Abbey

The image of Hugh II Despenser has been chosen for presentation in this issue of Vidimus because it simultaneously ranks among some of the best-known glass from medieval England, and because the series to which it belongs, outlining the descent of the lordship of Tewkesbury, underlines the potential of stained glass as a vehicle for historical record, expressing in monumental and supremely accessible form the written chronicle. The quality of the glass-painting makes it clear that the panel was the work of one of the leading ateliers of its day, and links between the panel’s iconography and contemporary work in other media underscore the creativity and receptivity of such workshops.

The Abbey: Norman Foundation and Fourteenth-Century Remodelling

The early history of the religious foundation on the site of Tewkesbury Abbey is obscure, but a Saxon church in honour of the Virgin was built in the years following 715, at a place said to have received its name from Theokus, a hermit reputed to have dwelt there in the previous century. Towards the end of the tenth century, Tewkesbury became a priory subordinate to the newly founded Benedictine abbey at Cranbourne, Dorset; following the Norman Conquest, the patronage of both houses passed to the Crown, and the manor of Tewkesbury was given to Robert Fitzhamon, a Norman lord close to the king, who began to build a new church and monastic quarters. Fitzhamon died at Falaise in Normandy in 1102, but his son-in-law, Robert Fitzroy, continued to fund the building work, and the church was consecrated as a Benedictine abbey in the early 1120s. Subsequent lords of Tewkesbury remained closely associated with the abbey, whose patronage they held, and in the years following the wedding of Eleanor de Clare, last of the de Clare heirs of Fitzroy, to Hugh II Despenser, in May 1306, work began at the east end of the church, replanning the Clare family mausoleum as the great Despenser burial church. It is to this remodelling campaign of the first half of the fourteenth century that this month’s panel, representing Despenser, ultimately belongs.

The Production of the Panel

Fig. 1. Donor panel: panel EI 2e from the choir clerestory, Tewkesbury Abbey

Fig. 1. Donor panel: panel EI 2e from the choir clerestory, Tewkesbury Abbey

As with the majority of medieval stained-glass schemes from even very great institutions, no documentary materials have been discovered relating to the production of this month’s panel, in terms of either date or the workshop responsible for it. However, the inclusion of Despenser, his antecedents and successors, in the choir clerestory glazing at Tewkesbury provides a likely time-frame for when the glass was painted. In early 1329, Eleanor wed William de la Zouche (Despenser, a favourite of Edward II, had been executed in late 1326 following the invasion of Roger Mortimer and Isabella of France); the inclusion of Zouche in the scheme means it cannot pre-date 1329, and it most likely belongs to the period post-1331 when Eleanor was reconciled with the new king (Edward III) and her lands returned. Indeed, as Sarah Brown recently noted, the inclusion of Zouche in a procession of deceased patrons of the abbey suggests a date after Zouche’s death in February 1337, whilst the fact that Eleanor’s son, Hugh, does not feature places its installation before his death in 1349. The details of the heraldry which also features in the choir clerestory glazing further supports a 1337–39 date.

Traditionally, Eleanor de Clare (d. 1337) is said to have been responsible for the Tewkesbury choir clerestory scheme, and the famous naked ‘donor portrait’ (Fig. 1) said to represent Eleanor herself. More recently, this identification has been questioned, and, in the light of more research on the nature of monastic institutions in the middle ages, the likely role of the monastic community in financing the glazing of this part of the church, as well as in creating the scheme’s iconography, has been emphasized (Brown and Marks).

Fig. 2. St Peter from the east window, Gloucester Cathedral

Fig. 2. St Peter from the east window, Gloucester Cathedral

Stylistically, this month’s panel has been identified as belonging to a substantial body of major monuments, dating from the late 1330s to the 1350s, located in the West Midlands and West Country. The same workshop, whose painting style fuses foreign and indigenous elements, seems to have been responsible for work, beyond the Tewkesbury choir clerestory, at Bristol Cathedral, for the great east window at Gloucester (Fig. 2), and at a number of regional parish churches, such as Ludlow, Madley, Eaton Bishop and Moccas. The precise nature of this workshop, its composition and period of operation are not yet clear, but the Tewkesbury glass reveals a number of points about its methods of working. The scheme’s figures, for example, were created from a limited number of cartoons: each of the eight armoured figures, of which Despenser is one, for example, were drawn, with small variations, from the same basic model. The glass-painters’ skill in handling the glass palette, decorative details and the precise postures of the figures, however, creates a harmonious, rather than repetitious, effect. As highlighted by Marks, the figures, represented ‘in the panoply of war with hands on swords’, have much in common with contemporary sepulchral effigies. As such, they may suggest the receptivity of glass-painters of the period to the forms of other artistic media. More generally, the work at Tewkesbury falls towards the end of a century or so of glazing activity in England, between the mid-thirteenth and mid-fourteenth centuries, that saw the creation of a series of sophisticated and costly glazing schemes at many of the country’s cathedrals and larger monasteries, including (in addition to Tewkesbury and Gloucester), Exeter, Wells, Ely and York.


The Despenser panel, in window NIV, showing Hugh in full armour with heraldic tabard, a sword at his waist, and a spear in his right hand, belongs to series of eight figures standing guard at either side of the west end of the choir clerestory (NIV and SIV), beginning with Robert Fitzhamon and ending with William de la Zouche, representing those who succeeded to the honour of Gloucester and were lords of Tewkesbury. The traditional view, that Eleanor de Clare was responsible for the scheme, casts its function as essentially one of secular commemoration: seven of the eight figures were all buried in the abbey church, with four of them directly below the windows. Whilst they were not strictly Eleanor’s genealogical ‘family tree’, they certainly represented a lineage with which she was intimately connected and of which, given the status of the Gloucester line, she could rightly be very proud. The recent emphasis on the figures as having their likely origin in the monastic community at Tewkesbury, however, raises other facets of their function. As lords of Tewkesbury and benefactors of abbey, those depicted would, for example, have been commemorated in daily prayers of monks celebrating offices in choir below. As such, the glass may have served as a monumental obit book, reminding the community of those who deserved their thanks, and, equally as important, demonstrating to potential future patrons that their generosity would not be forgotten.

In addition to these interpretative possibilities, focused on the armoured figures alone, the figures also formed part of a larger iconographic scheme running bringing together the seven clerestory windows of the abbey’s apsidal east end. In the east window is a Last Judgement showing Christ, displaying his wounds, sitting as Judge, with the Virgin and St John the Baptist, key intercessors, on his right, and, on his left, St Michael and the Apostles, with images of the saved and the damned below. Witnessing the Last Judgement in the four eastern-most flanking windows (NII, NIII, SII, SIII) are Old Testament kings, prophets and Apostles: Christ’s ancestors, those who foretold his birth and witnessed his works. It is this concept of lineage and descent that is continued in the final windows (NIV, SIV), with their imagery of the lords of Tewkesbury.

Bibliography and Further Reading

The excellent survival of the choir clerestory glazing at Tewkesbury, in conjunction with the status of the abbey itself, has led to an academic interest in the glass since the early days of the modern study of stained glass, when G. McNeill Rushforth published his ‘The glass in the quire clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society, xlvi (1924), pp. 289–324. Fifty years later, in the same journal (xciii (1974), pp. 142–55), R. Morris considered the dynastic aspects of the east end of Tewkesbury more generally in ‘Tewkesbury Abbey: the Despenser Mausoleum’, whilst the function of the figures of Hugh II Despenser and others in the same series at Tewkesbury were utilized by A. Martindale in ‘Patrons and minders: the intrusion of the secular into sacred spaces in the late Middle Ages’, in D. Wood (ed.), The Church and the Arts (Oxford, 1992, pp. 143–78). Richard Marks placed the Tewkesbury glazing in its broad stylistic and iconographic contexts in his Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages (Toronto and Buffalo, 1993). Most recently, the glazing has been considered, with some important revisions, by S. Brown in ‘The Medieval Stained Glass’ in R. K. Morris and R. Shoesmith (eds), Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art and Architecture (Almeley, 2003, pp. 183–96). The CVMA (GB) Picture Archive includes almost two hundred further images of the glass at Tewkesbury Abbey.

Heather Gilderdale Scott

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