David J. King FSA
Norfolk has more sites having medieval stained glass than (probably) any other English county, but there are no complete windows, and, as in so many locations in England, in most places the glass is fragmentary. At Cawston church, apart from a few isolated in-situ eyelets, the medieval glass consists of three main-light panels of collected fragments from various dates in the fifteenth century in window sX (Fig. 1).1 This does not initially suggest that much of great interest can be made of the Cawston glazing. However, in addition to the extant glass, other factors come into play which do provide more than a glimpse of some very interesting and unusual iconography. There are some nineteenth-century watercolours of the glass when some of it was more complete and in-situ in one or more north aisle window,2 the discovery of two tracery-light panels at Besthorpe church depicting musicians playing instruments and dressed in secular costume which can be shown to have come from Cawston,3 antiquarian sources listing heraldic glass in the north aisle,4 and historical information about Alice Chaucer and her family, she having been almost certainly the donor of the north aisle glazing.5
The watercolours, five in number, depict a scene across two tracery-lights (Fig. 2), two pairs of musicians (Figs. 3 & 4) and a tracery-light figure of St Thomas (Fig. 5). The shape and design of the musician panels immediately identify the Besthorpe panels as belonging to the same series (Figs. 6 & 7). The watercolour of the St Thomas panel is a labelled as being in the south aisle and the apostle series would have fitted in sX and sXI, which have the same tracery design with six appropriate lights in each.
The musicians are perhaps the most obviously unusual iconographic subject in the glass. Angels playing instruments are ubiquitous in tracery-light glazing in Norfolk, their function being that of praising God or the Virgin Mary, whom they often accompany. The Cawston musicians, however, are decidedly secular, wearing fashionable costumes of the fifteenth century, although the instruments which they play (pipe, harp, lute and rebec) are the same as those played by the angels, and the poses assumed match those of the angels. It is probable that the use and design of these minstrels were indeed influenced by those of the angels. At East Barsham, angels playing shawm and harp flank a depiction of the Visitation in nIII, (B1–B2) in glass of a similar date (Figs. 8 & 9). When the shapes of the musician panels are compared with those of the tracery lights of the four north aisle windows at Cawston (Fig. 10), it is evident that each window had four such panels, two each side of the central pair of lights in the second row, which is confirmed by Winter’s watercolours. The only other appearance of minstrels in a Norfolk church known to the writer is on the Flemish brass of Robert Braunche, who died in 1364, in King’s Lynn St Margaret, where they accompany the frieze along the bottom depicting the peacock feast.6
The central two lights held the scene painted by Winter (Fig. 11). In the left-hand light, a young man stands wearing a murrey fur-trimmed and -lined tunic with a purse at his belt, a large soft red hat and fashionable pointed shoes. He faces to the right and proffers in his left hand a handkerchief with scalloped edge. Behind him is an archway. Opposite in the right-hand light are three ladies, also in front of an arch. The two on the left look like sisters, one in a red robe, the other in a blue one and both are veiled. Behind them stands an older woman, probably their mother, wearing a green robe and ducal coronet. Like the musicians, the people depicted here appear to be in a secular context and nothing similar appears in Norfolk medieval glass in or from a church. The proffering of the handkerchief suggests an element of courtly love or wooing towards one of the two young ladies on the right.
Before attempting to find an explanation of this unusual imagery, the reconstruction of the original north aisle tracery glazing will be extended by bringing into play the extant medieval glass in the church, now in sX, many elements of which can be attributed to this glazing. There are ten different musicians either extant, partly extant or illustrated by Winter. Two complete ones are at Besthorpe (Figs. 6 and 7) and four more are depicted by Winter (Figs. 3 and 4), and parts of four more are in the fragment panels, including four tunics, two pair of legs and one lute, painted from the reverse cartoon of that at Besthorpe (Figs. 12–15). With four musicians per window, the evidence for ten indicates that at least three windows had such figures and almost certainly all four. Of the young man with the handkerchief, the lower part of the tunic is extant for three figures (Figs. 16–18), one of which was probably the one painted by Winter, and there are two left hands carrying the handkerchief (Figs. 19 & 20), again pointing to at least three and probably all of the windows having the same figure. The colours of the clothing worn by musicians and the young man varies considerably, to give an impression of variety across the windows, as do the instruments. Of the three ladies, only a left hand of the older one with a coronet is twice extant.
The Winter drawing of the man and ladies also includes part of the top central tracery opening and a long rectangular eyelet on each side. The central opening has a damaged figure of Christ/God the Father carrying an orb, and the orb and hand carrying it are extant in the fragment window. Some of the north aisle windows retain the same eyelet fillings as seen on the drawing. The opening above the pair of musicians in one watercolour has an IHS monogram (Fig. 4)
What might have been the motive for this unusual glazing of the four north aisle windows? To answer that question, the final pieces of evidence for the original content of the north aisle windows are needed. They are potentially misleading and need careful examination and consist of now-lost but recorded heraldry. Three manuscripts of c. 1575 record shields on the north side of the church, which almost certainly means in the windows. Two of these accounts mention the arms of East Anglia and St George, commonly seen in Norfolk church glass, plus a third coat which requires some explanation.7 It is recorded as azure a fess between three leopard’s heads or, quartering gules a lion rampant or. Quarters one and four are for de la Pole,8 but the blazon for quarters two and three is problematic, as it is for Arundel.9 Michael de la Pole (1394/5–1415), 3rd Earl of Suffolk, married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, by his second wife Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel. However, the quartered shield which would have been used by Michael and Elizabeth should have had de la Pole quartering Mowbray, not Arundel. The most likely solution is that quarters two and three were damaged and had in fact been argent a chief gules over all a lion rampant queue fourchée or, for Chaucer,10 with the antiquarians reading the gules of the chief as the colour of the field. This would then make it the shield of John, son of William de la Pole and Alice Chaucer; John was born in 1442 and became the 2nd Duke of Suffolk.11 This identification is important for the interpretation of the glass. The third source lists three different shields: quarterly France and England; quarterly de la Pole and Wingfield, within the Garter, for William de la Pole, 3rd Earl of Suffolk, later 1st Duke of Suffolk, father of John de la Pole, died in 1450;12 quarterly de la Pole and Wingfield impaling Stafford, with a rose in chief, for Michael de la Pole, 2nd Earl of Suffolk, d. 1415, who married Katherine de Stafford and was the father of William de la Pole.13 These two different accounts obviously relate to different windows of the north aisle, but make it clear that the de la Pole family was the donor of the north aisle glazing. The latest of the people represented in the heraldry was John de la Pole, born in 1442 and married in 1458. This could mean that the window with the arms of Michael and William de la Pole was part of an earlier glazing of the north aisle and the shields in the other window were later, but it is far more probable that they were coeval.
The only other information we have of the north aisle glazing comes from Thomas Martin in the eighteenth century: ‘The North Isle windows had ye apostles painted, now broken’.14 These four windows have twelve main lights between them, so a main-light series is probable. If the bottom row of six tracery lights in each window had been used, as the glazing of the second row was a unified scheme across all four windows, the apostles would probably have alternated with prophets, but as there was a tracery-light apostle series in the south aisle, a main-light set in the north aisle seems a more likely choice.
That the north aisle glazing had a shield which was for John de la Pole will help to explain the iconography of the tracery glazing, but before that can be done, it is necessary to look at the person who would have been patron of the church at that time and would have given the windows: Alice Chaucer, the mother of John de la Pole. She was the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer and as wife of William de la Pole, 1st Duke of Suffolk, had had considerable influence on him, until his death in disgrace in 1450 left her in a difficult position. She became guardian of their child, John, born in 1442, and set about restoring the position and prosperity of the de la Pole estate, in which she achieved much success, using skilful but sometimes aggressive means. William had been a staunch Lancastrian, but for reasons not entirely clear she decided after his death to move to support the Yorkist position, and herself promoted and arranged the marriage of her son to Elizabeth of York, the second daughter of Richard of York, Duke of York, in 1458.15 The combination of the shield of John de la Pole in a north aisle window, without an impalement with his wife’s arms, and the repeated image in the tracery of a young man wooing a lady with the gift of a handkerchief suggests that the tracery glazing was inserted shortly before the wedding as part of Alice’s campaign to get her son married. The central scene in each window would have alluded to John’s courtly approach to Elizabeth of York, depicted on the left of the three ladies, next to her younger unmarried sister Margaret, with Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, behind them wearing a ducal coronet.16 From Roman times onwards the handkerchief had been a symbol of cleanliness and by extension of virtue, and the gift of one by a suitor would have signalled respect for the qualities of the lady concerned. It also possible that other symbolism was attached to the handkerchief in the fifteenth century which has not come down to us. One writer on the history of the significance of the handkerchief mentions Christine de Pizan, making the point that the famous author’s concern both to demonstrate the abilities and importance of women and to provide them with guidance on how to behave in ways appropriate to their place in society as she saw it, would have found the handkerchief a useful tool in this endeavour.17 Alice Chaucer is known to have owned a copy of Dit de la pastoure by Christine de Pizan and also a ‘frensh boke of le Citee de dames’, which would have been either of the two books she wrote relevant to this theme: Le livre de la cité des dames or Trésor de la cité des dames. The first of these was also owned by Richard, Duke of York, perhaps acquired for his wife Cecily Neville, Alice Chaucer’s sister-in-law.18
A number of fifteenth-century windows in or from Norfolk churches have been shown to have been polyvalent, with an extra layer of meaning added to the overt religious significance.19 That most similar to this window is the Yorkist element seen in the glass from the east window of the Lady Chapel at East Harling dated to 1461–c. 1467, in which four scenes from the Infancy of Christ are combined with an allusion to the sighting of the parhelion phenomenon just before the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, won by the young Edward on his way to becoming King Edward IV in 1462.20 Both windows had a donor who was a wealthy and intelligent woman intent on promoting the Yorkist cause, but where the Cawston example is unique in Norfolk glass is in its purely secular character, possibly inserted into a window with existing sacred iconography. The musicians provide a celebratory aspect, appropriate to a narrative focussing on marriage, while at the same time, perhaps, the musicians alluded to the missing sacred content in the form of musical angels. Perhaps the most unusual feature is the repetition of the subject matter, demonstrated by the extant fragments.
- Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Norfolk: Cawston, Parish Church of St Agnes (cvma.ac.uk), accessed 19/06/2023. The panels in sX, 1a–c, were put there in c. 1932 by G. King & Son, the glass having been recovered from the parsonage (C. Woodforde, ‘Medieval Glass Restored to Cawston Church’, Norfolk Archaeology, xxv, 1932, pp. 138–39. The discovery of the drawings by Winter post-dates the online catalogue entry. There are many watercolours and lithographs of Norfolk medieval glass by Winter, but many of them are of still extant glass.
- Norfolk Museums Service, Norwich Castle Museum, watercolours by CJW Winter, 1849, NWHCM, accession nos. 1951.235. B65, B329–31.
- In sVI, 2b.
- London, British Library, MS Harley 901, f. 69r; ibid., MS Lansdowne 260, f. 246r; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley Ashmole 792/ii, f. 52r.
- R. E. Archer, ‘Chaucer [married names Phelip, Montagu, de la Pole], Alice, duchess of Suffolk (c. 1404–1475)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, 2011, accessed 20/06/2023; K. K. Jambeck, ‘The Library of Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk: A Fifteenth-Century Owner of a “Boke of le Citee de Dames”, Misericordia International, vii/2, (1998), pp. 106–35.
- J. Page-Philips and T. Dart, ‘The Peacock Feast’, The Galpin Society Journal, vi, July 1953, pp. 95–98.
- BL. MS Harley 901, f. 69r; BL. MS Lansdowne 260, f. 246r.
- Dictionary of British Arms, III, pp. 422–3.
- Dictionary of British Arms, I, p. 131.
- Dictionary of British Arms, III, p. 24.
- M. Hicks, ‘Pole, John de la, second duke of Suffolk (1442–1492)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, 2015, accessed 20/06/2023.
- J. Watts, ‘Pole, William de la, first duke of Suffolk (1396–1450), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, 2012, accessed 20/06/2023.
- S. Walker, ‘Pole, Michael de la, second earl of Suffolk (1367/8–1415), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, 2012, accessed 20/06/2023.
- Norfolk Record Office, Rye MSS 17/1, f. 204r.
- Archer 2011 online: Jambeck 1998.
- C. Harper-Bill, ‘Cecily [Cicely] [née Cecily Neville], duchess of York (1415–1495), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online, 2015, accessed 20/06/2023.
- B. Mirabella, ‘The Contradictory Life of the Handkerchief’, blog, September 18, 2016, The Contradictory Life of the Handkerchief – Early Modern Women: Lives, Texts, Objects (wordpress.com), accessed 20/06/2023.
- Jambeck 1998, pp. 115, 118, 119.
- D. King, ‘Reading the Material Culture: Stained Glass and Politics in Late Medieval Norfolk’, in L. Clark, ed., Rule, Redemption and Representations in Late Medieval England and France, The Fifteenth Century, VIII, Woodbridge, 2008, pp. 105–34.
- Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi: Norfolk: East Harling, Parish Church of Sts Peter and Paul (cvma.ac.uk), accessed 19/06/2023.