Discovering the unknown: Penny Hebgin-Barnes and the Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire

Penny Hebgin-Barnes in conversation.

Fig. 1. Penny Hebgin-Barnes in conversation.

Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes studied the History of Art at Manchester University and wrote her D. Phil at York University on the medieval stained glass of Lincolnshire. This was subsequently published as The Medieval Stained Glass of the County of Lincolnshire, Corpus Vitrearum (Great Britain), Summary Catalogue 3, Oxford, 1996. She is also a member of the CVMA Committee.

On the eve of the publication of her latest study on The ‘Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire’, Vidimus spoke to Penny about her ground-breaking book which sheds new light on glazing before, during and after the great religious Reformations of the mid-16th century, discovers previously undocumented windows and transforms our understanding of the patronage and production of stained glass in the north-west of England before 1800.


‘Medieval Lancashire was a world apart from the thriving industrial centre the county became during the 19th century’, Penny told us. ‘Modern cities like Liverpool and Manchester were still in their infancy and the county as a whole was sparsely populated with just fifty seven parish churches. Initially I thought it would be quite a short study, as only one panel of glass [from the parish church of St Cuthbert’s, Kirkby-in-Furness] predates 1300, and panels from the 14th and early 15th centuries are also rare. But the more I looked, the more I found.

I began working on Lancashire in 1998, four years after I had started researching the glass in Cheshire, its southern neighbour. Although the counties are separate entities for administrative and postal purposes, in terms of stained glass styles and patrons, such boundaries were irrelevant in the Middle Ages. The north-west was very remote from London and the powerful magnates who dominated the region had interests in both counties. I also found evidence of the same workshops supplying glass to churches in Lancashire and Cheshire, which also underlines its distinct regional identity.

The Lancashire volume is unlike anything we have published previously. Traditionally the cut-off point for the inclusion of glass in a CVMA (GB) catalogue has either been before 1540 (the Dissolution of the last English monasteries) or before 1559 (the adoption of Protestantism as England’s official state religion). But with the support of the main CVMA committee, I decided to include panels up to 1800, partly to reflect the lack of any clear division between pre- and post- Reformation glazing, and partly to accommodate extensive collections of later continental glass. All the pre-1559 glass is described in the main catalogue while a separate appendix documents the later glass.

Fig.2. Angel from Furness Abbey (Cistercian). © English Heritage NMR

Fig.2. Angel from Furness Abbey (Cistercian). © English Heritage NMR

The catalogue is much larger than I originally envisaged and appears as a separate volume from the Cheshire catalogue, which will follow shortly. Despite this, the logic of looking at the glass in both counties with a single eye remains valid. Hence both volumes will share the same introductory overview chapter, enabling the reader to explore both catalogues within a common framework. One of the many advantages of this approach is the identification of glass in Lancashire which seems to have been painted by several Cheshire-based workshops. One of these, at Halsall near Southport, shares distinctive characteristics with glass dating from the 1330s at Grappenhall (near Warrington in Cheshire). A Chester provenance for the Grappenhall workshop is suggested by the survival of its output at several other Cheshire sites and at Treuddyn in North Wales, to Chester’s west. Another probable Chester-based workshop, active in the mid-15th century, was probably responsible for the glass at Over Peover in Cheshire, and Caerwys and Tremeirchion in North Wales. The most notable glass still to be seen in Lancashire, the St Helen panels at Ashton-under-Lyne, are the product of an atelier which was probably based in Chester or Manchester around 1500. The output of a slightly later and less sophisticated workshop which can be seen at Denton and Middleton (Lancs), was more than likely made by a Manchester-based team of glaziers, consistent with the rapid growth of the town, described by the 16th-century antiquary and local historian, John Leland (1506–1552) in 1540 as ‘the fairest, best builded, quickest, and most populous town of all Lancashire’. The enlarging and glazing of an important collegiate church in the town – which later became Manchester Cathedral – together with rebuilding campaigns in neighbouring parishes, would have provided ample opportunities for such locally-based businesses. Sadly, nothing of Manchester cathedral’s medieval stained glass now remains, despite an account, written in 1816, describing the heads of ‘perhaps several hundred saints, popes, monks and benefactors’ in its windows. By contrast, churches in the northern part of the county, like Cartmel Priory, relied upon glaziers from York. A late 15th-century angel at Furness Abbey has been tentatively linked to the York-based glass painter John Petty (d. 1508). [Fig.2]

Fig. 3. The Middleton archers. © D. O’Connor

Fig. 3. The Middleton archers. © D. O’Connor

With the exception of the unpainted grisaille panel at Kirkby-in-Furness which uses lead lines arranged in the shape of a cross for its decorative effect, most of the surviving indigenous glass in Lancashire is figurative or armorial. The subjects depicted seem to have been fairly typical of what was produced elsewhere in England at this time. Images of saints, evangelists, apostles, Christological narratives, the Virgin Mary and representations of the Tree of Jesse can be found in more than one location. A Seven Sacraments window at Cartmel Fell includes some unusual iconography while the extensive remains of a twenty-one scene ‘Life of St Helen’ cycle made c. 1500 for St Helen’s church, Ashton-under-Lyne is the largest and most ambitious cycle to this saint to survive or be recorded in English medieval art. [See note below] The Ashton glass was commissioned by Sir Thomas Ashton (d. 1516) whose grandfather had begun rebuilding the church in the early 15th century. The family was commemorated as a series of kneeling figures at the foot of the St Helen window. Other noteworthy donor figures survive at Cartmel Fell, Denton and Middleton while traces of inscriptions remain at Wigan, Croston and elsewhere. Heraldic displays are common and include puns. Corporate donations include a window at Middleton which depicts a troop of archers armed with longbows. Most previous writers thought it commemorated the bowmen’s contribution at the battle of Flodden in 1513, where an English army repulsed a Scottish invasion. During my research I established that it was made in 1505. [Fig.3]

More important discoveries related to patterns of patronage. While the heraldic arms of the powerful Stanley family, the Earls of Derby, are reasonably common, by the end of the 15th century fascinating evidence of patronage by local gentry and commoners began to appear. Although unable to afford expensive figurative glass, they sometimes contributed to the beautification of their churches by leaving their names or initials in windows, pleading to be remembered in people’s prayers. Such donations suggest that, at least in this part of the country, Catholic beliefs were deeply entrenched rather than crumbling on the eve of the Reformation. Historians have long known that religious communities in Lancashire (and Cheshire) were reluctant converts to Protestantism, clinging onto traditional Catholic beliefs and practices longer than in more metropolitan areas. What has not been appreciated is that churches continued to be glazed with Catholic imagery even as the Reformation was under way. At Sefton (Lancs) glass from 1540–45 includes saints and passion emblems, while at Cheadle the windows of the clerestory, which were finished in 1541, include sacred monograms. Similar iconography at Samlesbury can probably be dated to 1558.

Nor did glass painting die out after the Reformation had been consolidated. Armorials were still commissioned for churches, and among the ‘later’ glass included in the appendix, are some fascinating 17th-century diamond-shaped secular panels known as ‘drill quarries’ which feature paintings of soldiers practicing military drill, possibly commissioned by members of the local gentry responsible for their recruitment and training. The catalogue also includes descriptions of continental glass imported by wealthy collectors, mainly in the 19th century. These include fine large figurative panels at Eccles, Tunstall and St Peter’s church, Chorley, as well as Netherlandish roundels and unipartite panels, such as can be seen at Rufford Old Hall and Speke Hall in Liverpool.

Tree of Jesse panel from Selby Abbey. © Liverpool Museum

Fig. 4. Tree of Jesse panel from Selby Abbey. © Liverpool Museum

Head of the Virgin by Thomas Glazier of Oxford. © Liverpool Museum

Fig. 5. Head of the Virgin by Thomas Glazier of Oxford. © Liverpool Museum

Researching the book provided many surprises. The largest was the discovery of around 400 pieces of glass in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, uncatalogued and largely unknown – even by stained glass historians. It was mainly acquired from the estate of Philip Nelson (1872–1953), the third son of a wealthy ship-owning family. A qualified surgeon, his main love was medieval art and he assembled an impressive collection of alabaster panels as well as a nationally important collection of stained glass. Although some of this was dispersed after his death in 1953, the bulk was bought by the Walker Art Gallery. Tragically, his notes detailing the provenance of his glass do not survive, but it has been possible to identify panels from a 14th-century Jesse Tree formerly in Selby Abbey (Yorkshire), as well as work by the Oxford-based glass painter, Thomas Glazier. [Figs. 4 and 5]

There were two other outstanding discoveries, the first in one of several late medieval Lancashire mansions retaining important armorial glass. Ordsall Hall, a 15th-century house, enlarged in 1512 by Sir Alexander Radclyffe, is now owned by the local council and attracts many visitors. From old records I knew that there was some 16th-century armorial glass in the house. I discovered that it had been removed for safe keeping by 1966 and was stored in boxes. When I examined it, the panels were in very poor condition and some of the original designs had become jumbled. But the curator raised the funds to have the panels professionally conserved by Jonathan and Ruth Cooke. I am delighted to say that the glass will be reinstated in the house during 2010.

Another discovery was like a glazing detective story. Just as I was checking the final proofs of my book, Lancahire’s retired county archaeologist asked me if I knew about an old window at a school in Preston. I did not. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it so you can imagine my amazement when I arrived at a 1913 building to discover a spectacular 16th-century window in the entrance atrium. The colours were rich and expensive. The window showed royal beasts supporting the arms of England. As soon as I saw it I realised that it was identical to other heraldic panels now in Northamptonshire and Northumberland which had once glazed one of Henry VIII’s palaces, probably the Great Hall of Hampton Court, and which have been attributed to the 16th-century Flemish glass painter Galyon Hone. But what was it doing in this college? How did it get there? The answer seems to be that between 1840 and 1846 the glass painter and armorial expert Thomas Willement had been employed at Hampton Court Palace and in 1845 he had worked at Preston Grammar School, which moved from the town centre into this building in 1913 and closed in 1967. Willement had probably taken the glass in part payment for his work at Hampton Court and then incorporated it into his new work at Preston. Royal glass long thought lost had been found almost by accident. If I had not written this catalogue, maybe it would still be unknown. Completing the volumes took a long time but rewarding news like Ordsall and finding the lost glass of Henry’s palace has made the effort exciting and thoroughly worth while.’

Finally, we asked Penny for her five recommendations of sites which stained glass enthusiasts ought to see before they die.

‘Most people know about the famous sites – so I thought I’d choose five less well-known treasures from the counties I’ve catalogued for the CVMA: Lincolnshire, Lancashire and Cheshire. My five choices are:

  • Heydour (Lincs.), Church of St Michael: particularly Henry Lord Scrope’s window of c.1360 where the warrior kings Edward the Confessor and St Edmund personify English success in the Hundred Years’ War
  • Stamford (Lincs.), Browne’s Hospital: almshouse retaining sumptuous and iconographically unusual glazing from the end of the 15th century
  • Ashton-under-Lyne (Lancs.), Church of St Michael and All Angels: much glass from around 1500, including remains of the most extensive St Helen cycle in English glazing
  • Tabley House (Cheshire): survivals from the neglected centuries of English glass-painting include a defiantly Royalist series of 17th-c quarries depicting English monarchs and many late 18th-century armorials
  • Birtles, Church of St Catherine (Cheshire): a little treasure house with every window crammed with a variety of continental panels.

Penny Hebgin-Barnes was talking to Roger Rosewell


For more information about the St Helen windows at Ashton-under-Lyne see: Vidimus 10 (September 2007).

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