Like a Phoenix from the Ashes: The Medieval Stained Glass of Coventry Cathedral
Nearly seventy years after the devastating bombing raid on Coventry which left St Michael’s cathedral a charred and gutted shell, exciting new discoveries are being made about the medieval glass that was removed from the church in 1939 for safekeeping and which still remains in storage – largely unknown and rarely seen. [Fig. 1]
But first some background. Before the Reformation the medieval diocese of Coventry & Lichfield was served by not one but two cathedrals. In Coventry the vast cathedral church (425 feet long) was part of St Mary’s Priory, a Benedictine monastery largely complete by c. 1250. Lichfield, by contrast, was a secular cathedral and until the dissolution of the greater monasteries in 1539 the two chapters took it in turns to elect the bishop. After the Reformation, St Mary’s was almost entirely demolished, the only cathedral in England to suffer such a fate during the Henrician reforms. With the power to elect bishops now residing solely with the Lichfield chapter, the ordering of the diocesan names was reversed and in 1836 episcopal responsibility for Coventry was transferred to the care of Worcester. In 1918 the modern diocese of Coventry was created and rather than build a new cathedral from scratch, it was decided to convert the parish church of St Michael, at 293 feet (89 metres) long the largest in the city, into this role. The glass discussed in this article comes from that church.
St Michael’s, probably an Anglo-Saxon foundation, is first mentioned by name in a charter granted between 1144 and 1148, but the earliest part of the surviving church is the south porch (now the Haigh chapel), which dates from the middle of the 13th century. The tower bearing the famous steeple which survived the Blitz, and which still stands today, was begun in the 1370s when Coventry was one of the most prosperous cities in medieval England, enriched by the wool and cloth trades. About twenty years later, the church itself was rebuilt, starting at the east end. The rare five window polygonal apse in the chancel belongs to this period. The height of the tower and spire (295 ft.) is only exceeded at Salisbury and Norwich.
During the late Middle Ages the church had strong associations with the Trinity guild, the most important in the city. At the end of the 15th century there appear to have been ten altars in the church besides the high altar, each with its own chapel and chantry: the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Jesus altar; the Trinity altar and the altars of St. John, St. Anne, St. Katherine, St. Thomas, St. Andrew, St. Lawrence, and All Saints.
The pre-Reformation glazing scheme was evidently as rich and varied as the number and dedications of the altars. Among the subjects were narratives of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, images of the Last Judgement, hymns to the Virgin, sequences of angels, figures of the Apostles and depictions of the Sacraments. It also seems, from surviving fragments, that some of the windows contained individual images or narrative cycles relating to the saints associated with the church’s altars, and that ‘donor images’, representing members of the guilds who gave glass to the church were a common feature of the scheme. One such candidate would have been John Botoner, the wealthy wool merchant whose family funded the rebuilding of the church. By the mid-19th century, however, it appears that most of St Michael’s medieval glass had been lost. Photographic evidence shows that the surviving fragments had been leaded into ‘mosaic style’ panels and installed in the two westernmost windows of the apse and between bands of plain quarried glass in the nave clerestory windows. One remnant of this work is a panel bearing the signature of a plumber and the date 1857, but no records have been found documenting where this glass was collected from within the church before being installed in these new settings. [Fig. 2]
As the second world war approached, the medieval glass was packed into thirty wooden crates and sent to Hampton Lucy rectory, a large 18th-century house in a small village of the same name about four miles north of Stratford-on-Avon. However, instead of leaving the Rectory in 1945, the glass remained undisturbed in the cellars until the house was sold in 1957. When the crates were eventually repatriated, they returned to a very different cathedral from the one they had left.
Shortly after the destruction of St Michael’s, it had been decided to build a new cathedral near the site of the ruined building. A public competition for the design of the replacement cathedral was won by Basil Spence (1907–1976), a Modernist architect who was subsequently knighted for his work in Coventry. Building work began in 1955 and the new cathedral was formally consecrated in 1962.
Basil Spence had always been keen to incorporate some of the medieval glass within his overall design and in 1962 he nominated the Industrial Chapel (now the Chapel of Industry) as a preferred site. Other possibilities included the circular Chapter House (below the Industrial Chapel) and St Michael’s Hall, a large public space often used for exhibitions. Provost H.C.N. (‘Bill’) Williams, a key figure in the new cathedral, suggested a fourth location, a small chapel in the south porch of the adjacent ruined building known as the Chapel of Resurrection, now known as the Haigh chapel in memory of Mervyn Haigh, (1887–1962), Bishop of Coventry from 1931 to 1942 and subsequently Bishop of Winchester.
Later that same year one of Sir Basil’s associates, the architect Anthony Blee, together with Dr Peter Newton, the pioneering stained glass scholar, and author of the CVMA catalogue of Oxfordshire, met with the conservator Dennis King to sift through the returned crates and select suitable examples for the first phase of the campaign, the glazing of the Haigh chapel. Some of the pieces they chose had been illustrated in a short article about the cathedral glass which had appeared in 1950 (see below: Chatwin). Subsequently all the crates were dispatched to the King workshop in Norwich where various panels were unleaded and the key fragments extracted. In March 1965 these fragments were installed in the chapel. They included tracery light-sized angels, a group of female donor figures, and a chalice with a wafer depicting the crucifixion. [Figs. 3, 4 and 5]
The installation in the Haigh Chapel proved to be a great success. In 1980 the crates were returned to the cathedral so that a team from the York Glaziers Trust could unlead more of the ‘mosaic’ glass in order to create seven new panels of exceptionally well-preserved subjects: six seraphs standing on wheels holding inscriptions, probably once in tracery lights, and a figural scene depicting the resurrected Christ emerging from his tomb (part of a Passion cycle). These were installed in St Michael’s Hall in 1981 and form a very impressive grouping. [Fig. 6, 7, 8 and 9]
Just over another decade passed before the next initiative. In 1992 one of the city’s largest employers, the insurance giant, Axa Equity & Law, funded the conservation of three ‘mosaic’ panels and three more seraph figures. Once again the work was undertaken by Peter Gibson and the York Glaziers Trust. When the crates were re-opened for another selection of pieces to be made, the glass was examined by experts from English Heritage and photographed. Initially the new panels were exhibited in display cabinets in the company’s own city centre offices but in 2002, following a change of ownership in the company, both the glass and the cabinets were transferred to the Chapel of Industry, directly above the Chapter House where they can now be seen by visitors to the Cathedral. [Fig. 10]
The completion of these projects still left a large number of fragments loosely scattered in their original packing crates where they lay on trays separated by strips of foam rubber. Despite English Heritage’s misgivings about these storage conditions, the glass may have remained in that state but for some sensational discoveries in 2003 during the closure of the King workshop, giving new impetus to interest in the Coventry glass. A survey of the premises by Michael King and the then CVMA Project Director, Dr Tim Ayers, found several trays of ‘forgotten’ fragments belonging to St Michael’s, including some fine individual pieces, which were subsequently sent to Holy Well Glass in Wells for safe keeping. A short time later, and just as dramatically, some of the still intact pre-World War II leaded panels were also found and returned to Coventry. In 2008 the unused glass in storage at Coventry was shelved in a purpose-built system in the new cathedral, made by cathedral volunteer, Dr Mike Stansbie, FRCS. Earlier this year the fragments recovered from the King workshop in 2003, and which had been sent to Holy Well glass in Wells for safe-keeping, were also returned to Coventry: finally re-uniting all of the remains from St Michael’s. [Fig. 11]
In total, the collection now amounts to at least several thousand unsorted pieces spread across 127 trays, plus hundreds more leaded into 40 of the original and still largely intact pre-World War II ‘mosaic’ panels which had been removed in 1939. Although many of the individual pieces are small, it is still possible to recognise fragments from a Last Judgement scene (naked souls and devils), nimbed apostles, a roundel probably depicting a Labour of the Month, the remains of several donor figures, numerous border and canopy fragments, parts of angel figures (several playing musical instruments), various black letter inscriptions, a few decorative quarries, several small roundels with holy monograms, several dozen jewelled inserts, and a good collection of finely painted heads. Most of the pieces are white glass, painted and yellow stained. Pot metal glass is rare, but where it exists the colours are primarily red and blue. Collectively, the colours of the glass remains reflect English glazing trends of the late 14th and first half of the 15th century. [Figs. 12, 13, 14 and 15]
Interestingly, much of the glass shows little sign of corrosion or heavy pitting. Similar observations have been made about other medieval glass in the city at St Mary’s Hall, the Hall of the Trinity Guild, (Rudebeck, 2007). With the permission of the Dean and Chapter some of the Cathedral fragments are now being examined by Professor Ian Freestone and his team as part of their Leverhulme Trust funded study on The Composition, Corrosion and Origins of Medieval Window Glass (see Vidimus 28).
This study may reveal something of the origins of the glass itself used at Coventry, but the painting of the cathedral glass can almost certainly be attributed to one or more local workshops. Coventry is known to have been home to glaziers since at least the 13th century. A ‘Thomas le Glasewright’ is mentioned in the city as early as 1287 and William le Glasenwryght appears in documents written between 1302 and 1317. 14th- and 15th-century registers record a number of glaziers including John Halus and William Glasier, who were members of the Merchant and Trinity guilds (see: Lancaster). Certainly there would have been plenty of work for glass painters in such a thriving city and its surrounds. Excavations at the Priory site in 1965 recovered large numbers of fragments which Peter Newton dated to 1310 –1330. These included the face of an unidentified young woman which was found at the inner western end of the church as if it had been punched though from the outside. It is now on display in the St Mary’s Priory Visitor’s centre. [Fig. 16] As the Priory church also possessed a miracle-working shrine which contained the head and other relics of its founding mother saint, St Osburga, it is possible that one (or more) of the windows depicted her image.
Apart from the huge Priory cathedral church and St Michael’s church, the city had several other major churches built and glazed in the late Middle Ages. These included the parish church of The Holy Trinity (which includes a ‘mosaic’ window of medieval glass in a very different style to that preserved in the cathedral), a now lost 303-feet long church belonging to the Whitefriars (Carmelites) which was still being worked on in the second quarter of the 15th century, a church of the Greyfriars (Franciscans) of which only a 230 foot steeple built c. 1359 now survives (now known as Christchurch), and the collegiate church of St John the Baptist. [Fig. 17]
More significantly, one of the most important discoveries from preliminary examinations of the cathedral glass is that many pieces share stylistic similarities with windows attributed to the workshop of one of the most eminent and accomplished glaziers of the late Middle Ages, John Thornton ‘of Coventry’. Thornton’s work has been traditionally associated primarily with York Minster where the contract for the Great East window, made between 1405 and 1408, named Thornton as the glazier. The c.1415 St William window in the north aisle of the Minster choir (nVII) has also been attributed to him on stylistic grounds. Other windows in the city have been assigned to Thornton’s workshop, including the ‘Pricke of Conscience’ window at the church of All Saints, North Street. [Fig. 18]
Although nothing is known for certain about Thornton ‘of Coventry’ before his name appears in the contract for the Minster’s Great East window, he may have come from a family of glass painters and might be the same, or related to a, ‘John de Thornton’ who was listed as holding a tenement in Coventry in 1371. In either event it seems likely that he was recommended for the York project either by Archbishop Scrope, who had been Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield 1359–85, or by the donor of the window, Walter Skirlaw, who had held the same See immediately after Scrope in 1385. Despite running a workshop in York and being made a Freeman of that city in 1410, Thornton seems to have retained his links with Coventry. He is recorded as living in the St John’s Bridges (Burges) district of Coventry in 1411 and acquiring the lease of this house in 1413. Medieval Coventry was a compact city and this street, which survives today, was only two minutes walking distance from the now lost Priory gatehouse. A post-medieval house on the site of Thornton’s property was demolished between the two World Wars as part of the city’s modernisation and the new building line set back several feet. In 1956 the historian, Joan Lancaster, published a map indicating where Thornton had lived. Recent research by the city’s head of Conservation and Archaeology, George Demidowicz, has identified a more precise location. Using 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of the city, his meticulous reconstruction is shown below and is commemorated publicly by a wall-mounted plaque where the workshop stood in the 15th century. [Figs. 19 and 20]
Apart from retaining a residence in the city it seems almost certain that John Thornton also ran a glazing business in Coventry concurrent with his activities in York. Stylistic similarities with Thornton’s work at York, and perhaps most especially in the St William window, can be seen not only in some of the Coventry cathedral fragments, but also at other sites across the wider midlands region. These include remains in parish churches, such as the donor image of John Mersden (d.1425) in the east window of All Saints church at Thurcaston (Leicestershire), as well as the spectacular large-scale narrative of the Passion in the East window of the Benedictine priory at Great Malvern (Worcs.). Indeed, it is possible that Thornton, or others associated with him, was responsible for coordinating the glazing of much of the choir of this important church (Gilderdale Scott 2008). [Figs. 21, 22, 23 and 24]
As an artist Thornton has been credited with a key role in disseminating a highly accomplished version of the International Gothic style of glass painting, with its characteristic soft modelling and greater realism, to the Midlands and the north of England. Professor Richard Marks has described his expressive faces as ‘using relatively heavy shading’ and generally featuring ‘small mouths and rather elongated noses with a bulbous tip’. Recent work on glass in Thornton’s style is also beginning to suggest Thornton’s success may also have been due to other skills beyond his brushwork, including his ability to translate and interpret the needs of his clients into effective vitreous form, and his capacities as a workshop manager (Gilderdale Scott, forthcoming)
The thousands of glass fragments surviving from St Michael’s church, Coventry, have an important part to play in understanding this accomplished glazier. Hopefully, funds will soon become available to document and record the surviving medieval glass from the cathedral leading, in turn, to its conservation and eventual redisplay in the city where it was made.
I am extremely grateful to The Dean and Chapter of Coventry Cathedral; the generosity of Dr Mike Stansbie FRCS; George Demidowicz, Head of Conservation and Archaeology, Coventry City Council; Paul Thompson Keeper of Collections, The Herbert Art Gallery & Museum; Heather Gilderdale Scott; Steve Clare (Holy Well Glass); and Nick Teed of the York Glaziers Trust for their help with this item.
* P. B. Chatwin, ‘Medieval Stained Glass from the Cathedral, Coventry’, Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeological Society, LXVI, 1950, pp. 1–5 (plus 21 b/w illustrations on eight plates)
* T. French, ‘John Thornton’s monogram in York Minster’, Journal of Stained Glass, XIX , 1989–90, pp. 18–23
* J. C. Lancaster, ‘John Thornton of Coventry, Glazier’, Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeological Society, LXXIV, pp. 56–59
* R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993, esp., pp. 180–183
* D. McGrory, A History of Coventry, Chichester, 2003
* L. Monckton, ‘St Michael’s Coventry: The Architectural History of a Medieval Urban Parish Church’, in Art, Architecture and Archaeology in Medieval Coventry and its Vicinity, British Archaeological Association Transactions for Coventry, Leeds: forthcoming, L. Monckton and R.K.Morris (eds)
* P. A. Newton, ‘Report on the medieval stained glass,’ in B. Hobley. ‘Excavations of St Mary’s Coventry’, Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society, 1971, pp. 107–111
* Sir Basil Spence, Phoenix at Coventry: The Building of a Cathedral, London, 1962
* B. Rackham, ‘The Glass Paintings of Coventry and its Neighbourhood’, Walpole Society, XIX , 1931, pp. 89–110
* A. Rudebeck, ‘John Thornton and the Stained Glass of St Mary’s Hall, Coventry’, Journal of Stained Glass, 31, 2007, pp. 14–34
* M. Rylatt, Margaret and P. Mason. The Archaeology of the Medieval Cathedral and Priory of St. Mary Coventry, Coventry: Coventry City Council, City Development Directorate, 2003
* W. B. Stephens (ed.), Victoria County History: A History of the County of Warwick, 8, London, 1969, especially, ‘The City of Coventry: Crafts and Industries: Medieval Industry and Trade’, pp. 151–157
* H. Gilderdale Scott, ‘The Painted Glass of Great Malvern Priory (Worcs.) c.1430–1500’, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of London, 2008
* H. Gilderdale Scott, ‘John Thornton of Coventry: a Reassessment of the Role of a Late Medieval Glazier’, in Art, Architecture and Archaeology in Medieval Coventry and its Vicinity, British Archaeological Association Transactions for Coventry (Leeds, forthcoming) L. Monckton and R. K. Morris (eds)
* P. Williamson, Medieval and Renaissance Glass from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2003, illustrates a panel probably from Coventry dated to c 1430– 40, Museum iv. No C56–1953, illustrated as no. 42 on p. 61, described on p. 140
The CVMA archive includes images from St Mary’s Hall, Coventry.