Panel of the Month

Henry Williams and the ‘ymage of Deth’ Roundel, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire 

Henry Williams and 'ymage of deth', A1, Stanford-on-Avon.© Gordon Plumb.

Henry Williams and 'ymage of deth', A1, Stanford-on-Avon.© Gordon Plumb.

This month’s panel comes from the tracery of the easternmost window of the north side of the chancel of the parish church of St Nicholas at Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire (nII). It is one of the most fascinating examples of a memento mori, or symbol of mortality, surviving in medieval stained glass. An exact parallel for this composition has never been found in any other church in Britain, yet its ‘deathly’ subject was of considerable iconographic popularity throughout the medieval church.

The Church 

Exterior view of St Nicholas Parish Church, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 1. Exterior view of St Nicholas Parish Church, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire. © Gordon Plumb.

Built mainly in the early 14th century, St Nicholas’ church comprises a chancel, nave with north and south aisles and a south porch and tower. [Fig.1] In the late 15th or early 16th century the clerestory was added in the nave and timber roofs fitted to the nave and aisles. The windows are filled with stained glass from the early 14th to the mid-16th centuries. Although not all in situ, most of the glass was made for the church. It was the subject of an extensive programme of conservation, undertaken by Barley Studio between 1987 and 1997.

Description of Panel

Our panel – which comprises a roundel and a figure, set in post-medieval glass – dates from the later medieval period and depicts Henry Williams, vicar of Stanford-on-Avon between 1486 and 1501. In academical dress he wears a fur-lined tippet and ruby gown with white fur-trimmed sleeves. He kneels in prayer before a small roundel which portrays a personification of Death as a skeletal corpse rising out of a grave and aiming an arrow at him. The details in the white roundel are executed in paint and yellow stain, with evidence of needlepoint, stickwork, stippling and back-painting.

Patronage and Date

The panel is the only one from the church that can be firmly dated, thanks to Henry Williams’ will, written on 5 April 1500. It reads:

‘I wyll that the glasse windowes in the chancell wth ymagery that was thereyn before allso wth my ymage knelying in ytt and the ymage of deth shotyng at me, another wyndowe before Saynt John with ymagery in ytt now wth my Image knelying in ytt and deth shoting at me theys to be done in smalle quarells of as gude glasse as can be goten.’

It can therefore be deduced that there were several windows in the chancel containing donor figures of Williams and the ‘ymage of Deth’, and that they replaced some of the earlier 14th-century glass. Further evidence for these later inserts can be gleaned from an inscription that ran along the foot of the three main lights of one of the chancel south windows, which was still in existence when the glass was recorded in 1720: ‘Orate pro anima domini Henrici Guilielmi Bacallarii: Legis: quondam: Vicarius istius ecclesiae qui obit anno Domini Millesimo quinquagesimo primo’(‘Pray for the soul of Lord Henry… formerly vicar to the church who died at the beginning of the year of our Lord 1501’). The inscription demonstrates that the glass, commemorating Henry Williams, was created after 1501, when he died. 


William de Luffwyck, East window IA2, church of St Peter, Aldwincle, Northamptonshire. © Crown Copyright, NMR.

Fig. 2. William de Luffwyck, East window IA2, church of St Peter, Aldwincle, Northamptonshire. © Crown Copyright, NMR.

In his definitive CVMA study of the medieval glass of Northamptonshire, Richard Marks proposed that the 14th-century rebuilding and glazing of St Nicholas’ was instigated by an earlier rector of the church, Alan of Aslackby (Rector between 1308 and his death in 1337). Like Williams, Aslackby’s work was most likely undertaken for the salvific purpose of aiding his journey through Purgatory, believed to be a sort of ante-room to heaven where sinners were ruthlessly ‘purged’ and ‘purified’, before being admitted. The new building therefore provided an appropriate setting for his memorials, of which two are most prominent. His body almost certainly occupied the tomb containing an effigy of a priest, in the nave south aisle, and it has been suggested that some stopgaps in the garments worn by the bishop or mitred abbot depicted in window nIV, may have belonged originally to an early 14th-century depiction of a kneeling cleric, possibly even Aslackby himself.  

Kneeling donor figures were, of course, ubiquitous throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, being expressive of piety while functioning as a call to the prayers of the onlooker. Although Death is never explicitly present in such depictions, the meaning of such images relates to an impulse to triumph over death. If Aslackby’s donor panel is no longer complete, an idea of its likely appearance can be gleaned at the parish church of St Peter, Aldwincle, also in Northamptonshire, whose east window originally contained two images referring to its clerical patronage. Within two tracery lights, figures of William de Luffwyk (Rector, 1335-80) and his predecessor Roger Travers (a 19th-century replica of the original) kneel in prayer, flanking the three main lights of the window. These panels are typical of ‘donor-style figures’ of the medieval period, shown kneeling before and praying to God, while also asking viewers of the window to pray on their behalf. [Fig. 2]

They also highlight significant contrasts with our Panel of the Month, illustrating a transformation in donor iconography towards the later medieval period. The subject matter appears to have progressed from an implied notion of death symbolised only by the kneeling donor to a literal depiction of the figure of Death himself. Why this change took place is rather complex, but will be examined next. 

The ‘Dance of Death’ window, South aisle, St Andrew’s church, Norwich. © Mike Dixon.

Fig. 3. The ‘Dance of Death’ window, South aisle, St Andrew’s church, Norwich. © Mike Dixon.

Among examples of medieval stained glass images of Death surviving in England, Stanford is rather unusual in one of its details: it is the only extant depiction of the personification of Death with a bow and arrow. Although the pose of the donor figure kneeling in prayer with a commemorative inscription was extremely popular in votive glass of this period, no similar overall compositional arrangement has ever been found. Usually Death is pictured with his symbolic weapons, most often a dart or spear, as featured in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1848) which speaks of a ‘skeleton with dart and hour-glass’. Still, this is not the only panel depicting Death with a unique composition. In fact, a panel dating from c.1510 from St Andrew’s Church, Norwich depicts an evocative scene of a skeleton leading a bishop away. [Fig. 3]  

The subject is known as the ‘Danse macabre’ or the ‘Dance of Death’ and was extremely popular during the medieval period, gracing many brasses and wall paintings in churches across Europe, such as the four surviving panel paintings of an original cycle of eight on the choir stalls at Hexham Abbey (Northumberland). This still depicts skeletons with human figures. The Norwich panel is the only surviving example in the country of this subject reproduced in glass. Subsequently it has been suggested that the iconography could be of French origin; however, many of the details are similar to those exhibited in local glass.

Meditations on death, and the Last Judgment were extremely popular subjects in medieval art and literature, primarily from the 14th century onwards. Many scholars believe the upsurge of the subject in artistic production to be a product of the Black Death. The impact of the outbreak made death all the more real and so it was not surprising that the priorities of patrons changed towards more personalised initiatives as the concern about their own death intensified. Accordingly, images portraying Death in a figural manner were increasingly used in commemorative contexts and as visual reminders for worshippers to be prepared for death. Vivid examples can be found in the work of Pierre Remiet, a Parisian manuscript illuminator working around the year 1400. One of his images depicts a striking image of Death waiting at the end of the pilgrimage of human life, and reminding the medieval reader of what is to come.  

'Pricke of conscience’ window. nIII, All Saints, North Street, York. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 4. 'Pricke of conscience’ window. nIII, All Saints, North Street, York. © Gordon Plumb.

A similar image can be found at All Saints Church, North Street in York, in the Pricke of Conscience window. Death enveloped the pages of popular literature of the time, and the poem ‘Pricke of Conscience’ describing the ‘Last Days of the World’, was no exception. The poem describes the last fifteen days of the world’s existence including, ‘on the fourteenth day all that lives shall die: child, man and woman’. [Fig.4]  

Detail of Henry Chichele’s cadaver tomb at Canterbury Cathedral. © Allan Barton.

Fig. 5. Detail of Henry Chichele’s cadaver tomb at Canterbury Cathedral. © Allan Barton.

It could be argued that the majority of these ‘deathly’ glazing schemes functioned as substitutes for tomb monuments as they appear to have grown in popularity, gracing many medieval churches. However, the appearance of Death became even more literal in accordance with the existing trend for commemoration. As the subject of death became widely established in glass and wall paintings, tombs increasingly reflected the sentiment of the subject, no doubt accelerated by the effects of the plague. Cadaver or ‘transi’ tombs of the 15th century were even more personally figurative, incorporating representations of the person contained within. Such monuments, which appear in England around 1400, include Archbishop Chichele’s double-decker tomb at Canterbury Cathedral, whose figure is represented as an emaciated corpse below a representation of Chichele in complete human bodily form. [Fig. 5]

The two figural states were conceived in this fashion in order to prompt the onlooker to pray for the deceased, as suggested by Chichele’s decayed body which represents the soul suffering in Purgatory, in addition to prompting consideration of one’s own fate. The latter is further promoted by the surrounding inscription which reads: ‘Pauper eran natus’: I was a pauper born, cementing the idea that whether educated or illiterate, rich or poor, we are all reduced to the same state once dead. As Richard Marks explains: ‘The contrast between the ‘vanitas’ of earthly rewards and the reduction of all ranks of society to the same state of death (‘sic transit gloria mundi’) was a common subject of late medieval art’ (Marks 1993, see Further Reading). In fact, Chichele’s tomb was erected during his lifetime and positioned opposite the archiepiscopal seat so that he could ponder his own tomb in life as a memento mori.

Throughout these ‘double’ representations of death and the living, the contrast and connection between life and death appear to push forth the idea of the future state, thus offering a mirror image of the soul for self-examination. As Paul Binski explains, ‘the corpse, as image, stands for the absence that is death, returning to rebuke both the imaged living, and also ourselves as onlookers’ (Binski 1996, see Further Reading).

Emma Jane Wells

Further Reading

On St Nicholas, Stanford on Avon

  • Dufty, A. R., ‘Stanford-on-Avon church, Northamptonshire’, Archaeological Journal, cxii, 1955, pp. 192–193
  • Hamilton-Thompson, A., ‘Stanford-on-Avon’, Archaeological Journal, xc, 1933, pp. 378–79
  • Marks, R., ‘henry willams and his ymage of deth roundel’, Antiquaries Journal, 54, 1974, pp. 272–274
  • Marks, R., The Medieval Stained Glass of Northamptonshire, Oxford, 1998

On the subject of ‘death’ in the medieval period

  • Binski, P., Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation, London, 1996
  • Camille, M., Master of Death, The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator, Yale, 1996
  • Clark, J. M., The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and The Renaissance, Glasgow, 1950
  • DuBruck, E. E. and Gusick, B. J. (eds), Death and Dying in the Middle Ages, New York, 1999
  • Hadley, D. M., Death in Medieval England: An Archaeology, London, 2001
  • Binksi, P., ‘The Art of Death’, in Marks, R. and Williamson, P., (eds), Gothic Art for England 1400–1547 , London, , 2003, pp. 436–455

On St Andrews, Norwich

  • Lasko, P., and Morgan, N. J. (eds), Medieval Art in East Anglia 1300–1520, Norwich, 1973
  • Woodforde, C., The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century, London; New York; Toronto, 1950
  • Woodforde, C., ‘Schools of Glass-Painting in King’s Lynn and Norwich in the Middle Ages’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, V , 1933, pp. 4–18.

On All Saints, York

  • Gee, E. , ‘The painted glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York’, Archaeologia, 102, 1969, pp. 151–202
  • Swanson, R., ‘Fragments of an indulgence inscription in a window at All Saints, North Street, York’, The Antiquaries Journal, 88, 2002, pp. 308–312

On stained glass in general:

Marks, R., Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993

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