Westminster Abbey Chapter House: The History, Art and Architecture of ‘A Chapter House Beyond Compare’

Westminster Abbey Chapter House. © English Heritage.

Fig. 1. Westminster Abbey Chapter House. © English Heritage.

Westminster Abbey Chapter House: The History, Art and Architecture of ‘A Chapter House Beyond Compare’, edited by Warwick Rodwell and Richard Mortimer, 305p, 255 illus (155 in colour) (Society of Antiquaries 2010) Hardback. Price GB £49.95

Westminster Abbey Chapter House was one of the glories of thirteenth-century England. Begun in 1246 it was described ten years later by the St Alban’s monk and historian, Matthew Paris, as ‘beyond compare’.

Earlier this year English Heritage completed a £3.1 million campaign to conserve the exterior of this important building. As part of this project the Society of Antiquaries of London convened a conference to discuss the history and decoration of the chapter house; this ‘incomparable’ volume is one result. Written by what English Heritage’s chief executive describes as ‘an Oscar-winning array of scholars’, the book more than lives up to its billing! Fourteen chapters examine every aspect of the chapter house, its purpose, design, use, history and restoration, as well as its sculpture, wall paintings, tiled pavement and, of special interest to Vidimus readers, its painted and stained glass.  Superb photographs add to its pleasure.  [Fig. 1]

The chapter house has been the subject of at least three glazing schemes, dating from the thirteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively. They are discussed by Warwick Rodwell, consultant archaeologist to Westminster Cathedral and co-editor of this volume. Evidence for the thirteenth-century scheme is rather scanty. A documentary reference to the purchase of canvas for the windows in 1253 suggests that the glass was installed as one of the final ‘finishing touches’ to the building, perhaps in 1254/55. The earliest references to the glass itself, is an entry in the sacrist’s roll for 1379/80. Another, for mending windows in the church and chapter house in 1543, perhaps implies that some of the glass may have been removed or damaged at the abbey’s suppression in 1540 or following injunctions against images of St Thomas Becket, the former archbishop of Canterbury who was canonised after his murder but denounced as a traitor and rebel by Henry VIII.

Antiquarian accounts of the glass are disappointing. The only pictorial representation of the medieval glazing comes from an early seventeenth-century drawing, showing shields in the main lights, bearing the arms of Edward the Confessor, Henry III and the Count of Provence. Warwick Rodwell suggests that they were part of a predominantly grisaille scheme, like that remaining in the chapter house at Salisbury Cathedral until 1821. Only a brief description of some of the Westminster glass was recorded by the antiquary, Henry Keepe (1652–1688), in the 1680s. This included a passing mention of the aforesaid arms of Henry III and those of Richard, the King’s younger brother (1209–1272), first Earl of Cornwall and King of Germany (1209–1272). Unfortunately none of these heraldic shields now survive. Together with any other early panels they were removed in the mid-eighteenth century when some of the Chapter House windows were blocked up and clear glass installed.

The second and third glazing schemes are described more extensively. After the Reformation the chapter house was used to store state papers until it was restored to something like its medieval appearance in the 1860s by the Victorian architect, Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811–1878). Part of this restoration campaign involved reinstating the chapter house’s Gothic fenestration.

In 1873 the Dean & Chapter, helped by Scott, turned their minds to a suitable glazing scheme for these new windows. Dean Stanley (1815–1881) proposed filling them with scenes relating to the abbey and the history of England. The well known firm of Clayton & Bell prepared a series of cartoons but the government, which had funded the earlier work, refused to incur any additional cost. Beginning with a gift from the estate of Dean Stanley, the first window based on his scheme was installed in 1882. Queen Victoria then paid for another in his memory and by 1891 all bar the north window were filled. Despite efforts to complete the scheme it seems that it was never fully brought to completion before most of the glass was damaged during a German air raid in 1940 which left gaping holes in many of the panels.  


The Chapter House interior. © English Heritage.

Fig. 2. The Chapter House interior. © English Heritage.

A third scheme was installed after 1945. Although the Victorian glass could have been repaired, prevailing taste declined to do so. In 1946 Joan Howson (1885–1964) was asked to design and make new windows which she completed in 1951. Her final design retained the undamaged Victorian west window but filled the remaining lights with large areas of clear glass interspersed with the arms of royalty, benefactors, ecclesiastics, architects and government officials associated with the abbey since the thirteenth century. She also painted tiny scenes of aerial bombardment and the defence of London during the Second World War in the quarries of the south-east window. During the recent restoration campaign the glass was conserved by Chris Chesney of Iona Art Glass. [Fig. 2]

The remainder of the book is equally fascinating and full of new discoveries and insights.

David Carpenter explores Henry III patronage of a building which enhanced ‘the dignity and splendour of his kingship’. Among the interesting features of this chapter are references to several lecterns commissioned for the room by Henry, one of which was specifically described as lectrinium regis ‘a lectern for the king’.  Made from iron, and presumably painted and gilded, it would have reinforced his pre-eminence as he addressed the nation’s political elite in a room where the floor and windows also shone with the royal arms of England. 

Essays by Christopher Wilson, Warwick Rodwell and Tim Tatton–Brown discuss the chapter house in the wider context of English architecture of the period, taking into account chapter houses at Lincoln and Salisbury and the Sainte–Chapelle in Paris built for the French king, Louis IX (1214–1270).

Barbara Harvey describes how the monks at the abbey used the chapter house, a building deliberately separate and set aside from the principal liturgical functions of the abbey. She explains that a Benedictine chapter was, in principle, a meeting of the entire community of monks. The meeting took its name from the portion or chapter of the rule of St Benedict, the order’s founder, which was read at the beginning of the meeting. Typical agenda items might include the liturgical arrangements for the following day, the sealing of documents and finally, disciplinary matters. Such meetings were normally held daily and in the mornings. Meetings probably lasted about an hour. If he was ‘at home’ the abbot would be expected to preside. Seating reflected hierarchy, with the abbot sitting in a raised position on the eastern wall flanked by his office–holders. As the seats or benches were made of stone monks were given mats to sit on.

Apart from its monastic functions, the chapter house at Westminster, like those in other important centres, could be used for state business. It was occasionally utilised for meetings of the medieval Commons or parliament. At Durham the chapter house was requisitioned for negotiations between English and Scottish lords for an Anglo–Scottish treaty in 1424. At York it was used for meetings of the King’s parliament in 1296. Links between Westminster’s chapter house and the Crown are underlined in Jeremy Ashbee’s chapter on the use of the undercroft and other chambers associated with the building as a royal treasury. The famous robbery of 1303 which saw the monks accused of stealing from the king is also discussed. Elizabeth Hallam–Smith charts the building’s use as a forerunner of the Public Record Office from the 1540s until a new purpose–built PRO elsewhere in London was opened in 1859. Sir George Gilbert Scott’s restoration is explored by Stephen Brindle.

Richard Foster and Pamela Tudor–Craig examine the sculptural decoration of the outer and inner portals ‘in the context ..of the chapter house as a place of wise deliberation and judgement’. The room was entered via a long vestibule from the east walk of the cloister. The outer doorway had a tympanum containing a painted statue of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels while the voussoirs either side of the entrance arch were carved with small figures representing the ancestors of Christ, together forming a unified Tree of Jesse scheme. Such visual depictions of Christ’s human ancestry springing ‘from the stem of Jesse’ were often associated with the transmission of ‘wisdom’. The outer face of the inner portal had carved jambs: one side wholly foliate, the other including an inner order of eleven small figures, including the Virgin Mary, Moses, Job, and a cowled friar, possibly St Francis, classified by the authors as ‘special friends of God’. The sculpture on the interior faces of this portal is also discussed. The northern jamb had foliate decoration while the southern jamb consisted of eleven small carved figures, an enthroned Christ and ten saintly kings, perhaps intended to represent ‘the holy kings of England’, whose names were recited by Henry III during his visit to St Alban’s Abbey in 1257.

Themes of judgement and wisdom saturate a beautiful series of wall paintings added around one hundred and fifty years after the Chapter House had been completed. In a two–part chapter, Professor Paul Binski describes the imagery of the paintings while Dr Helen Howard explains the techniques employed in these masterpieces of monumental painting. Traces of decoration from Henry III’s time – a pattern of roses at dado level – can be seen on the north–west wall. The more famous murals consist of a c.1400 Judgement scene on the east wall with flanking angels (seraphs) invoking confession and penance. Professor Binski links the painting to disciplinary functions within the abbey. The other major scene shows a great Apocalypse cycle based on the Revelation of St John (probably originally comprising ninety–six scenes), sections of which survive on the north-west, south-east, south and south-west walls. They are dated to the first decade of the fifteenth century and are by a different artist(s) to the painter(s) of the Judgement scene. Other paintings in the room – musical angels and confronted beasts – are dated to around 1400 and 1500 respectively.

Laurence Keen contributes yet another thoroughly interesting chapter – a revelatory review of what he judges to be ‘the most important surviving inlaid tiled floor in Europe’. Thirty-six designs are described and previously un-deciphered inscriptions successfully translated. He concludes that the tiles were left-over stock from other commissions, either in the nearby palace of Westminster or from elsewhere in the abbey.

The final chapter in the book is devoted to the dating of some of the timber doors in the Chapter House complex, one of which is a reused door from 1050–1065.


This is a book full of new discoveries. The Society of Antiquaries deserves credit for publishing such an excellent guide to this important building and the financial contributions of English Heritage and Westminster Abbey towards the costs of its production are appreciated. This splendid book has made me want to revisit the Chapter House. I urge others to do the same.


The Chapter House is in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey. Admission is free via the cloister entrance in Dean’s Yard. It is under the care and management of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. For more information please see the Westminster Abbey website.

Stained Glass Windows of Bromgrove and Redditch, Worcestershire

Medieval glass from Belbroughton.

Fig. 1. Medieval glass from Belbroughton.

Stained Glass Windows of Bromgrove and Redditch, Worcestershire, by Roy Albutt. Reprint of 2002 edition, published by the author, Warwick, 2010, soft cover, 118 pages, 24 colour plates, price £12.95 available from Roy Albutt

This is a welcome reprint of a 2002 study of painted and stained glass in forty-two churches and chapels around Bromsgrove and Redditch in northern Worcestershire.

It consists of two brief introductory chapters about the history and craft of stained glass followed by a description of the best windows in the survey, an extensive gazetteer, some useful appendices (listing the makers and designers whose work is mentioned, for example) and a two-page bibliography.

Fragments of medieval glazing schemes in the parish churches of Alvechurch, Belbroughton, Beoley, Chaddesley Corbett, and Stoke Prior together with panels in the chapel of Grafton Manor (now a hotel) at Bromsgrove, and in the chapel of Hewell Grange prison at Tardebigge, are identified. The glass at Belbroughton has stylistic affinities with John Thornton’s Coventry–based workshop or associates, while the fragments in the parish church of St Michael at Stoke Prior are said to come from Great Malvern Priory. Six panels in the chapel of Hewell Grange, a mock-Jacobean mansion built for the earl of Plymouth in the late nineteenth century and now an open prison, are said to have come from Bordesley Abbey, a former Cistercian abbey near Redditch dissolved and demolished during the Reformation

The main strength of the book is the remarkable concentration of Victorian and early twentieth-century glass it records in such a small area. The resulting two hundred and fifty entries constitute what the author calls a ‘gallery’ of work by some of the best-known firms and artists of the past century and a half, including windows by Burlison & Grylls; Clayton & Bell; A. J. Davies; John Hardman; Heaton, Butler & Bayne; Charles Eamer Kempe; Albert & Peter Lemmon; Lowndes & Drury; Joseph Nuttgens; Karl Parsons; Frederick Preedy; Paul Woodroffe, and Ward & Hughes.

It was while visiting a Bromsgrove church in 1883 that Henry Hughes of Ward & Hughes, was suddenly taken ill and died. A window in his memory from surviving members of the firm can be seen in the north aisle of the heavily restored medieval church of St John the Baptist in the centre of the town. Other windows in this same building include work by Lavers & Barnard, Clayton & Bell and the Belgian glass-painter, J. B. Capronnier.

As to be expected from the author of books about the Bromsgrove-based Arts and Crafts designer and painter artist A(rchibald) J(ohn) Davies (1877–1953) and the father/son firm of Albert and Peter Lemmon, Roy Albutt is particularly knowledgeable about the work of local stained glass artists.

Overall this is an attractive introduction to stained glass in this often neglected part of England and an excellent value for money guide to the churches it lists.


For the record, the author’s suggestion on page 3 that Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), a well-known eighteenth-century portrait and history painter, ‘painted a scheme of figures representing the virtues’ in the ante-chapel at New College, Oxford, is inexact. Reynolds designed the scheme; it was actually painted by the Irish-born glass painter Thomas Jervais, d. 1799.

The Stained Glass of St Augustine’s Church Ramsgate


Augustus Welby Pugin. Pugin chantry chapel, south window. © Catriona Baker

Fig. 1. Augustus Welby Pugin. Pugin chantry chapel, south window. © Catriona Baker

The Stained Glass of St Augustine’s Church Ramsgate, by Robin Fleet and Catriona Blaker, Potmetal Press, s/b, A4, 50 pages, many colour illustrations, 2010, £5 plus £1 p& p available by cheque from 28, Westfield Road, Margate, Kent, CT9 5NZ. Please make cheques payable to Robin Fleet.

This is a delightfully informative book about one of Augustus Welby Pugin’s (1812–1852) greatest – and most personal projects – the stained glass windows for the church he designed and built for Catholic worship near his home in Ramsgate, Kent.

They include some of the finest of his creations, as well as several diamond-shaped quarries from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, each painted with a single fleur-de-lis symbol, and some interesting sixteenth-century roundels he collected during his travels on the European continent.

The authors are particularly well qualified to describe and comment on these windows. Robin Fleet is a well-known lecturer on stained glass and a member of the Pugin Society. Catriona Blaker is a founder member of the Society and the author of several studies of Pugin in Kent. Both have contributed to past issues of Vidimus.  They make a good partnership. The book begins with a brief introduction to Pugin’s interest in medieval stained glass and his important relationship with the Birmingham-based artisan and businessman, John Hardman (1811–1867), whose firm made the windows in the church. This was a hugely fruitful collaboration for both men with Pugin becoming the firm’s chief designer, a role assumed after his tragically early death by John Hardman Powell (1827–1895, John Hardman’s nephew) and then by Powell’s son, Dunstan (1861–1932).

The bulk of the book is devoted to a window-by-window description of the glass in the church, cataloguing in each case the designer, date, cost and the subjects depicted. This is particularly important as the church was unfinished at the time of Pugin’s death and it took many years before the glazing scheme was completed by his successors at Hardmans. Among the highlights singled out by the authors is a wonderfully Pugin-style ‘medieval’ window which shows the architect kneeling in the pose of a medieval ‘donor’ and dressed in the robes of a Benedictine oblate while holding a model of the church he had ‘given’ as a standing figure of his name-saint, St Augustine, appears to touch his shoulder.

A brief bibliography concludes a book which is both an enjoyable guide for visitors to the church and an affordable addition to the literature about Pugin and the revival of medieval glass in the nineteenth century.

Further reading

  • S. A. Shepherd, The Stained Glass of A. W. N. Pugin. Photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox. Published by Spire Books, 2009. See Vidimus 32.
  • M. Fisher, Hardman of Birmingham, Goldsmith and Glasspainter, Landmark, 2008. See Vidimus 33.
  • R. Fleet, A Little Bit of Paris in Ramsgate. See Vidimus 22.

Name that Roundel! Solution

Dr Paul Taylor of the Warburg Institute writes:


Daniel Slays the Dragon

Fig. 1. Daniel Slays the Dragon

The roundel shows a scene from the Book of Daniel – the story of Bel and the Dragon.

It appears in the Catholic translation of the pre-Reformation Latin bible (known as the Douai- Rheims Bible) Daniel: Chapter 14, and can be found in the Apocrypha section of the 1611 King James English version. 

The roots of the story involve the deportation of the Jewish people to Persia. Daniel rises to become an advisor to the Persian king, Cyrus. In Chapter 14 he ridicules the Babylonian worship of false gods.

First, he exposes how their so-called living god Bel, is a fake. After the king had told him that Bel ate the food and drink that was given to him, Daniel waited until the priests had heaped offerings in front of the statute and then scattered ash around it. Returning in the morning the food had gone but the priests who had removed it via secret passage had left their footprints.

Having destroyed the illusion of one false God, Daniel turned to another.

According to the Douai – Rheims Bible:

‘And there was a great dragon in that place, and the Babylonians worshipped him. And the king said to Daniel: Behold thou canst not say now, that this is not a living god: adore him therefore.

And Daniel said: I adore the Lord my God: for he is the living God: but that is no living god But give me leave, O king, and I will kill this dragon without sword or club. And the king said: I give thee leave.

Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and boiled them together: and he made lumps, and put them into the dragon’s mouth, and the dragon burst asunder. And he said: Behold him whom you worshipped.’

See the Douay-Rheims Biblewebsite.

The circular building is the royal palace and the crowned figure is King Cyrus.


This roundel was mistakenly described as ‘St George and the Dragon’ by the late William Cole (1909–1997) in both his CVMA volume, A Catalogue of Netherlandish and North European Roundels in Britain, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 1, Oxford, 1993, p.2 and in his catalogue entries about the glass in W. Cole, ‘The Netherlandish Glass in St Mary’s Church, Addington, ‘Records of Buckinghamshire’ ,Vol XXII, 1980, cat number 63, page 90.  These entries should now be corrected. 

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