Panel of the Month

St Edward the Confessor: Robert Lyen’s Work at Exeter Cathedral

St Edward Confessor, Exeter Cathedral east window. © c b newham.

Fig. 1. St Edward Confessor, Exeter Cathedral east window. © c b newham.

This month’s panel is a tracery light from the east window of Exeter Cathedral, an institution whose documentary records reveal much about the way in which medieval glaziers worked. Unusually, our panel can be identified as the work of a glazier named in the records, the second to work on the window in less than a century.

Description of the panel

The panel of St Edward the Confessor measures 175 cm x 70cm and is located in the middle tier of the tracery of the east window. [Fig. 1] The king stands within a simple architectural niche framed by a foliate border. He is depicted wearing an ermine tippet and a full length ermine-lined red robe over a long-sleeved blue tunic. Bearded and crowned, he carries a sceptre in his left hand. His crown and sceptre are both executed in silver stain. Edward is identifiable by the ring in his right hand; according to his legend, this was the gift of St John the Evangelist.


The figure, which dates from 1391, is almost completely original apart from its right foot, which was replaced in the late nineteenth century. There have also been minor repairs using medieval glass to the tunic and mantle. In the 1980s the flashed ruby used for his robe was found to have suffered serious decay and so in order to recreate the original colour, a backing glass of modern ruby was laminated to each piece of the original by Alfred Fisher of Chapel Studios. The canopy and foliate border framing the figure, although early fourteenth-century in appearance, date from the nineteenth-century restoration.

History of the window

The East window, Exeter Cathedral © c b Newham

Fig. 2. The East window, Exeter Cathedral © c b Newham

Fig. 3. Figure of the Prophet Isaiah from the 1304 scheme, Exeter Cathedral east window, panel 2G

Fig. 3. Figure of the Prophet Isaiah from the 1304 scheme, Exeter Cathedral east window, panel 2G

The complicated history of the east window of Exeter Cathedral was elucidated by Chris Brooks and David Evans in 1988; what follows is based on their account (see Further Reading: Brooks and Evans). [Fig 2] Originally erected c1298–1301, when the east end of the cathedral was rebuilt, it had nine lights and was probably similar in form to the east window of Bristol Cathedral. Glazed first by Master Walter in 1304 , it suffered a large amount of masonry decay by the 1380s and had to be remade. [Fig 3] The new design, completed in 1390, involved carrying four central mullions to the head of the window, and adding strength by securing them with transoms. The resulting grid of Perpendicular tracery included two pairs of large apertures on either side of the window. In 1391 Robert Lyen was commissioned to glaze the new window, resetting the surviving early fourteenth-century glass and adding new panels – including our figure – where needed. He supplied a middle tier of figures and some heraldic shields. He retained all nine of Master Walter’s figures and canopies in the principal lights and three of the earlier glazier’s tracery light figures at the head of the window.

Unleaded head of St Edward Confessor during conservation.

Fig. 4. Unleaded head of St Edward Confessor during conservation.

After the Reformation the window suffered some iconoclasm, losing several figures in its lowest and middle tiers. In the eighteenth century two restorations (in 1750–51 and 1767–70) saw the introduction into the window of late medieval glass from elsewhere in the cathedral. Between 1894 and 1896 the Exeter glass-painter and cathedral glazier, Frederick Drake, completely restored the east window glass. Replacing many of the borders, canopies and heads of figures in an early fourteenth-century style, he gave the window a visual coherence it had never previously had. Between 1982 and 1986 the glass was conserved by Chapel Studios. [Fig 4]

Iconography and design

St Edward is one of the figures made by Robert Lyen in 1391 for the reconstructed east window. Three others – St Sidwell, St Helena and St Edmund – survive. They are arranged in pairs – Sidwell with Helena; Edward with Edmund – in the middle tier of the window, placed above Master Walter’s saints in the principal lights and below Walter’s Old Testament figures in the upper tracery lights. The two females are placed on the north side and the males are depicted on the south, forming two distinct pairs designed to correspond and relate to each other. The partners of each pair turn and face each other ‘visually establishing their discreteness’. The relationship is also furthered by Lyen’s use of colour. In our panel, the flashed ruby red of St Edward’s robe matches the colour of St Helena’s surcoat. The drawing characteristics also share similarities as the faces are both strongly sculptural with bold use made of smear shading, whilst the depiction of features are executed with fine detail (although some of these facial details may have been reworked by Frederick Drake in his 1884–96 restoration). Lyen’s figures, similar in style and design, are linked by their common – English – nationality and appear to have been particularly in vogue in the second half of the fourteenth century. Edward and Edmund were the favourite saints of Richard II; they are famously paired the Wilton diptych where the saints can be seen presenting the king to the Virgin. The symmetrical use of old and new glass in Lyen’s scheme gave a visual balance to the entire window. Aesthetically appealing, this was an effective way of overriding the problem of combining stained glass of two different dates and of two different styles. Most importantly, it created a relative unity to the iconography.

Patronage and production

Robert Lyen is one of relatively few documented English medieval glaziers whose surviving work can be identified with confidence. Another – the earliest in England – is Master Walter, who had provided the original glass for the east window. The cathedral’s records are unusually complete for the fourteenth-century medieval glazing programme and provide insights into the changing ways in which medieval institutions commissioned and maintained their fittings. When the cathedral glazed its newly built east window in 1304 it purchased glass ready-painted. Master Walter was engaged to set the glass. Although he oversaw all of the work, he was not a permanent employee of the cathedral; he was given one payment for the job rather than a fixed weekly salary. Brooks and Evans suggest that he belonged to the atelier that produced the ready-painted glass and obtained the raw materials, designed and leaded up the glass, in addition to finally setting it into the windows. Lyen, by contrast, was an employee of the cathedral from 28 April 1391. Recognising that its important windows required proper maintenance the cathedral engaged him on a weekly salary to ‘repair and amend all defects in the glass of the windows [providing] all glass and lead at his own cost and expense’. In a separate contract he was also commissioned to ‘new[ly] manufacture’ the east window, resetting the earlier glass inserted by Master Walter in 1304. Lyen was to pay for any new glass, but the chapter was to ‘find the things necessary in the case of the old glass’. Lyen would be paid on a weekly basis for setting the old glass. Brooks and Evans have demonstrated that significant quantities of the old glass survived and were retained, interesting evidence of the value accorded to the earlier glazing by the cathedral.

Drawing of a New College canopy.

Fig. 5. Drawing of a New College canopy.

Reconstruction of 1390s canopy.

Fig. 6. Reconstruction of 1390s canopy.

Robert Lyen had his own assistant to help with his work, was a freeman of the city of Exeter and had previously completed his own apprenticeship with one Thomas Glazier. The stained glass scholar, Richard Marks, has suggested similarities between Lyen’s glass and the work of Thomas Glazier at New College, Oxford (see Further Reading: Marks). Lyen’s canopies and bases – lost in Drake’s restoration – relate to those at New College; there are also similarities in the facial details and treatment of the draperies. [Figs 5 and 6] It is possible that Lyen learned his craft from the Oxford glazier. Emma Jane Wells

Further Reading

On Exeter Cathedral

  • F. Kelly (ed.), Medieval Art and Architecture at Exeter Cathedral, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions, XI, Leeds, 1991
  • N. Orme, Exeter Cathedral: As it Was 1050–1550, Exeter, 1986.
  • N. Pevsner and B. Cherry, The Buildings of England: Devon, Harmondsworth, 1991

On the east window

  • C. Brooks and D. Evans, The Great East Window of Exeter Cathedral: A Glazing History, Exeter, 1998
  • F. W. Skeat, ‘The Vanished Glass of Exeter Cathedral’, Journal of Stained Glass, XI, 1953, pp. 80–88

On the panel

  • J. Alexander and P. Binski (eds.), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200–1400, London, 1987

On stained glass in general

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

Comments are closed.