The Friars in Medieval Britain

The Friars in Medieval Britain, edited by Nicholas Rogers, Harlaxton Medieval Studies,Volume XIX, Shaun Tyas, Donnington, 2010, cloth hardback, xii + 356 pages, 44 illus including colour plates) £49.50.

Fig. 1. The Friars in Medieval Britain

Fig. 1. The Friars in Medieval Britain

Shaun Tyas is one of the unsung heroes of British publishing. For more than twenty years he has published a remarkable number of specialist books, including many of great interest to medieval historians and to lovers of stained glass. This volume, edited by Nicholas Rogers, is no exception, consisting of nineteen essays about the role of the four orders of friars (also known as mendicant, or ‘begging’, orders) friars in medieval Britain.

The first to arrive were the Dominicans (black friars) in 1221. Thereafter Franciscans (grey friars) landed in 1224, followed by the Carmelites (white friars) in 1242. The Austin Friars also reached England in the 1240s. They were followed by Friars of the Sack (so-called after their coarse simple robes) and the Pied Friars, two smaller orders which were dissolved and told to merge with one of the principal orders at the second Council of Lyon in 1274. [Fig. 1] By the 1530s there were 53 houses of Dominicans in England; 6 houses of Observant and 54 of Conventual Franciscans; 37 houses of Carmelites and 34 houses of Austin Friars. There was also one priory of Dominican nuns and three of Franciscan nuns (Minoresses). [Fig. 1]

For Vidimus readers, the highlight of this always interesting volume will be David King’s pioneering essay on the glazing of mendicant churches, particularly in East Anglia. After suggesting that the most important mendicant glazing scheme in England may have been a thirty-six window scheme in the Franciscan church in London, mainly donated in the fourteenth century by, among others, Edward III (1327–1377) [see also Further Reading], he uses evidence from East Anglia to explore a range of questions, including whether there was a specific mendicant iconography for window glass and whether any of the glass was made by the friars themselves.

Much of the evidence consists of excavated glass. Fragments from the site of a former Carmelite house in Norwich (Norfolk) include parts of a heraldic shield with the arms of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, while pieces from the Ipswich (Suffolk) Carmelite house suggest that some of the glass may have been painted by the friars there. The largest amount of excavated glass was recovered from the Cambridge house of the Franciscans and included figures of the Annunciation, Virgin and Child and The Crucifixion.

Fig. 2. Beatrice of Valkenburg (Burrell Collection). © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

Fig. 2. Beatrice of Valkenburg (Burrell Collection). © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

Documentary sources are also considered. The best known example of a lost scheme is the east window of the Augustinian church in Norwich, given in 1419 by Sir Thomas Erpingham, one of the heroes of the battle of Agincourt (1415). It consisted of more than eighty shields commemorating the lords, barons, bannerets and knights who had died without issue in Norfolk and Suffolk since the coronation of Edward III, suggesting affinities between the upper class and friary churches in the fifteenth century.

Records of the Norwich Dominican church also document painted glass, with an image of St Katherine in the east window, perhaps part of a larger scheme of standing saints flanking the Crucifixion, like that on the well-known so-called Thornham Parva Retable. Almost certainly made for an East Anglian Dominican house in the 1330s, this painted backdrop for an altar is itself the subject of a separate chapter in the volume by Nicholas Rogers.

More documentary evidence about mendicant glazing can be found in a will of 1452 in which the testator asks to be buried in the church of the Dominicans in Norwich near the ‘fenestram vitriatam cum historia psalmi magnificat’ interpreted by Professor Richard Marks as meaning a window similar to the Magnificat window in the north transept of Great Malvern Priory (Worcs), which contained eleven scenes from the Life of the Virgin (Further reading: Marks). Focusing on some surviving glass in the parish church of St Peter and St Paul at Salle (Norfolk) David King suggests that it could also have meant a scheme combining the Visitation together with personifications of Justice and Peace, Truth and Mercy, based on Psalm 84 in the Vulgate bible.

King also discusses extant glazing made for mendicant houses. This includes a series of ten roundels showing busts of Carmelite friars, now in Queen’s College, Cambridge, and a panel now in the Burrell collection in Glasgow depicting Beatrix of Valkenburg, which he argues came not from the Oxford Greyfriars as traditionally thought, but from the Norwich house of that order. [Fig. 2]

Apart from David King’s essay, other references to mendicant stained glass in the same volume can be found in the contribution by Julian Bowsher and Bruce Watson to a chapter on the mendicant houses of London, in which they mention that the Observant Franciscan foundation at Greenwich (London) apparently included stained glass in the east window depicting Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth in their capacity as founders of the friary (p. 285).

Overall this book is packed with informative essays and fascinating information about the friars who, while often lampooned in popular literature, were also a distinctive – and much admired – feature of medieval life.

Further reading

R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages, London, 1993, pp. 84–85.

For more information about the glazing of the London Franciscan house see: E. B. S. Shepherd, ‘The church of the Friars Minor in London’, Archaeological Journal, 59, 1902.

Name that Roundel! Solution

Dr Paul Taylor of London’s Warburg Institute writes:

Fig. 1. Mucius Scaevola killing Porsenna’s secretary: Parish church of St Oswald, Malpas (Cheshire) © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 1. Mucius Scaevola killing Porsenna’s secretary: Parish church of St Oswald, Malpas (Cheshire) © Gordon Plumb.

This roundel was listed as an ‘unidentified scene’ by the late Dr William Cole (1909–1997) in his catalogue of Netherlandish roundels in Britain (Further reading: Cole). Although I cannot be absolutely certain, the scene appears to show a famous episode from the legendary history of Rome: Mucius Scaevola killing Porsenna’s secretary. [Fig 1]

According to the historian Titus Livius (59 BC–AD 17), generally known as Livy in English, when Rome was besieged by the Etruscans, a brave Roman youth known as Gaius Mucius infiltrated the enemy camp and tried to assassinate the enemy king, Lars Porsenna (Porsinna). Unfortunately the plot failed when Mucius killed the king’s secretary by mistake and was then immediately captured by Estruscan soldiers. Brought before Porsenna, Mucuis spoke defiantly and pre-empted his intended execution by voluntarily thrusting his right hand into a fire and letting it burn without showing the slightest trace of weakness. Impressed by his courage, Porsenna released Mucius. From that moment on, Mucius was nicknamed Scaevola (‘left hand’). The story is told in Livy The History of Rome, Book 2, Chapter 12.

The roundel appears to show Gaius Mucius killing the secretary and subsequently being brought before Porsenna. [Fig 1]

The roundel was among a number of fine sixteenth-and seventeenth century panels given to the church by the 2nd Marquess of Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’) in 1847. They are illustrated and described in Penny Hebgin-Barnes’ superb study of The Medieval Stained Glass of Cheshire. The roundel was probably moved to its present location in window nXI 1b in the mid-1950s by the Norwich-based glazing firm of G. King &Sons, (Further reading: Hebgin-Barnes). The Dutch CVMA author, Dr C. J. Berserik has dated the roundel to c. 1530 and attributed it to the Pseudo- Ortkens workshop.

Vidimus is extremely grateful to Dr Taylor for his generous help with his item.

Further Reading

– W. Cole. A Catalogue of Netherlandish and North European Roundels in Britain, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 1, Oxford, 1993, cat. Item 1161, p. 144

– P. Hebgin-Barnes, The Medieval Stained Glass of Cheshire, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 9, Oxford, 2010

To see other images from the church of St Oswald at Malpas see the CVMA Picture archive.

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