Panel of the Month

A Saint from Over the Seas?

A Virgin Martyr at St Clement’s, Outwell

Claire Daunton completed her PhD on the patronage and iconography of stained glass in late medieval Norfolk in 2009 at the University of East Anglia where she worked with CVMA author, David King. She is currently working on a book-length study ‘the meanings and measure of late medieval patronage’ and is based at Trinity Hall Cambridge.


Virgin martyr, St Clement's church. © Mike Dixon

Fig. 1. Virgin martyr (sIII D5), St Clement's church, Outwell. © Mike Dixon

Description Our panel consists of an image of a virgin martyr in the south east window (sIII D5) of the Lady Chapel in the church of St Clement, Outwell, north-west Norfolk [Fig. 1]. It is one of a series of tracery-light figures in a window whose construction probably dates from the late fifteenth century. The figure of the female saint, holding with one hand an exposed breast and with the other an instrument which resembles a flesh-hook, is wearing a blue dress with deep folds, the yellow sleeves of which, also with deep folds, are coloured with silver-stain. Her head is covered by a veil simply drawn on white glass with a silver-stain border. Her features are lightly sketched, with downcast eyes, broad nose and small mouth. She has a quiet, solid stillness. The figure stands against a bright red stencilled background.

The Church of St Clement

The large, imposing church of St Clement stands at a crossroads, close to a bridge over Well Creek in the fenland village of Outwell. Outwell, at the western edge of Norfolk on the border with Cambridgeshire, is equidistant from the inland port and market town of Wisbech and the North Sea port and market town of King’s Lynn. St Clement’s is the work of builders from the thirteenth to the late fifteenth centuries, and contains unique woodwork and glass from the late middle ages.  Its surviving glass dates from around 1490-1530. This part of England was prosperous in the late Middle Ages both on account of the fertility of the soil and of good communications by land and water. Prosperity, along with proximity to Wisbech and Lynn, and ease of communication with the continent and with London, provides the background to a consideration of the stained glass. Although little now remains of the medieval glazing schemes, there was sufficient intact in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to draw comment from antiquarians. William Cole’s manuscript notes, now in the British Library (BL MS 5809), and the published work of Francis Blomefield and Charles Parkin, amongst others, allow at least a partial reconstruction of the schemes.

The Beaupre, or Lady Chapel

There are chapels at the east end of the north and south aisles. Each is associated with one of the two leading gentry families of late medieval Outwell, the Beaupres and the Fynchams. Both families derived their wealth and social standing from landholding, mercantile interests in Lynn, and participation in the legal profession in Norfolk and London. Heraldry and the remains of a glazing scheme, along with testamentary evidence, indicate Fyncham patronage in the north chapel, whilst on the south side family tombs and the evidence of wills, link this chapel with the Beaupres from the mid fourteenth century. Dedicated to the Virgin, the chapel underwent refurbishment in the period 1490 -1510 as part of a campaign to remodel the south side of the church. The aisle was widened, windows were installed or enlarged and some fine decoration incorporated into a new roof. The east window of the Lady Chapel was remodelled and a new glazing scheme devised.

sIII, tracery lights

Fig. 2. Beaupre, or Lady Chapel, east window (sIII), tracery lights.

Much of the tracery glass survives in this east window, including images of God the Father, deacons and virgin martyrs; there are also royal saints associated with East Anglia- St Edmund, St Oswald, St Olaf, St Walstan, set alongside an image of St Edward the Confessor [Fig. 2].

Although no heraldic or other markers to associate the scheme with the Beaupres are in evidence, the close link between the family and this part of the church over many generations suggest that its installation was, perhaps, the product of a life-time gift by Nicholas Beaupre, head of the family during the refurbishment period. His will of 1513 asks that he be buried in the Lady Chapel, the place where he knelt at his prayer desk and where his ancestors had worshipped and been laid to rest.

Nicholas Beaupre’s will provides some insight into the man, his family and the possible control he might have had over the appearance of the Lady Chapel. Although he asks for some of his benefactions to be made in secret, as directed in the Gospels, yet he provides a very detailed description of others. These include a description the cloth to be used for a vestment (a cope) in memory of himself and his wife and the details of the embroidery on it depicting Eucharistic emblems alongside his own coat of arms and that of his wife. The will paints a picture of someone who is conventionally but convincingly pious, who did in fact kneel and pray in the chapel where his forebears had worshipped; and of someone who was also very conscious of his social status. He had married well and was proud of the connections this marriage had brought him, across the counties of East Anglia. It was perhaps for this reason that the local royal saints were included; and, given the period, the scheme might well have been influenced by one or more milestones in the life of the Tudor dynasty. Alongside the royal saints with local connections were virgin martyrs, such as St Faith and St Ursula and deacons, St Lawrence and St Stephen, with a more universal appeal. Amongst the female saints one stands out as difficult to identify; but before considering possible identifications, let us look more closely at stylistic influences.

Continental Influence

The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, 1490s. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Fig. 3. The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, Flanders, 1490s. © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The glazing here cannot be characterised easily. The colouring, the modelling of the figures and the painting of features are unlike anything in the region; and few parallels have been found elsewhere. The rather squat, naïve figures are closer in style to figures in Flemish roundels of the period than to glazing produced in England. The example shown here, from a Flemish workshop influenced by the painter Hugo van der Goes, depicts Abraham blessing the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca [Fig. 3].

It has been dated to the period c.1480-1500, precisely the period at which the Beaupre chapel was being refashioned. As Penny Hebgin-Barnes has commented in her introduction to the CVMA volumes on the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire, the constant copying of images in mass-produced prints and illustrated books of the period, might have played a part in introducing a coarser type of imagery. Fine detail, however, remained the hallmark of the high quality work from leading Flemish workshops. Although little remains of English glass of this period it shows little innovation; and, admittedly with little comparative material on which to judge, does not measure up to the sophistication of the continental output. It is likely that the scheme at Outwell, somewhat clumsily modelled, was the work of a local glazier, perhaps based in Lynn, who had access to continental models, but could not interpret these as well as his counterparts overseas. There is scant evidence of work from Lynn at this date, but it is interesting to note that the head of a male figure in the same style remains in the glazing (SIV) at nearby Wiggenhall St Mary.

St Agatha or St Martina?

In a parish-church scheme of virgin martyrs of this date it is not unusual to find the figure of St Agatha, such as appears in the tracery lights of a south-aisle window in the church of St Margaret, Cley, Norfolk [Fig. 4], in the east window of St Peter Hungate, Norwich [Fig. 5], and on the font at All Saints Hemblington, Norfolk [Fig. 6].

St Agatha, St Margaret's church, Cley. © Mike Dixon

Fig. 4. St Agatha (sIX A1), St Margaret's church, Cley. © Mike Dixon

St Agatha (I 1b), St Peter Hungate, Norwich.

Fig. 5. St Agatha (I 1b), St Peter Hungate, Norwich.

Agatha was an early Christian saint tortured for her faith with hooks, whose breasts were cut off, but miraculously healed. Amongst her other attributes she was invoked against diseases of the breast. In East Anglian iconography of the late Middle Ages Agatha was shown with her breasts bared over her dress, as in the schemes cited above. What we see in the figure at Outwell, however, is something quite different: one breast is fully bared and supported by a hand; the other hand holds what looks like a pitchfork or flesh hook. Another saint who, according to legend, was tortured and martyred with sword and hooks and whose breasts were cut off was St Martina. Although little known before the discovery of relics in Rome in the seventeenth century, and never included in the list of virgin martyrs named in the Mass, or in the litany of the saints, Martina was the subject of a 33,000-verse life composed by a German monk, Hugo von Langenstein at the end of the thirteenth century. This combined legend with theological commentary and exhortatory passages. Von Langenstein was a member of the order of Teutonic knights and copies of his life of St Martina was circulated through their network, including in towns where there were Hanse steelyards such as Lynn. The few images in surviving copies show a generic female saint with martyr’s palm, sometimes accompanied by another saint or Christ; there is no pictorial reference to the manner of her martyrdom. The lack of any iconographical record for Martina is puzzling since Von Langenstein’s work clearly enjoyed some level of popularity, and has engaged scholars in later periods. Martina, however, never enjoyed the more popular status as the other saints favoured by the Order, St Elisabeth of Thuringia and St Barbara, even though she was chosen as a particular patron. The details of St Martina’s martyrdom are the stuff of legend, mirroring those of other virgin martyrs of the early church; and the relics found in 1634 beneath a church in Rome dedicated to her could not be definitively attributed. As a result her feast was removed from the Roman calendar, during the reforms of the 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council. The similarity in manner of her death with that of St Agatha must be noted and the fact that as one was invoked against diseases of the breast, the other came to be invoked by nursing mothers, which fits the depiction here rather better.

St Agatha, font, All Saints, Hemblington

Fig. 6. St Agatha, north face of font, All Saints, Hemblington

The case against attributing the name of St Martina to this image is evident.  Even after the rearrangement of figures that took place during periods of restoration, it is possible to reconstruct much, if not all, of the tracery-light scheme in the south east window, but some ambiguity remains. The royal saints with their standard emblems are easily recognisable individually and as a group, as are St Lawrence with his gridiron, St Ursula with her arrows, and St Faith with her saw. The remaining figure of a virgin martyr does not follow the usual portrayal of St Agatha: she is not baring her breasts in the usual way, she is not holding a book, and the instrument in her hand could be interpreted as a flesh hook or pitchfork.  Ambiguity concerning emblems might, of course, have disappeared when the scheme could be seen as a whole.

Given that, in terms of style at least, the glazier was taking his cue from continental models, he may well have been providing a poor interpretation of a cartoon of St Agatha. A fifteenth-century statue of St Agatha of German origin in Aosta Cathedral portrays her with both breasts bared over her inner garment, in precisely the same manner as at Cley or Hemblington. Other contemporary images, however, show her fully clothed holding one or both of her breasts on a dish or between pincers. Are we, in the glazing scheme at Outwell looking at a rather clumsy portrayal of St Agatha, or an attempt to portray a saint, Martina, whose popularity and reputation rested solely on a work written for the Teutonic order?

The iconography and design of the tracery light scheme reflect an interest in the local as well as an attraction to new styles and the influence of continental developments. Experimentation in style and design, a desire for the new as an expression of status as well as devotion, would have appealed to Nicholas Beaupre. The scheme at Outwell might have provided an opportunity for a unique illustration of St Martina, or perhaps more likely a local and naïve, but unusual, interpretation of the better-known saint, Agatha?


This article is based on work undertaken for my doctoral thesis. I acknowledge the assistance and advice of David King who is currently preparing the CVMA catalogue for Norfolk, which is being published incrementally in digital form on the CVMA (GB) website. His catalogue entry for St Clement’s, Outwell can be viewed in the digital publications section of the CVMA (GB) website.

Further Reading

F. Blomefield and C. Parkin, An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, Volume 7, Norwich, 1805-10

J. Caen and K. Berserik, Silver Stained Roundels and Unipartite Panels before the French Revolution in Flanders: I. The Province of Antwerp. CVMA Belgium, Turnhout, 2007

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

P. Hebgin-Barnes, The Medieval Stained Glass of Lancashire, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 8, Oxford, 2009

T.J. Husband, The Luminous Image: Painted Glass Roundels in the Lowlands, 1480-1540 , New York, 1995

J. Meindl-Weiss, Eine Vergessene Heilige: Studien zur Martina Hugos von Langenstein, Frankfurt, 2002

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