How a Canadian helped save the West Window

The West Window, situated in the Nave of St. George’s Chapel, is one of the most memorable aspects of any visit to the Chapel. Thought to be the third largest stained glass window in the country, it contains seventy-five figures including popes, kings, princes and saints, all but six of which date from 1503 to 1509. It dominates any view of the western end of the Chapel, its grandeur and display of skill matched only by the great vaulted ceiling it stands beneath. However the window has at times come close to terrible disrepair and even complete destruction.

One of these instances was during and in the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-1651) until the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. The Civil War was not simply a matter of political ideologies. The division between supporters of Anglo-Catholicism and those of Protestantism was always at the fore, Charles I’s belief in the “Catholic” doctrine of “Divine Right to Rule” attracting the ire of a Protestant Parliament even before the events which led to the nine year conflict. In particular, Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power in the Parliamentarian movement brought with it a distinct Puritanical outlook. Twenty-four of the seventy-five figures in the West Window are popes, and ten are saints. It was assumed, quite fairly, that should the Puritanical Cromwellian army break into the Chapel, such symbols of Catholicism would never be left in peace, and would likely be destroyed. Indeed, when the army did assume control of Windsor Castle in 1642, Edward IV’s tomb was destroyed, and the Chapel stripped of many of its treasures, only one hundred and fourteen years after its completion. So, although there is no official record, it seems likely that the Deans and Canons had the glass lights from the West Window removed to a secure location before the occupation of the Castle took place, and restored them to their original place sometime after the Restoration – such an overt display of Catholic symbols would hardly have survived otherwise [see ‘Notes on the West Window’ by Anthony C Deane in the Report of the Friends of St George’s Chapel for 1940].

The stained glass was entirely removed one more time after its protective storage during the English Civil War, once again because of violent conflict. This time it was to protect it from the bombs of World War II. Indeed, not long after its removal in 1940, a bomb fell near the Great Western Railway Station in Windsor which would likely have caused irreparable damage to the window glass had it still been present [Friends’ Report 1945 p.14]. The cost of removing and storing the glass was entirely covered by what Albert Baillie, Dean of Windsor at the time, called “the generosity of special donors” [Friends’ Report 1940 p.7]. Such special donors included Mr R. Upjohn, who donated £500, approximately £14,000 in modern currency, the Hon. M. Watson and Mr E Olivier who donated £125 each, and a man enigmatically noted as ‘A Canadian in London’ who donated £1 [SGC M.927].

The stained glass was restored to its rightful place from November 1945 [SGC M.927]. Let us hope that such drastic measures never again need to be taken to protect what is surely one of Britain’s most striking Tudor monuments.

Tom Gray (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.