Much of the beautiful wood- and stone-work in the quire of St George’s Chapel dates back to the Chapel’s construction in the late-fifteenth century. However, the eye of any visitor is inevitably drawn by much more modern works: the alabaster reredos, decorated in coloured marbles and gilding, and the stained glass east window. These were designed and erected in the 1860s as a memorial to Prince Albert, the Consort of Queen Victoria, who died suddenly of an illness in December 1861.
This reredos and altarpiece did not replace the original medieval features of the quire, but instead provided the Dean and Canons with an opportunity to replace some unpopular Georgian designs. A wooden reredos and painted glass window had been installed in the 1780s on the instructions of King George III and at considerable expense, but had come to be known as “the acknowledged eye-sore in England’s most beautiful Gothic Chapel”.
In February 1862, Dean Gerald Wellesley wrote to his colleagues proposing that the Dean and Canons petition Queen Victoria to be allowed to put up a window as a private and personal memorial to Prince Albert, placed as near to where he was buried as possible. He pointed out that the Dean and Canons had more than £2000 in the Altar and Window Fund.
This fund was collected from fees paid by new Knights of the Garter at their installation, but the Knights were becoming disgruntled at paying into a fund that was never used. However, the restricted nature of the funds meant that the Dean and Canons could not put the money towards general charitable purposes. This proposed project gave them the perfect opportunity to put the fund to a good use on both a window and an altar. The Dean further observed that, in light of the intimate connection that the Dean and Canons had shared with the Queen and the Prince Consort, it was fitting that they should erect a memorial to him. They agreed that this would be a fair use of the funds, provided they left a sufficiency to their successors.
Correspondence about the financing and design of the window and reredos between Dean Wellesley and two of his colleagues – Canon Anson and Canon Courtenay – is held in St George’s Chapel Archives under reference numbers SGC XVII.31.74 and SGC XVII.61.20 (d and f).
George Gilbert Scott was appointed as architect for the project. He worked with illustrations of the medieval design of the east end, found in Elias Ashmole’s Order of the Garter, to try to reconstruct the window tracery as it had originally been. Such an approach was in-keeping with the Gothic Revival in fashion at the time and would no doubt have met with Prince Albert’s approval. Artists Clayton and Bell were appointed to make the stained glass. It was to be filled with saints and Biblical figures who had inspired the Prince during his life, surrounding the central themes of the Adoration of the Magi, the Resurrection, the Archangels and Christ in Glory.
At the base of the window, fourteen small lights depicted “incidents of public and domestic worth in the life of a prince”; a direct tribute to the life and achievements of Prince Albert. Their subjects include education, improving housing for the poor, art, industry and fatherhood. The Prince Consort’s coat of arms forms the centre of this sequence.
Below the window, the carving of the reredos was overseen by sculptor John Birnie Philip, who reported that he had sixty or seventy men working for him on the commission! The original design for this reredos included seven sculptures in relief depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ.
On 10 March 1863, the wedding of the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (later King Edward VII) was celebrated in St George’s Chapel. Incredibly, the new east window and the central part of the reredos were already completed by this time. The incomplete portions of the reredos were concealed behind hangings, which can be seen in this painting in the Royal Collection.
In spite of this remarkably quick achievement, six years later the work had still not been finished. In 1869, Canon Courtenay wrote to the Dean expressing his concerns about the intended design. He felt that seven sculptures in plain alabaster would be “a blot” on the east end. He suggested instead that the three central sculptures – each depicting a meeting of Jesus with his followers after the Resurrection – should be gilded to vary the whiteness of the alabaster. Meanwhile, the two sculptures intended for either side were discarded. In their place were erected two quartets of angels’ heads, gilded and surrounded by coloured marble borders. The heads in the top row are of seraphim and those on the bottom row are of four archangels: Michael Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Letters show that Dean Wellesley and Canon Anson expressed some unease about the inclusion of the archangels that appear only in the Apocrypha and not the Old or New Testaments, but it is clear from the altarpiece today that Canon Courtenay’s vision prevailed!
Kate McQuillian, Archivist and Chapter Librarian