Thomas Willement’s royal windows

Thomas Willement (1786–1871) was, to quote from his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “pre-eminent among a small group of stained-glass artists, who, in the early nineteenth century, utilized the medieval method of making a stained-glass window from separate pieces of coloured glass bound together with lead strips, rather than, as with eighteenth-century artists, using coloured enamels to paint pictures on glass”.1

In July 1840 the Dean and Canons of Windsor commissioned Willement to design and install four heraldic windows in the Quire in honour of the Knights of the Garter, two on the south side and two on the north, continuing the sequence of windows commenced by Francis Eginton in 1781. Willement,  who was an expert in heraldry as well an accomplished stained glass artist, was an ideal choice for the work, although he made it clear that he wished to design the windows himself, rather than following Eginton’s plainer eighteenth century style. Indeed he made this a condition of his involvement, writing to Canon Cust, the Canon Steward, on 17 July 1840:
Pray use your powerful interest that the Dean’s proposition that the new windows should match the old may not be put into practice, as it would totally prevent me from having anything to do with [the] job- which I am most anxious for, if it can be done by work which will not hurt my reputation.2

The Dean and Canons must have agreed to his terms, for Willement was employed by them for over twenty years, from 1840 to 1861.   During this period, he designed and completed a total of thirty new stained glass windows – ten in the Quire Clerestory, fifteen in the Quire Aisles and five in the Lincoln Chapel –in addition to his restoration of the Great West Window and of several windows in the Oliver King and Beaufort Chapels. All but one of these new windows – the east window in the South Quire Aisle depicting “The Carrying of the Cross” – remain intact.

The series of fourteen windows in the North and South Quire Aisles, of which Willement claimed to be proudest, is of particular antiquarian interest. Depicting members of the English monarchy from the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377) to King William IV (1830-37), Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessor, the sequence emphasised the legitimacy and religious orthodoxy of the English Crown; significantly omitting the last Yorkist king, Richard III, and the post-Reformation Roman Catholic monarchs, Mary I and James II.  A manuscript notebook held in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC XVII.9.9], which was compiled by Willement during his employment at Windsor, indicates the wide-ranging sources he used as models for the stained glass royal portraits, whilst his meticulous heraldic research is evidenced by the accuracy of the coats of arms used in his windows throughout the Chapel.

The designs for the “royal windows” in the North and South Quire Aisles follow a similar pattern although they were completed over ten years, from 1844 to 1854.3 The first window installed, in 1844 in the South Quire Aisle, depicts King Henry VI and his Queen Consort, Margaret of Anjou in the central panels of the central row of the three layered window, supported by St George and St Margaret on either side. The top row includes heraldic badges and coats of arms of both the King and Queen, whilst the bottom row windows contain references to the religious and educational activities of the King, including the arms of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. The neighbouring window, completed in 1846, centres on portraits of King Henry VIII and his favourite Queen, Jane Seymour, with their son Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VI) to their left and Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on their right. The top row windows depict their arms and heraldic badges, whilst the bottom range includes the arms of the six bishoprics founded by the King Henry VIII, an open Bible and the arms of Trinity College, Cambridge. The omission of King Henry VIII’s eldest child, Princess Mary, from the window is deliberate. The final window to be installed , in 1854 in the North Quire Aisle, commemorates the reign of King William IV and his Queen Consort, Queen Adelaide.

The nature and significance of Willement’s stained glass in St George’s Chapel has been assessed in an seminal article by Sarah Brown.  A visit to the Chapel reinforces her enthusiasm for the skilful work of this “under-rated artist”.4

1 Stanley A Shepherd, Willement, Thomas (1786–1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29440, accessed 20 Oct 2005]
2 SGC M.166/1
3 A description of the North and South Quire Aisle windows in contained in an article by Clive Wainwright, ‘Thomas Willement’s Stained Glass Windows in the Choir Aisles’, in the Annual Report of the Society of the Friends of St George’s and Descendants of the Knights of the Garter, 1972.
4 Sarah Brown,  ‘“So Perfectly Satisfactory”: The Stained Glass of Thomas Willement’, in A History of the Stained Glass of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle ed. S Brown (2005) p.111

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.