One of the disconcerting aspects of accepted history is how often it turns out to be wrong – and thus needs correcting. This idea has been proved right again, in the (new) interpretation of one of Margaret Rope’s most famous stained-glass windows.
Her so-called ‘Congress Window’ in Shrewsbury Cathedral turns out to be very wrongly labelled.
Roger Hall, an expert in the interpretation of Margaret Rope’s windows, shares his findings with us…
When I began my researches into the Shrewsbury Cathedral windows ten years ago, it was an accepted ‘fact’ that the large window group to the left of the altar in the cathedral included a depiction of a ‘Eucharistic Congress’ in London, some time in the early twentieth century.
Such gatherings were international events organised by the Catholic Church to promote devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
Thus the window (see pic right) became known as ‘The Congress Window’ – and is still known as such in visitor guides (even in the one I wrote myself back then, called ‘Letting In The Light Of Christ’).
However, research always continues: one development that has helped the art-historian in recent years is undoubtedly the growth of the internet – there is far more available online now than ten years ago.
I decided to re-research the Congress Window, and concentrated on the two lights second from the top of the group – these two gave the window its title.
One obvious fact to re-check in them was the date: Marga has left us a clear indication of the date of the scenes she depicts… the window inscription says MAIUS MCMXXI (May 1921). She has also included a London bus in her scenes, thus pinning down the location.
To my surprise, my further researches on this window revealed something rather alarming – there was no Eucharistic Congress in London in 1921! There was one in London in 1908, but not in 1921.
So what was going on in London in May 1921 that had attracted Marga’s attention?
The archive of the Catholic journal ‘The Tablet’ contains a most illuminating issue (dated 7 May 1921). This points to a new, more accurate interpretation of the scenes in those two lights.
On the afternoon of 1st May 1921, The Tablet reports, London saw the annual procession in honour of all the Catholic martyrs who died for their faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, especially those who died on the Tyburn gallows then in the centre of the city.
The scene which Margaret Rope depicts, outside Tyburn Convent (built later, near the site of the old gallows) is that as described exactly in The Tablet- she has even shown the traffic being held up.
This also explains why there are two Benedictine nuns praying in one of the other lights, the one right in the centre of the window group; they are Tyburn Convent nuns.
Margaret Rope might well even have been there at this event. She was living in London at the time; and knew the convent at Tyburn very well, having been commissioned to do a series of small roundels for it some years previous.
Changing the name
The question thus arises: what should we call the window group now?
One might as well return to the window’s full meaning, which one sees in the main section (see pic, below).
The scenes here remember the 16th century project by the Catholic Church to reconvert England (which had turned away from Catholicism during the reign of Henry VIII). A whole system was put into place to train up young English priests on the continent and then to send them back into England where they could work as ‘undercover’ missionaries. Many of them however were discovered, and were executed for treason by the Protestant authorities – martyrs for their Catholic faith.
So, it could be renamed ‘The English Martyrs Window’ – but… this might confuse it with the cathedral’s Great West Window, which shows the most famous of this country’s Catholic martyrs over the last 1500 years.
What about the ‘Tyburn Window’? After all, it shows the Tyburn Walk, Tyburn Convent and the executions at the ‘Tyburn Tree’, as the old gallows was known in the sixteenth century. However, some of the martyrs depicted in the window were not actually executed at Tyburn.
The blanket term for what is happening in the window is that of the ‘English Mission’ – the title for the project to reconvert England to Catholicism.
One suggestion therefore for a new name is the ‘Martyrs of the English Mission Window’ – though it might be just simpler to say ‘The English Mission Window’.
It’s hoped that the Shrewsbury Cathedral authorities will report a decision on a new name later in the year.
* A new description and fuller exposition by Roger Hall of this window – in detail – is now included on the definitive Margaret Agnes Rope website. See Marga’s Shropshire windows
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