In St Hildeburgh’s Church at Hoylake is a lovely war memorial window by Margaret. It shows a medieval knight holding a shield with a red cross. Behind the figure are lilies, and boats crossing a seascape. Above are doves, and below an inscription, ‘Put on the whole armour of God’.
As befitting an ‘Arts & Crafts’ period church, the window is low on the wall in the side-chapel, with the bottom of the light at eye-level, and the figure is life-size.
And it is a mystery.
Who is the knight? Is the knight male or female?
What do the elements in the window represent?
The light is a companion piece to another window (by a different artist). Why did Captain James Getty – to whom the windows are dedicated – require two window memorials, side by side?
Why is this window here at all? It is in an Anglican church – yet, apart from this instance, Marga took commissions only from Catholic churches (unless there was a family connection).
First – who is the figure? The red cross on the shield would indicate St George, but there is no dragon. Anyway, there is already a stained-glass St George in the church.
So art-historians Pevsner and the Armstrongs simply describe the figure as “a knight”. The cross on the shield thus becomes just simply a symbol of Englishness.
But… yet… the excellent guidebook to the church describes the figure as St Joan Of Arc …!
Joan Of Arc was the fifteenth century female warrior saint who led French armies in battle (and wore armour).
We visited Hoylake to speak to the church’s current archivist, who explained that the attribution is one long-held in Hoylake, but that the last archivist, who might know the secret of why this is, had recently died.
Could it be St Joan??
The fact that the figure is medieval and a knight is not really an indicator. In fact, at this time, artists looked back to the Age of Chivalry in many war memorials. (It seems rather bizarre to do this, when one remembers how brutal WW1 was, but they did.)
However, the face of the figure is certainly androgynous.
The lilies in the background are symbols of virginity (as well as France), both attributable to Joan, and they also remind us of her personal battle-standard – because Joan “…had a standard whose field was sown with lilies”.
The inscription, ‘Put on the whole armour of God’ (from the letters of St Paul) echoes the divine instructions that Joan heard in her internal ‘voices’.
Apart from the doves (of peace?), there is no overt reference to World War One.
And by the time this window is said to have been created (in 1919?), St Joan was on a roll.
In fact, the figure of St Joan had become incredibly popular by the early 1900s, not just in France but England too. She was being adopted by ‘new women’ as a representation of female strength, independence and ability. Actresses (such as Ellaline Terriss, right, in 1911) lined up to have themselves photographed as Joan.
Joan was adopted by the suffragette movement in the decade up to the First World War.
In the Catholic faith (Marga was Catholic), Joan’s popularity was so prevalent that she was beatified in 1909, and canonized as a saint in 1920. (However, Anglicans revere her too).
Another allusion to consider is that by this time, even Catholic women, usually so conservative, were actively taking part in the suffrage movement, having formed the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society in 1911. The society was re-named The Saint Joan’s International Alliance in 1923…
In the art of the time; St Joan was equally popular. She was even depicted by the great Christopher Whall – another convert to Catholicism – in a famous 1922 stained-glass piece.
Could Margaret, by ‘hiding’ St Joan in this window, have been making a veiled reference to women’s equality in this window?*
It’s tempting to read these sorts of allusions into this window. Artists have, for centuries, buried hidden meanings into their artworks, and Marga was not only well aware of this tradition; she practised it quite a lot, too.
But, it is all speculation until further research is done.
The window contains other features that need explaining.
The field of pansies at the knight’s feet: pansies are often used as symbols of remembrance, which would suit a memorial window of course.
The boats & seascape behind the knight (see pic above): Hoylake Church is at the far end of the Wirral Peninsula and less than a mile from the coast. Was the infantry captain James Getty, to whom the window is dedicated, a keen sailor in peacetime?
The other window dedicated to Getty in the chapel: this shows an angel crowning a young man, a more typical subject for a war-memorial window of the time. Why did Getty’s parents want a second window, and why did they agree to Marga’s very ambiguous artwork?
In the end, though, past all the puzzles, the window is also a lovely work reminding us that Margaret was at the height of her powers around this period.
The metallic blue tinge of the armour is finely created in glass, while the detail of the armour is painstakingly painted.
It has to be seen in sunlight of course…when the red and blue colour combination produces an intensity of power ‘behind’ the strong stillness of the human figure.
Perhaps, taken all in all, it is an amalgam.
It seems to be depicting, in both the art and the meanings, an idea of the Glory Of Service In the Pursuit of Right – something that Captain Getty, St Joan and also Margaret herself would have seen as a central driving force to their lives.
ADDENDA – thanks to everyone who has contacted us with more evidence of the place of St Joan Of Arc, during Marga’s lifetime, in inspiring women seeking equality.
~John Tober said: “You may be amazed (I was) to know that there is a photograph from 1895 of Sainte Thérèse de Lisieux – dressed as Jeanne d’Arc!” Saint Therese was one of Marga’s role-models.
~MConnell pointed out that suffragettes were often seen dressed as Joan Of Arc in demonstrations pre-1914. The two most famous were Elsie Howey from Cradley (in Staffordshire, less than 100 miles from Marga in Shrewsbury) and Marjorie Annan Bryce, who, as well as dressing in ‘armour’ would each ride a white horse too!
~In 1896, when Marga was fourteen, Mark Twain published his last novel, Joan Of Arc, a surprisingly sympathetic account of the saint’s story.
~George Bernard Shaw’s play is, arguably, the most famous Joan Of Arc artwork of the time. It could not have influenced Marga’s depiction of the knight though, as it was only performed in 1923, four years after it’s thought that the window was installed. But – it does reinforce the fact that the Saint Joan figure was in the zeitgeist.
~SK quoted for us the words of The Suffragette magazine from May 1913: “Joan Of Arc is the militant women’s ideal… they recognise [in her] the same spirit as that which strengthens them to risk their liberty and endure torture for the sake of freedom.”
If you wish to comment on this article, please leave your thoughts in the comments-box below. All comments welcome!
Once again – my apologies for some of my photos. Stained-glass, in its lit form, is very hard to capture well! Thanks to Arthur Rope though for the one decent photo…
*(See also our article on Marga & The New Woman).