Encounters with Stained Glass – The Stanbury Chapel, Hereford Cathedral

Pat Triggs reflects on the heavenly light of Hereford Cathedral…

by Pat Triggs

In the north choir aisle of Hereford Cathedral, opposite the imposing tomb of John Stanbury, Bishop of Hereford from 1453 until 1474, is a low door. A notice invites you in for prayer and reflection.  This is the Stanbury chapel  – first a joy, then a puzzle and finally the source of a wry smile or cynical question. Well, it was for me when I encountered it on May 12th this year (the timing is not irrelevant).

Photo: Pat Triggs

It is a tiny, intimate space with exquisite fan vaulting crammed into every part of the ceiling. Part of the last medieval additions to the cathedral, the chapel was created in 1480 as a chantry where masses were said for the soul of the recently departed Bishop. It’s possible to sit, quiet, in the enfolding, enclosing space. Then, look around.  Sunlight illuminates two sequences of stained glass.

Beside you, are four panels (technically, lights) contained in gothic-style arches. Angels, a book,  someone reading; two men consulting architectural plans; a royal court dispensing something. In the final panel angels are streaming heavenly light on a building set among trees, fields and sheep, beside a river.

Then you notice a shield and the motto Floreat Etona. Why is Eton College being celebrated in Hereford Cathedral?  And in this beautiful little chapel?

Photo: Pat Triggs

The windows are the work of Archibald J. Davies, a member of the Bromsgrove Guild, associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. They were installed in 1923, when it seems the role of John Stanbury in the founding of Eton College was deemed to be worth commemorating. Was this his only achievement?

In 1440, long before he became a bishop, Stanbury, a rising academic cleric, became Confessor to Henry VI. About this time Henry, who had already established King’s College Cambridge, decided to found a charity school providing free education for 70 poor boys, who would then progress to King’s.  Stanbury supported the king’s ambition and was to be the first headmaster of the school, a post he never took up. The second light in Davies’ stained glass sequence shows the king and Stanbury with plans for the Eton college Chapel.  Like the chapel at King’s College in Cambridge this was intended to be remarkable: the nave was to be the longest in Europe. However, when Henry was deposed in 1461 all work on the college and chapel was stopped and resources royally directed elsewhere.  In John Stanbury’s lifetime nothing like the image of Eton college depicted in the fourth light was achieved. Only the much shorter nave of the chapel was complete with the lower storeys of the cloister and College Hall.  

Photo: Pat Triggs

For most of Stanbury’s time as Bishop of Hereford, Yorkists and Lancastrians were vying for power or in open conflict in the Wars of the Roses. He was a staunch Lancastrian: a member of the Royal Council for almost five years until 1457; captured at the battle of Northampton in 1460 and imprisoned in Warwick Castle. Edward IV finally took the throne and Henry died, or most probably was murdered, in 1471, only three years before the bishop died. In these years, heavenly light, streaming down on college or country, was in short supply.

What, I wondered as I left the chapel, would John Stanbury have made of this 1923 visual representation of events? Would he have predicted the rapid appropriation of an Eton College education by the fee-paying classes? And what might he have thought of the current behaviour of recent Eton alumni, prominent in government? 

Pat was in Hereford Cathedral as part of the day, organised by the Trips and Visits committee, which also included Ledbury and Hoarwithy.

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