Of all the 25 stained glass windows in the church of St Andrew, Holt, in Norfolk, the one I find most admirable and coherent depicts Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury.
Most of the windows at St Andrew’s are Victorian, but this one, in the back wall of the church, to the right as one leaves, was made in 1933 by Francis Spear (1902-79). His work may be seen in the east window of Hawksmoor’s St Alphege, Greenwich, and in St Giles’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.
The window at St Andrew’s was installed in memory of a local doctor, Dr Robert Hales, who belonged to a family that donated much of the glass in the parish church. Above the memorial cartouche at the bottom of this window is depicted Chaucer’s Doctor of Medicine on his horse.
The whole design of the window is carefully worked out, with the pilgrims winding up towards the cathedral where St Thomas of Canterbury stands in blessing, vested in chasuble with a pontifical dalmatic beneath it and the pallium of his primatial office over.
Every one of the pilgrim is identifiable from Chaucer’s poem, as Dr James Thomson discovered when he studied the window for a new book, The Stained Glass of the Church of St Andrew the Apostle, Holt. It is he who produced a similar study on the saints’ calendar of windows in the cloister of Chester Cathedral. Both studies are available online, where gowing stained glass comes over with particular effect. The excellent photographs for the new book are by James Sidgwick.
Dr Thomson neglects none of the windows, even identifying the 16 kinds of wild flowers in a chancel window in memory of Alice Hales, wife of Dr Robert Hales. In the Canterbury Pilgrims window, each one is represented as an individual. The Haberdasher has the face of Dr Hales’s chauffeur, Alfred Bacon, as he appears in a photograph from 1910 at the wheel of a green De Dion-Bouton.
I like the way Spear depicted the horses. In the foreground at the left, almost obscuring the Kinght, is the Squire, his son, on a prancing horse with a golden harness. “Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,” Chaucer says of the dashing Squire, “Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede.” He was embroidered like a meadow full of fresh flowers, white and red.” And so the glass-artist shows him, in a short gown as specified, with long, wide sleeves.
The poor Squire was the victim of a vandal in 2019, his glass face smashed. But restoration by Devlin Plummer stained glass studio in Norwich left the damage impossible to discern.
The Squire follows behind the Yeoman, his father’s attendant, ranking below a squire, here hooded and all in green, like someone out of Robin Hood, holding a bow and with a baldric or strap over his shoulder with a horn. Round his neck he wears a Christopher, a metal medal, and in the window it is possible to make out the image of the saintly giant bearing the Christ-child across the river.
In the centre of the panel above, are two figures about whom Chaucer makes a point. One is the Parson, who, Chaucer says, visited his wide parish on foot undeterred by rain, living in simplicity and not dealing with his flock haughtily but drawing people to heaven by gentleness. The other is the Ploughman, his brother.
The Ploughman would thresh corn, dig ditches or turn over the soil for any poor person without payment, for Christ’s sake, the poet declares. Among his neighbours he lived in “peace and perfect charity”, something as rare in 1400 as now, in Norfolk or anywhere else.