Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire was founded as a Gilbertine house in c.1150. It is one of the best surviving examples of thirteenth-century monastic architecture in England and is certainly one of the few such structures that are still occupied. The Gilbertines, the only monastic order of English origin, were founded by St Gilbert of Sempringham, and were unique in having both nuns and monks on the same site (although the two did not mix). Chicksands soon grew into the third largest of the order’s twenty-five houses in England. By the Dissolution in 1538, there were two cloisters at Chicksands, with a church between them and various other buildings. By 1600 however, the northern cloister (perhaps that of the nuns) and the church had disappeared, and the estate was in the hands of the Osborn family. The Osborns lived there until 1936, when the priory passed into government hands. During the Second World War, the site was used by the RAF as a listening station (an X-station), feeding intercepted German signals to Bletchley Park. Chicksands was subsequently home to US forces performing a similar task during the Cold War. The priory building is currently the officers’ mess for the UK Defence Intelligence and Security Centre. The Friends of Chicksands Priory was formed some twenty years ago to research the priory and its history, and to organize public tours of the building, which was extensively renovated in 1997.
During their tenure, the Osborn family made many changes to the building; notable changes were made by the architects Isaac Ware (in the 1740s) and James Wyatt (in the 1810s). Wyatt’s extensive alterations were initiated by the fourth baronet, General Sir George Osborn (1742–1818) and included a new staircase and rooms that extended the house into the cloister garden. There were several new large windows looking out onto the garden, and these were apparently filled with stained glass. Although there are many photographs of the interior dating from the 1890s, there is unfortunately no record of the glass. The building stands today much as he left it after the work of James Wyatt was completed.
Sir George fought in the American War of Independence as a General before returning home and becoming an MP. He was an avid collector of anything and everything. He collected much stained glass and had it ‘reassembled’ in various windows in the building. Each panel contains many pieces of glass, some of them dating to the thirteenth century. An oriel window containing three such panels can still be seen on the first floor. One of these contains a glass sundial that is almost identical to ones attributed by Geoffrey Lane to the glass-painter John Oliver (d.1701) and discussed in a recent issue of Vidimus. At the top of the main window in the King James Room is a memento mori, a roundel showing a skull with the inscription ‘SPECULUM VERISSIMUM’ (‘the truest mirror’). Similar panels of glass were installed in the staircase and surrounding windows at the time of the Wyatt rebuilding.
These latter panels were removed from the window frames in 1940 ‘for their own safety’ and stored in crates at Chicksands until c.1974. It seems that they were moved to the Society of Antiquaries in London and then to G. King & Son in Norwich, at which time, one panel was damaged by a workman’s boot! During this period, they were photographed, and a descriptive brochure was written by St John Onslow Gamlen [Fig. 4]. King & Son used parts of the glass to assemble a new window in the chapel at Audley End House, which can still be seen, and the firm’s archive contains several monochrome photographs of some of the original panels and their constituent pieces after they had been disassembled, but by no means a complete record.
The Friends of Chicksands Priory would like to restore the windows at Chicksands to something approaching their original condition. The first step is to try to track down where the residue of the glass has gone, as this appears not to have been recorded in the archives of King & Son. The window areas at Chicksands seem to be much larger than the area of stained glass in the window at Audley End. Two significant roundels mentioned by Gamlen are now in the Audley End window, and are catalogued there in Kerry Ayre’s Medieval English Figurative Roundels (CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 6, Oxford, 2002, pp. 26–27). One, at the foot of Gamlen’s plate 1, depicts a monkey sitting backwards on a lion, holding the lion’s tail and playing a flute [Fig. 5]. This roundel fragment was made up by King & Son into a medallion. The second is a sixteenth-century roundel depicting February [Fig. 6], which shows a youth in courtly dress holding out a large cloak and emptying jugs of water. Gamlen suggests that this is unusual for the rank of the youth, as peasants would more typically be seen carrying out such tasks. Ayre notes that this panel in fact appears to combine a Labour of the Month for February with sign of the zodiac (Aquarius). There are however many other pieces that are not found at Audley End.
Any further information on the fate of the glass from the priory following its removal would be appreciated by the Friends of Chicksands Priory. Please contact Stuart Laing.