French Masterpieces in Shiplake Church
As events commemorating the centenary of the First World War unfold across Europe, placenames familiar to stained glass historians, such as Rheims and Ypres, are called to mind. Saint-Omer in western France is one such placename. The town is well known, on the one hand, for being the general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force from October 1914 to March 1916 and the operational base of the British Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF) during the war and, on the other, as the home of the former abbey of Saint-Bertin, a Benedictine monastery founded in the seventh century that once housed many important treasures, including impressive stained-glass windows.
On seeing the scattered ruins of this famous abbey, visitors to the town could be forgiven for assuming that the foundation was a casualty of that devastating war. In fact, it was a victim of earlier upheavals: the suppression of the monasteries during the French Revolution, sale in 1799, and a decision made in 1830 by the local commune to demolish most of the walls and reuse the stone for the building of a new town hall [Fig. 1].
Fortunately, some of the contents of the monastery were saved before its destruction. They include the foot of a Romanesque candlestick resting on four gilt bronze figures of the evangelists dated to c.1180 (now in the local museum), and a remarkable collection of late medieval painted window glass now in five windows (I, sII, sIV, sV and wI) of the small parish church of St Peter and St Paul at Shiplake, a village about 6 miles north-east of Reading in Berkshire (England) [Fig. 2]. Shiplake Church stands on high ground with views over the Thames Valley. The original church of c.1140 is now the south aisle of the building and the Lady Chapel. The altar here is a memorial to the men of Shiplake who lost their lives during the First World War. A canopied chair on the sanctuary is thought to date from the fifteenth century and is said to have belonged to an abbess in northern France.
The glass was bought in Saint-Omer in the 1820s by the Revd John B. Boteler, of Henley, then abroad for his health, who in turn presented it to his friend, the Revd Arthur Howman, Vicar of Shiplake, in 1828. More glass was purchased in 1830 from the same source and subsequently pieced and leaded together by Thomas Willement (1786–1871), a key figure in the revival of traditional methods of making stained glass windows using leaded strips. The abbey glass can be found in the east window above the high altar, in the south-east window of the chancel, and in the east, south and west windows of the Lady Chapel. The glazing includes depictions of God the Father, saints, a probable donor figure, a series of unidentified heads, evangelist symbols, and assorted fragments [Figs 3–10]. Nothing is known about the original position of the glass at the abbey. The abbey’s choir was demolished in the early fourteenth century, but the new choir was not completed until 1520. Individual panels at Shiplake have been dated to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
Shiplake Church is normally open during daylight hours, and the glass is well worth a visit. A catalogue of the glass can be found in P. Newton, The County of Oxford: A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, CVMA (GB), I, London, 1979, pp. 165–71. Further images may be found in our Picture Archive here.