Role reversal

Long-Melford-charity

There is a long tradition of the rich elite funding charitable organisations. In the United Kingdom the building of almshouses for the poor is one such tradition and dates from the tenth century. A wealthy individual or family, partly in hope of improving the souls’ lot once their earthly lives had ceased, would provide land and shelter for the poor of their community. A fine example of this type of patronage survives in Long Melford, Suffolk.

almshouses long melford suffolk
Almshouses – The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity founded by Sir William Cordell in 1573. Quadrangle with inner courtyard garden, red brick. Long Melford, Suffolk.

Local landowner and dignitary, Sir William Cordell, founded ‘The Hospital of the Holy Blessed Trinity’ in 1573. During his lifetime Sir William had been Master of the Rolls, High Steward of Ipswich and, in 1558, Speaker of the House of Commons. Residing in Melford Hall he had been born and raised in Long Melford and as an act of piety he provided these almshouses for some of the poor residents of his home town. He also endowed these almshouses with land and property in the surrounding area to ensure a regular source of income for the ‘twelve brethren’ who qualified to live there.

The building we see today was heavily restored in 1847 and the property continues to be administered by the Trustees of the Hospital for the benefit of the poor of Long Melford.

The neighbouring church, Holy Trinity, had been substantially rebuilt with financing from the pious wealthy during the century before the almshouses were established. And, most notably, the church windows had been magnificently glazed with stained glass (also with a view to the afterlife) displaying many recognisable donor portraits. These portraits were accompanied with heraldic information to ensure future generations would be able to identify and pray for those individuals represented.

This surviving visual record and architectural history offers a glimpse of the complex, slippery and slightly dubious relationship between God and Mammon. In our contemporary eyes there appears to be an awkward interdependence for the medieval wealthy to negotiate. Of course, during the medieval period the rich man and poor man believed that God had ordered their world and each man knew his place and acted accordingly.  One earthly benefit arising from this arrangement was employment for craftsmen and builders, and latterly, a glorious record of their skills and creativity for us to appreciate today.

Now here I come to ‘the role reversal’ – an interesting visual comparison, a wealthy medieval woman is shown praying for her soul (15th-century brass, Holy Trinity, Long Melford) and now, according to 21st-century marketing, a modern (wealthy?) woman is shown praying to/for luxury goods!

 

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Inspirational medieval stained glass

medieval-painted-glass-Long-MelfordLast year when I visited the Great Church of the Holy Trinity, Long Melford, I knew it had some of the finest surviving fifteenth-century stained glass in England. Naturally, I made sure I had plenty of time to photograph the beautiful windows.

I’ve previously blogged about the outstanding glass filling the north aisle windows of this Suffolk ‘wool’ church. I’ve also examined the single donor portrait of Elizabeth Talbot, wife of John de Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, and the possible link to the John Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

donor-portrait-windows-long-melfordHowever, there are many more medieval folk represented in this collection of stained glass. Today, almost all of the surviving portraits of the original donors can be identified by visitors as, when the portraits were re-glazed to their present locations a small lite bearing each name was inserted beneath. These labels are a modern addition.

Modern-name-litesExamination of original fragments of medieval gothic script legends, together with any related heraldry and further evidence from the historical record, has enabled accurate contemporary identification, hence the useful labels.

frays-windowThe use of heraldry not only aids modern identification, but in medieval times confirmed the various family connections and associations, and, would have maintained the significance of these people in the eyes of their contemporary congregations. However, the principle reason the wealthy aristocracy commissioned these glass portraits was piety. They wished to be remembered in the prayers of the clergy and congregations for a long while after their deaths in the hope of shortening their time in purgatory. Heraldry-for-Elizabeth-Annes-Margaret

fraysLittle were they aware that the very notion of purgatory would be rejected within the next 100 years following the Reformation and the establishment of English Protestantism. And, never would they have dreamt that 500 years later visitors to their church would be just as interested, if not more interested, in the skills of the talented yet nameless artisans who created this costly and elegant glass.

I have found the windows a great inspiration and have used the colours and some of the motifs to develop a silk scarf design.InspirationBut somehow I still can’t quite capture the tone of the original creations!

stained glass medieval portrait
Anne Darcy sister-in-law of John Clopton and wife of John Montgomery. Late fifteenth-century stained glass, Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk.

A Wool Church – Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk

raphaelFor anyone seriously interested in exquisite fifteenth-century stained glass then Long Melford in Suffolk is well worth a visit.

wool-church-long-melford-stained-glass

Finished in 1484 the Great Church of the Holy Trinity contains a collection of some of the finest medieval glass in the country including a Lily Crucifix image and a rare roundel featuring a three hares motif.

suffolk-wool-church-holy-trinity-long-melfordHoly Trinity is one of Suffolk’s so-called ‘Wool churches’ as the erection of these buildings was funded from the profits of the medieval wool-trade. Advantaged Suffolk landowners prospered from the successful export of high quality wool and wool cloth to continental Europe and invested their profits building fine churches in the hope of facilitating a speedy journey for their soul through purgatory to heaven.

The medieval glass we see today filling the large ground floor windows features portraits of donors. These portraits would originally have glazed the upper, smaller, clerestory windows. For about 100 years during the 19th century some of this glass was used to reglaze the east window (1828) with more being installed in the west windows during 1862/3, however today these windows are clear. The present arrangement of the medieval glass, all along the north aisle, was carried out during the late 1940s.

across-to-north-aisle-holy-trinity-long-melford
Across the nave to the north aisle windows now glazed with the medieval glass that was originally in the clerestory windows.

The height of these lofty clerestory windows helped protect the glass from the various destructive onslaughts that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. The lost/destroyed stained glass would have consisted of biblical images and religious themes popular in the medieval period and similar to those of the Victorian glass found in the south aisle windows today.

victorian-windows-long-melfordIn the medieval period clerestory windows were filled with a variety of images from Old Testament prophets and local church dignitaries to ethereal representations of angels and archangels. Amongst the many surviving medieval donor portraits (to be explored in a separate post) there are two archangels.

Here, at Holy Trinity it is the archangels St Gabriel and St Raphael that have survived. They are both exquisitely painted displaying subtle and detailed work using silver nitrate stain. They have been painted by a craftsman that understood how to use the translucent quality of his materials to achieve an unearthly quality, literally letting the spirit/light shine through.

There is another little gem hidden away in the Clopton Chantry Chapel. One of only five examples in England, the east window of the chapel bears a ‘Lily Crucifix’ dated from 1350. Christ is not on the Cross, but is instead crucified on white lilies. The blue background and the white lily represent the Virgin Mary and the motif symbolises the joint suffering of Mary and Jesus.

Finally, an unusual and rare three hares roundel has been placed above the north door. This motif is believed to have come to Europe from perhaps as far away as China via the Silk Road. If you look carefully you can see that although there are only three ears each of the three hares has two ears!