A Window, A War, and a Metaphor in Winchester Cathedral

Mosaic window in Winchester Cathedral

A window in Winchester Cathedral tells the story of a war and of people putting things back together.

The huge west window over the entrance to Winchester Cathedral isn’t what you would expect to see in an 11th century church. It’s filled with stained glass, but instead of showing scenes of Biblical events as most church windows do, this one is abstract and quite modern looking. There are jumbles of colored glass put together in what seems to be a haphazard pattern. You might see partial faces or bits of scenes here and there, but mostly it’s just a random mosaic of color. Let’s find out why…

Closeup of mosaic window
Closeup of mosaic window

A War

The story of this unusual window goes back to the 1600s during the English Civil War. Most people know about the French Revolution, when the French overthrew their king and sent his head rolling. However, many people (other than the British) don’t realize that the same thing happened in England, just 144 years earlier.

Charles I was the unlucky king. He took the throne in 1625 and believed that he ruled by divine right. God had appointed him, and he didn’t need to answer to anyone else. He ignored Parliament and continued to raise taxes as he wished – without their permission. When Parliament protested, he simply sent them home. They were nothing but a bother to him anyway.

Cavalier and Roundhead uniforms
Cavalier on the left and Roundhead on the right – source

This caused the country to basically split into two groups: The Cavaliers supported the monarchy and the Roundheads (who apparently took their name from their very short hairstyle) opposed the monarchy.

In 1649, after seven years of fighting, the Roundheads prevailed. King Charles I was arrested and beheaded. His son, and heir to the throne, fled to France for safety, and the monarchy was no more. England became a commonwealth which lasted for eleven years.

Winchester

But let’s back up a few years and see what was happening in Winchester during the English Civil War. The city was strategically situated on major roadways, so both sides wanted to control it. In 1642 the Cavaliers came and occupied Winchester Castle. Then the Roundheads rode in and captured the city. The Roundhead soldiers hadn’t been paid in a while and were in a pretty foul mood. They wanted to cause some trouble and they did.

Painting of Winchester Cathedral by John Buckler, 1801 – Source

The Cathedral

On 12 Dec 1642, after wreaking havoc in the city center, they rode their horses into Winchester’s historic cathedral. They ransacked the place. They pried open caskets containing the remains of early kings and bishops and searched them for treasure. When all they found was bones, they threw them at the stained-glass windows. Then those with guns used the windows as target practice. The ground was splattered with colored glass and bones.

When the angry soldiers left, the townspeople came around and picked up as much of the glass and bones as they could. They stored it all in boxes tucked safely under their beds in hopes that when things calmed down, the windows could be reassembled and the bones could be reburied.

Glass and Bones

Oliver Cromwell, who had become Lord Protector after the Roundhead victory, died in 1658 and within two years, the monarchy was restored. But the war had left Winchester Cathedral in a sorry state. In an effort to get things back to normal, the citizens of Winchester set about cleaning up and repairing their cathedral.

On the left, a normal stained glass window telling the stories of kings or saints. On the right, the west window, telling a different kind of story

Everyone brought out their boxes of glass and bones to see if they could be put back where they belonged. However, recreating the beautiful Biblical scenes that had once graced the windows proved to be an impossible task. So they repaired many of the broken windows with clear glass. Then with apologies and prayers, they reverently placed the bones in one coffin or another, not knowing whose leg bone was connected to whose hip bone.

A Window as a Metaphor

For the huge west window, they came up with a special plan. They gathered all the bits of broken glass and made a mosaic. The result was a beautiful window.

It doesn’t have images representing stories from the Bible as it once did, but it still tells a story. It tells a story about a war and of people putting broken things back together. And maybe there’s still a spiritual message in it for us. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for life and teaches us that no matter how shattered things seem, they can still be put back together. They might not look like they did before, but they can still be beautiful.


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2 comments

  1. As usual, very interesting Margo. When I visited Winchester Cathedral some years ago, I was more interested in Jane Austen’s final resting place ( another interesting story – not necessarily as it seems) and I assumed the window was a repair after WWII; I had no idea it was a result of the Civil War. Thank you for another very interesting piece of research. Paula

    1. Thanks, Paula. I think it has a nice message for all of us – in our personal lives as well as putting our world back together after covid.
      Now that we are in Bath, we’re enjoying visiting other places around. It’s a nice change from the city.
      Hope all is well with you.
      Best -Margo

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