Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Thursday 3 June 2021

Clothall church, Herts: a cloud of birds thronging in the east window


Some churches have one great treasure that, however unfairly, reduces their other potentially interesting features to the status of also-rans. Clothall would be worth a visit even without its east window, but everything else is outshone by this, an utterly beguiling translucent aviary, a dawn chorus set singing with every sunrise.

Most stained glass windows are designed to be best seen from a distance; small details are generally subsidiary to the overall effect. However, your first impression of Clothall's east window, as you enter the south door and turn right down the nave, is likely to be underwhelming, and you won't see what all the fuss is about until you're practically standing within touching distance of it, in the quarries (the small diamond shaped panes that form the backgrounds to many stained glass windows).

The two birds on the right have clearly been drawn from the same stencil but reversed, and painted  differently

The birds on the left and right have clearly been drawn from the same stencil, and painted slightly differently

There are altogether seventy birds flocking here (though some of them are duplicates; one type appears no fewer than eleven times, sometimes reversed), cocksure and confident, perched and roosted on and hopping across the glass. If this isn't the single most loveable artefact in the whole of Hertfordshire, I'd like to know what is. Some of them preen their feathers fastidiously; many have one leg daintily poised as if they're taking a step, posing heraldically or contemplating launching themselves into the air; some have open beaks as if they're trilling their song across the treetops; only a few have their wings spread as if in flight. They're full of life, vigour, humour and fun, and whoever painted them (in the 15th century) obviously delighted in closely, even rapturously observing them. Contemplating them now is heart-lifting.

Everyone will be able to spot the parrot and the ostrich; there's no mystery about how the former winged its way to Clothall - seafarers would have been bringing them back from Africa for centuries - but it seems unlikely that the artist had ever seen a live (or even a dead) ostrich, and he probably relied on drawings.** 

It's surprisingly hard to identify most of the other birds. It seems to be common to describe them as 'birds of the English countryside', but I've asked two twitcher friends for help, and their view is that they're so stylised that it's hard to assign them to specific species. (If anyone can offer suggestions, I'll be pleased to hear from you.) Part of the problem, I think, is the very limited colour range available to the artist. As he was using plain clear glass, he had essentially only two colours available to him: black (made from copper- or iron-filings), used for the outlines (sometimes with stencils) and some details, and yellow (from silver sulphide), used for colouring in the outlines. The yellow can range from a greenish tinge to something like ochre, but there are no reds or blues. Consequently he couldn't realistically depict the plumage of very many birds. And he certainly used his imagination at times; for example, he depicts several with a leaf-like design on their wings, which is unlike that of any real bird I know.

It's perhaps puzzling that many birds we regard as common today are missing - there's no blackbird, or robin, or blue tit, or crow, or magpie, or pigeon, or house martin, or jay. Maybe they weren't so predominant in the Middle Ages. 

There are a few other places with bird quarries of a similar date (and some may be by the same artist): Clipsham, Rutland; Buckland, Glos; the Zouche chapel, York Minster; Wells Cathedral. But none of these places have as many as Clothall.

(I intend to supply a complete photographic record of all the birds in the order in which they appear, top to bottom and left to right, as an appendix. Maybe have a look back in a week or so to see if I've got round to it.)

The only features of the window visible from a distance are six portrait heads within medallions: Christ, Mary and the Evangelists. 

These date from the late 14th century, though they're evidently much restored (Bettley/Pevsner say simply that they 'incorporat[e] late 14th cen pieces'). The Victorian restoration has been well done, avoiding the sentimentality that so often infects glass of this period. Christ, Luke and Matthew look almost entirely renewed, while Mary perhaps contains the most original material.

That's not the only reason why she is the most interesting of the six. It's natural to assume that she is the Virgin Mary: the church is dedicated to St Mary, the windows have borders of the letter 'M' (which almost always means the Virgin), and she is the obvious companion to Christ and the Evangelists. Most of the authorities (including Bettley/Pevsner) go along with this assumption (though the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments hedges its bets and calls her 'a female saint'). However, it's not that simple.

In the early 13th century the leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene, serving Baldock but in the nearby parish of Clothall, was founded. (During the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene was, with little or no Biblical authority, frequently associated with people marginalised by society, especially if they were suffering from leprosy (now known as Hansen's Disease), and leper hospitals were usually dedicated to her.) This institution survived until the reign of Edward VI in the mid 16th century, but seems to have become a chantry rather than a hospital by then. Nevertheless, it's plausible that its chapel would have contained a stained glass depiction of Mary Magdalene, and that when it finally closed that glass would have been reused in the parish church. (Unfortunately this meant that some of the birds were cut in half, and some perhaps lost altogether.)

If the east window medallion depicts Mary Magdalene rather than the Virgin Mary, this would explain the curiously lopsided nature of her face. It would be easy to dismiss this by saying that medieval artists weren't interested in being strictly representational and that they often used what now looks to us to be distortion; but that doesn't take into account the fact that the other portraits - including that of Mark and John, which look mostly original - aren't distorted. One academic article* found online claims that what we are looking at is 'the oldest visual art depiction' of 'left sided facial palsy'; fascinating if true, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be.

Two more details support the attribution. Firstly, the prominence given to her hair, with which she dried Christ's feet after washing them (again, in post-Biblical legend), and, secondly, the strange pose of her hands. Is she wringing them penitentially? She was thought of as a reformed sinner, so this would fit. Altogether, the evidence is good enough for me to accept that this is a portrait of Mary Magdalene, probably originally in the leper hospital, her face twisted by illness so the patients could relate to her more closely, a moving and humbling detail.

Each window has a canopy, probably 15th century, though much restored, as are the borders of crowned letters, Ms for Mary in the central light and Is and Xs for Jesus Christ (the sound now represented by J was represented by I until the Renaissance, and the X as in Xmas) in the other two. 

Clothall is pronounced 'clot-hall' rather than 'cloth-all', and charmingly means 'nook of land (healh) where burdock (clate) grows'; nothing at all to do with a hall. The church has alighted on the top of a little round hill overlooking the Baldock-Buntingford road. It's essentially later 14th century (though perhaps has earlier origins), and comprises an aisleless nave and chancel, a south chapel, and a south porch which forms the lower stage of a slightly stumpy tower with a pyramidal cap. The ground floor of the porch doubles as the ringing chamber, a rather unusual arrangement.

Entry to the atmospheric whitewashed interior is through the original door, and it's well worth stopping to have a look at both sides of it. The exterior is pincushioned with a thousand little holes, the remnants of numerous parish notices displayed there over the centuries.

The iron hinges have what look like the necks and heads of herons on the right, and terminate on the left in shapes like ploughshares.

On the back the name 'John Warrin' is written in Gothic script; maybe he was once a churchwarden. There are also the initials 'EW', the W looking like a candelabra. 

The square font is the only relic of the earlier 12th century church; it has four blank round arches on each side, and a show-offy 17th century wooden cover.

In the chapel is a small piscina which has two little worn label stop carvings of mildly grotesque heads. 

There are five medium-sized brasses in front of the altar, none of particular note in their own right, but they're instructive as a sequence from 1404 to 1602.

The oldest one is to John Vytner (d.1404), who, like three of the other people commemorated here, was the rector. The etching is simple, 'clean' and unfussy.

The next, John Wryght (d.1519), is more busily etched. His hands are about the same length as his head. He holds a chalice over which is suspended a communion wafer, and above his head is a scroll with a prayer, and a representation of the Trinity. A halfhearted iconoclast has had a go at the wafer and Christ's face, but without too much effect. 

Thomas Dalyson (d.1541), would perhaps have had a difficult last few years, trying to navigate himself and his parishioners through the religious changes of the latter stages of Henry VIII's reign. The sacred monogram IHS has been scratched out on his clothing, but otherwise he's escaped the attention of vandals. I hope his life was similarly only marginally affected. An inscription elsewhere in the church tells us that as well as being the rector he was the 'master of the free Chappell of or Hospitall of Saint Mary Magdalene', the institution mentioned above.

Anne Bramfeld (d.1578), who with her husband William (there is a brass to him in Walkern, half a dozen miles away), had 'syxe soones and tenne dawghters'. Unlike the earlier brasses, she is depicted in three quarters view, rather than from the front. There is much etching used to indicate shading. (This brass is a palimpsest, that is, it reuses the back of earlier brasses, a reasonably common practice. Copies of the backs are displayed nearby.)

William Lucas (d.1602), also in three quarters view, lived for 'nyntie and six yeares', so he would have been born in 1506 and lived through even more religious upheaval than Thomas Dalyson. We can't know how he coped with the changing religious tides as the country flipped from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again (and again); was he like the Vicar of Bray, happy to go along with the latest doctrine? Or was he firmly convinced one way or the other? 

The sequence of brasses also shows how language evolved. The earliest two have inscriptions in Gothic script and in Latin (which only priests knew; it's debatable how fluent many of them would have been), whereas Anne Bramfeld's, from Elizabeth's reign, is in English (but still in Gothic script). It's not until we reach the 17th century, with William Lucas's brass, that we find English in Roman script. The latter two also reveal how spelling had not been standardised (that wouldn't happen until the 18th century); words were spelt according to the whim of the writer.

Although, as I said at the beginning, the east window eclipses everything else in the church, there are two Victorian windows that deserve attention.

One is found in the chapel, and shows Suffer Little Children, and Timothy (the recipient of two letters which are published as books of the Bible) and Lois (his grandmother, who became a Christian). It's undated, and has been tentatively attributed to William Wailes (1808-81). I rather like it. The common complaint about Wailes is that his windows are coloured like boiled sweets. To which my reply is: what's wrong with boiled sweets?

Even better is the west window, by the firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne, from 1867. It shows the Adoration of the Magi. The floral canopies are particularly spectacular. It certainly brings a blast of colour into the otherwise mostly monochrome church, especially on a cold but bright winter's afternoon with the sun low in the sky.

Clothall has a population of only a few hundred, and yet its church is always open. I've visited it probably more than a dozen times over the last few decades. I thanks its custodians most heartily for continuing to make their church accessible.

* This is a 2002 article in the Toxicological Review by John P Griffin. The link takes you to a very short abstract; to read the complete paper requires permissions.

** Still less likely that he'd ever seen a rhea, from South America, or emu, from New Zealand.

Exterior of the east window

From the north


  1. Have you considered that the reason the birds don't seem to be like our common ones could be that the glassmaker was using some sort of illuminated bible or psalter. These tend to have all sorts of fanciful creatures in their margins.

    1. Thanks, Philip; that's an interesting thought. Illuminated books were luxury objects; would an artisan glass painter be likely to have access to one? (I'm not sure I'd call the birds 'fanciful'; they look more like slightly stylised versions of everyday birds. Their shapes are pretty convincing (to me, a non-ornithologist); it's mostly their colouration that makes them unlike real birds.)

  2. Yellow colour in glass is silver stain.

  3. A small detail missed in the South Chapel is the stone coffin lid of benefactor John de Hauville. In the 18th Century it was reported as reading "JOHAN DE HAVILE GIST ICI DIEU DE SON ALME MERCI" and on the edge "LAME JOHAN IN PASSET". Rectors Robert de Hauville and Hugh de Hauville are mentioned in the Church. John was the son of Geoffrey and Emecine de Hauville, she was the daughter of Simon de Clothall, brother of the orginal benefactor Sir Hugh de Clothall.

  4. I’m the newly appointed survey of to the church . I’m in awe of the detailed work you have carried out
    Thank you
    Chris Barker FRICS

  5. Hello Chris. Thanks for the message. I'm glad that you've found my blog, and that you've found it useful. Clothall is one of my favourite churches, which I hope is apparent from the way I write about it. I'm sure it will be safe in your hands. Best wishes, David