The Great East Window left is one of the treasures of the cathedral. Compared with York Minster, Wells, Canterbury and many others, Exeter Cathedral isn't rich in pre-Reformation glass and few complete or nearly complete medieval windows survive anywhere in Devon. Two of the exceptions are the beautiful late 15th century panels in St Michael's at Doddiscombsleigh, some five miles from Exeter, and the Great East Window at Exeter Cathedral which contains the largest assemblage of medieval glass still surviving in any church in the county.
The history of the Great East Window is very complex as both the window and the stained glass have gone through numerous phases of development. The following account is little more than a summary. The cathedral archive is fortunate in possessing a very large number of fabric rolls. These rolls, actually written on vellum, are the medieval accounts which recorded work carried out on the cathedral's fabric. They are a major source of information relating to the Gothic rebuilding of the present cathedral between c1275 and the 1340s.
In 1304 an artisan called "Master Walter the Glazier" was paid £4 10s for "setting the glass of the high gable and 8 high windows and 6 windows in the aisles of the New Work". The "New Work" was the presbytery, including the choir and choir aisles. The "high windows" were in the clerestory and the ambulatory but the "high gable", the "summi gabuli", is believed to refer to the Great East Window itself.
Extensive research outlined by Chris Brooks and David Evans in their 1989 book 'The Great East Window of Exeter Cathedral' has completely rewritten the window's history. Much of the information contained in this post is derived from the book. Prior to their work it was widely believed that the 1304 stained glass in the window was imported from the French city of Rouen by the cathedral authorities and that Master Walter merely fitted the panels himself. However Brooks and Evans have argued that Master Walter was not only part of a local workshop, or atelier, which designed, painted and fitted all of the stained glass in the presbytery, choir, choir aisles and the Great East Window itself, but that the buyers of the glass "were not the cathedral authorities but the independent atelier engaged in glazing the New Work". Four other panels associated with this workshop but by a different hand to the panels in the Great East Window still exist in one of the clerestory windows.
The window which was glazed in 1304 was divided vertically into nine lights, much like the lower tier of the window today. Into each of these nine lights Master Walter set nine different figures. Other figures were installed in the upper openings of the window. Among the panels fitted by Master Walter were three apostles: St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew; three female saints: St Margaret, St Catherine and St Mary Magdalene; and three prophets: Moses, Abraham left and Isaiah. The figure of Isaiah in particular above right is regarded as one of the finest early 14th century examples of stained glass in the country. The nine figures in the lower tier were set within a tall decorative framework. The elaborate canopy of flying buttresses and pinnacles which rose above the heads of each figure was an important part of the overall design and a relatively common feature in glass from c1300.
These panels are the earliest pieces of medieval glass in Britain for which it is possible to assign a known glazier. Even allowing for restoration, it seems remarkable that nine of the panels created and installed by Master Walter over seven hundred years ago should still exist in the building for which they were made, especially when so much of the surrounding medieval city has been destroyed, including the original masonry of the window itself! Master Walter was still working at the cathedral in 1311 when the fabric rolls record him fitting a window in the clerestory with the help of two young apprentices. His glazing scheme in the Great East Window was to remain intact for less than 90 years.
During the 1380s it was becoming obvious that the masonry of the window was badly deteriorating, probably the result of poor quality ironwork used in the original construction. Master Walter's glass was removed and the window was dismantled. Its replacement was designed in the Perpendicular style by the cathedral's master mason, Robert Lesyngham. According to the fabric rolls, Lesyngham drew the design on a skin of parchment which was purchased especially for 2d. Like its predecessor, the new window had nine main lights. It was also divided into three tiers with a row of panels containing figures in each tier. Four central mullions extended from the bottom of the sill to the top of the arch with transoms dividing the window into regimented sections. Such rigid linearity was the antithesis of almost every other window in the cathedral, most of which were designed in the Decorated Gothic style.
A new window needed new glass. On 28 April 1391 an Exeter citizen called Robert Lyen was sworn in as the cathedral's glazier and a few weeks later he signed an agreement to glaze the rebuilt east window. But Robert Lyen wasn't just contracted to insert new glass. The agreement makes it clear that the Dean and Chapter wanted Master Walter's earlier glass of 1304 reinserted. For fitting the old glass panels Lyen was paid 3s 4d (40 pence) per week and his assistant was paid 2s (24 pence). Lyen was to receive 20d per foot for the new glass which was required to fill Lesyngham's newly-designed pattern of tracery.
So what exactly was Lyen's contribution to the window in 1391? The first tier of nine large lights were refitted with Master Walter's panels featuring various figures beneath their tall canopies. Some of the early 14th century glass was also reused in the three smaller openings on the third tier at the top of the window. That left a second tier of seven openings into which Robert Lyen installed his own work. Of Lyen's seven panels only four, the two outer panels on each side of the second tier, now survive.
Lyen's surviving panels all depict saints: St Sidwella (an 8th century local saint martyred outside the city walls), St Helen, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund the Martyr above right holding two arrows, the symbol of his martyrdom. It's interesting to compare Lyen's figures with those executed by Master Walter nearly a century earlier. Fashion and technology had changed dramatically. The faces are now three-dimensional, naturalistic and delicately detailed (the head of St Edward the Confessor above left is particularly accomplished) but the robes are less well-defined. Lyen also used yellow stain (silver oxide) and flashed glass in his panels, innovations which were unavailable to Master Walter at the beginning of the 14th century.
The glass in the Great East Window survived as a combination of the 14th century work of both Master Walter and Robert Lyen until the Reformation in the 1530s. Regarded as idolatrous, three of Master Walter's panels in the centre of the lower tier were damaged. The figures were destroyed although the ornate canopies survived and were later restored. Three of Robert Lyen's panels in the centre of the second tier were also destroyed. More destruction occurred during the Commonwealth over a century later. The damage caused to these six panels resulted in the eventual introduction of six more panels of medieval glass.
In 1750 the Dean and Chapter decided to restore the Great East Window and instructed the cathedral surveyor "to take such painted glass as can be spared from several imperfect Windows in the church in order to Compleat and Repair the East Window". The main focus of these repairs was to be the six panels which had been damaged during the Reformation. The six panels which were installed in 1751 were quarried from a partially damaged or "imperfect" window in the Chapter House.
The Chapter House glass had been made between 1460 and 1470 in the same workshop as the above-mentioned windows at Doddiscombsleigh. Almost certainly based in Exeter, the 'Doddiscombsleigh workshop' has recently been recognised as a distinctive local school creating stained glass in the late Middle Ages.
As well as at Exeter Cathedral and Doddiscombsleigh, examples of the workshop's output can still be seen at Ashton in Devon and at Winscombe, Pitcombe and Langport in Somerset. The Dean and Chapter possibly commissioned the window from the Doddiscombsleigh workshop as part of the rebuilding of the Chapter House following a serious fire earlier in the 15th century. One glazier seems to have been chiefly responsible for the window. His identity is unknown but Brooks and Evans named him the 'Exeter Cathedral Master'.
The surviving six main panels of what was once the Chapter House window depict an archangel wearing a suit of feathers and carrying a banner above right; the Archangel Michael wearing a blue robe over a suit of feathers and slaying a red dragon at his feet above left; and St Catherine holding a sword and the wheel associated with her martyrdom below right.
There is also a panel depicting St Barbara holding a feather in one hand and a small version of the tower in which she was imprisoned in the other, detail below left. The Virgin and Child is the tallest of the six panels. Mary is shown wearing a blue robe trimmed with ermine under which is a gold bodice. The final panel shows St Martin depicted as a bishop, wearing a mitre and holding a crozier in his left hand. Although restored and altered, I think these six panels of 15th century stained glass are some of the most beguilingly lovely and charming works of art in the entire cathedral.
When most of the Chapter House window was dismembered in 1751 the figures of the archangel, St Michael and St Catherine were placed in the centre three openings of the second tier where three of Robert Lyen's 1391 panels had once been. The figures of St Barbara, the Virgin and Child and St Martin were placed in the three openings of the lower tier where three of Master Walter's 1304 panels had once been. Although now much restored, Master Walter's ornate canopies survive in the centre three lights of the lower tier. Bits of the same window, including a superbly drawn fragment of the Crucifixion and the head of an angel, are scattered throughout the cathedral. When first installed in the Chapter House, the panels seem to have formed part of a donor window.
There were once at least four small accompanying donor panels showing the kneeling figure of a canon. Two of these exist along with a third which is a composite of two others. Another large panel, very similar in appearance to the one depicting the archangel in the suit of feathers, and by the same hand, came onto the market in 1999 and was purchased by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The donor canon panels are now together in the Chapel of St John the Evangelist. The Crucifixion and angel's head are in the Chapel of St Gabriel.
The history of the Great East Window from the mid-18th century onwards is largely one of restoration and reorganisation. The glass underwent a major restoration by Frederick Drake between 1884 and 1896. He removed the decorative glass added in the 18th century and much of the heraldry was either restored, moved or replaced. Drake replaced some of Robert Lyen's canopies and bases which had survived since the end of the 14th century. Many of the leaf motif borders surrounding the figures were added, and the dragon, shield and parts of the wings of the 15th century St Michael were restored. All of the faces of Master Walter's 1304 figures on the lower tier were also replaced and replaced yet again in a further restoration between 1985 and 1986.
In fact the list of post-18th century alterations is enormous. Brooks and Evans' book goes into great detail about the later history of the window for anyone interested. At the outbreak of World War Two the glass was removed from the window and stored at Sydenham Manor. The cathedral received a direct hit from a high-explosive bomb in 1942 and, if it had still been in the building, the glass would've been destroyed. It was reinstalled in 1948 and cleaned, repaired and releaded between 1982 and 1986.
The image right shows a colour-coded photograph of the Great East Window based on a similar diagram in Pevsner and Cherry's architectural guide to the county. Master Walter's nine surviving figures from 1304, six with tall canopies, are highlighted in red. His three much-restored canopies in the centre of the lower tier are also highlighted in red. Robert Lyen's four surviving panels from 1391 are highlighted in purple. The six 'Doddiscombsleigh workshop' panels of c1470, which were formerly in the Chapter House, are highlighted in green. Other decorative elements of the former Chapter House window are highlighted in yellow and act as the bases to eight of the lower tier panels.
All of the figures have undergone some restoration or alteration but they have all retain their medieval integrity to some extent. The original iconography has also been lost (for example, there are now two depictions of St Catherine in the same window) but the Great East Window remains an important collection of pre-Reformaton stained glass.