London has lots of hidden gems but there are few more curious than a large stained glass window in St Margaret’s Church, a few yards from Parliament Square. It is a beautiful work of Flemish artistry and looks like a beacon of tranquility in a splintering world.
Its inception can best be described as ill timed. The work was commissioned around 1526 by the magistrates of Dort in Holland to celebrate the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. But by the time it had been finished – guess what? – Henry had become besotted with Anne Boleyn.
The king is depicted in saintly contemplation in the panel at the bottom left of the window, while on its right hand side, Catherine, against a similar background, is also deep in prayer. Both appear to be looking at the crucifixion scene in the central panel of the window. A perfect couple uniting the warring nations of England and Spain in matrimonial harmony – or it could have been had Henry not secured an annulment of the marriage in 1533, which meant the window had to be disposed of.
It is not known for certain where it was originally intended to be moved to, but it was soon dispatched on a medieval version of pass the parcel among the dignitaries of Essex. First, it was sent to the ancient religious house of Waltham Abbey in Essex, where Henry occasionally stayed to be out of sight and out of mind. It remained until the dissolution of the monasteries when it became a double embarrassment, as its association with a doomed royal marriage was combined with the imagery of a discarded Roman Catholic religion.
Somehow, the window survived and was transferred to a private chapel at New Hall, also in Essex, where its Catholic symbolism would be less noticed. In the ensuing decades the window passed into the possession of the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne Boleyn’s dad), the Earl of Sussex and the Duke of Buckingham before landing in the ownership of General Monk, a Royalist who, curiously, served under Oliver Cromwell. He buried it to keep it hidden from the prying eyes of Puritans, who would have been enraged by its Popish symbolism.
The work was subsequently purchased by Edward Conyers of Copped Hall – another Essex location, where Mary Tudor was imprisoned and where Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed. Its Cook’s Tour then brought it to London in 1758, when Conyer’s son sold it to the inhabitants of St Margaret’s for 400 guineas.
After that, the story becomes even more complicated. Dean and Chapter of Westminster also regarded the window as Popish and started a lawsuit seeking its removal. The dispute lasted seven years. It was the religious equivalent of Charles Dickens’ perpetual legal proceedings in Bleak House, Jarndyce v Jarndyce. Fortunately for us all, the action failed and the window can now be enjoyed by all, hopefully in perpetuity – never forgetting its history.