Anglo-Saxon stained glass

About the object

© The World According to Bede
© The World According to Bede

Stained glass

St Paul’s Church at Jarrow has been altered over the centuries, but still has features dating back to AD 681. St Paul’s monastery, as it was then, was one half of the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery, ‘one monastery in two places’ established by Abbot Benedict Biscop. This window with its haloed figure was reconstructed from pieces of glass excavated from St Paul’s and has now been installed in the museum at Bede’s World. The special interest of this glass lies in its possible connection with an account written by the scholar Bede, who was a monk at Jarrow in the early 700s. He wrote that in 675 Abbot Biscop went abroad to Francia (what is now France) to find glaziers to fill the windows of his new church, St Peter’s, which he had founded the previous year. Bede says that glazing was a technique previously unknown to the English, although we know that clear window glass had been used during the Roman occupation of Britain.

It is thought that the glaziers recruited by Biscop were from Normandy, but we do not know whether they made the glass on site or brought it with them. Scientific analysis of the glass has shown that it was manufactured from a combination of recycled glass and chunks of new glass which had been imported from the Levant – present-day Lebanon and Syria. The glass was cut into pieces, assembled and held together in iron and lead frameworks. Bits of glass and framework were dug up during excavations at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow.

These early windows were very small as you can tell from the size of the figure and from the photo of St Paul’s church in For the classroom. The interior of the church must have been dark and mysterious with the windows like jewel points of intense colour whose brilliance was constantly changing with the weather. Glass as a transmitter of light had symbolic significance in early Christianity. Light was an analogy for the divine as indicated by the expression attributed to Christ: ‘I am the light of the world’. For learned clerics like Bede colour also had a spiritual significance in explaining scripture. As he said, ‘We have frequently said that blue signified the hope for heavenly goods, purple the endurance of this world’s evils, scarlet the ardour of perfect love’. Once introduced, the use of windows and coloured glass spread in popularity; examples of Anglo-Saxon glass have been found in 17 places across Britain.

The significance of Northumbria

By the middle of the AD 600s, Northumbria was the largest and most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, rivalled only by the kingdom of Wessex. It extended from the River Humber in southern Yorkshire to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, though battles with the Mercians to the south and the Picts to the north changed its borders periodically.

Northumbria was also the focus for an important decision about the dominance in England of Irish or Roman Christianity. By the 630s, the Irish church had become established in Northumbria under King Oswald. Oswald had invited Aidan, an Irish monk from the monastery of Iona in northwest Scotland, to convert the Northumbrians. Aidan had founded a new monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, just off the northeast coast of England. The marriage of Oswald’s successor to a Kentish princess who followed the Roman church was the beginning of increasing tensions between the two churches. These were eventually resolved in AD 664 at the Synod of Whitby, which determined that Northumbria would follow the Roman version of Christianity.

Northumbria went on to influence the development of the Roman church in Britain and across Europe. A Northumbrian victory over the Picts in AD 711 resulted in the Irish church being replaced in Pictland and in Iona. Missionaries travelled from Northumbria to convert the Frisians and Saxons on the continent. Thanks to Abbot Biscop, the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was one of the best north of the Alps, and it was in this context that Bede became the greatest scholar in Europe in the early 700s. Bede’s History of the English Church and People helped create a feeling of Englishness and formed the basis of historical knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period for centuries. Another product of Northumbria was Alcuin of York, a scholar and Latin poet, who was recruited in AD 782 by Charlemagne, king of the Franks, to lead the revival of education and learning on the continent.

More information

Monkwearmouth and Jarrow stained glass
Article from BBC Radio 4 on the Monkwearmouth and Jarrow stained glass.

Stained glass from Wearmouth-Jarrow
Full discussion of stained glass from Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Benedict Biscop, Wearmouth-Jarrow monastic sites and the Codex Amiatinus
Article from Sunderland City Council about Benedict Biscop, Wearmouth-Jarrow monastic sites and the Codex Amiatinus.

Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain
BBC History article about the early years of Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain, and the conversion of kingdoms to Christianity.

History of Northumbria
Detailed overview of the history of Northumbria.

Events in the age of Bede
A timeline of events in the age of Bede.

Durham World Heritage Site web pages on Bede.

Lindisfarne Gospels and Northumbrian religion
British Library information about the Lindisfarne Gospels and Northumbrian religion with a link to the full text online.

Roman identity and British Christianity
Article from British Archaeology magazine about the continuation of Roman identity and British Christianity after the departure of the Roman legions and officials.

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Anglo-Saxon stained glass