Memories of the Pilgrims in Stained Glass

In previous posts, we’ve described how the Victorians began to take serious notice of the lives of the Pilgrims, and how Congregationalists especially found something to celebrate in the story of their 17th century pursuit of religious freedom. One of the most striking ways that local communities – and religious ones especially – memorialised this growing enthusiasm for the Pilgrims was in stained glass.

One of the earliest came in 1874, as part of the new Plymouth Guildhall. Built in a Gothic revival style, it had a series of fourteen windows that told the local history of Plymouth in connection with the national story of Britain. These windows included scenes like the assembly of the fleet under Edward the Black Prince in 1315, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and the proclamation of William III in the Guildhall in 1688. Over the main entrance of the building was a window depicting the embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. With William Bradford at their head, the Pilgrims were on the boat at the Barbican steps that would take them to the larger Mayflower. Designed by John Shelly and made by Messrs Fouracre and Watson, this window was gifted by the present Mayor (Alfred Rooker – a deacon of Sherwell Congregational Church).

Plymouth Guildhall – Copyright: N. Chadwick, – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library.

Congregationalism was a growing nonconformist denomination in the Victorian period, and one that increasingly liked to trace itself directly back to the Pilgrim Fathers. In the story of those Separatists they found both romance and a justification for their views – and forthcoming friendship from New England supporters too. In 1875, for example, the new Congregational Hall on Farringdon Street (since demolished) had a triptych of stained glass that portrayed the embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth on the Mayflower (a boat containing Pilgrims – men, women and children – being pushed off the shore, amid the tears of the friends left behind). Probably our favourite stained glass window, however, still exists today in the Fairhaven Congregational Church (1912), built during perhaps the last peak of Congregationalism in Britain. Known locally as ‘the White Church’ for good reason, its tall tower and three domes are built in a striking Byzantine style. Inside is more sparse – apart from a series of 58 stained glass windows that tell the story of the pursuit of religious liberty. John Robinson, pastor of the Separatists in England and Holland, features in one window. Another, and one of the largest filling an upper space, depicts the embarkation of the Pilgrim Fathers. In a vibrant scene, men (in stereotypical Puritan hats), women and children clamour towards a ship – ‘Mayflower’ can just be seen on a pennant.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the Mayflower was becoming a symbolic link between the USA and Britain. In some stained glass windows, whether in secular or religious settings, it is this Anglo-American link that comes to the fore. One of the earliest examples of such a window can be found in the Westminster Abbey Chapter House. In 1893, a commemorative tablet and memorial window for James Russell Lowell – the New England poet and American Ambassador in Britain (1880-1888) – was put up in the House. After Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had written one of the most famous Mayflower poems of the 19th century (The Courtship of Myles Standish), Lowell was only the second American to be memorialised in the Abbey – a bust of the former had been placed in Poet’s Corner some years earlier. Lowell’s window consisted of two stained glass panels: one consisting of an angel bearing a shield below the arms of the United States, the figure of St Botolph, and the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers from the Mayflower (about whom Lowell had sometimes written); and another of Sir Launfal (of Arthurian legend), an angel bear a shield below the arms of the United Kingdom, a figure of St Ambrose, a symbolic representation of the emancipation of the slaves, and a medallion portrait of Lowell.

‘Unveiling the Lowell memorial window’, Illustrated London News (9th December 1893), 12. Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library.

A particularly attractive example of an Anglo-American Mayflower window can be found in All Saint’s Church in Maldon, Essex, erected in 1928 in memory of George Washington’s great-great grandfather, Laurence Washington, who was buried in the churchyard. Citizens of Malden, Massachusett, headed by William H. Winship and supported by the Sulgrave Institution (an Anglo-American society), volunteered to pay for a memorial window to honour this evocative connection. Designed by a Londoner, A. K. Nicholson, the three panes of stained-glass feature: St George (representing Patriotism); St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, holding a model of the Mayflower (representing Colonisation); and Joan of Arc (representing Freedom). Smaller images show: George Washington taking the Presidential oath, the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers and also of Columbus; the coat of arms of England, the US, Washington and Maldon; and the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell (Philadelphia), and the Washington Monument. Put together, the window celebrated the supposed characteristics of the Anglo-American ‘race’ and the connections between the two countries – of which the Mayflower was clearly a serviceable emblem.

Maldon, Essex UK. The Washington Window 1928. Copyright Thomas Curtis.

Maldon, Essex UK. The Washington Window. The landing of the Pilgrim Fathers. Copyright Thomas Curtis.

And the tradition of stained glass windows to commemorate the Pilgrims has continued into the more recent past too. In the 1990s, a striking stained-glass window was installed in the north aisle of the Church of St Helena to commemorate the link between William Bradford and the church in which he was baptised in 1589. Sep Waugh, a noted stained-glass window artist from York, undertook the work, paid for in part by the ‘Governor William Bradford Compact’ – an American genealogical/historical society that propagated his memory. The three-panelled window depicts: Bradford outside the church, with ‘William Bradford Baptised 1589 at Austerfield’ below; the Mayflower at sea; and Bradford and others signing the Mayflower Compact (with the new settlement in the background). Two quotes from his manuscript history – ‘we knew that we were pilgrims’ and ‘one small candle’ – are above the window.

Saint Helen’s Church, Austerfield. Richard Croft – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Pilgrim Father’s window, Church of St Helena, Austerfield (2017). Copyright Heather Wilkinson Rojo.

Do you know of any other stained glass windows in Britain that depict the Pilgrims? If so, we’d love to hear from you

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