Heraldry - St. Wilfrid & St. William of York
Until the visit by members of St. Wilfrid's Church to York cathedral on 14th October 1999 (part of the 'In Search of St. Wilfrid' Pilgrimage to Northumberland) , all those on the visit had grown up with the conception that the Wilfrid shield was seven red mascles (diamonds or lozenges) on a gold background as in the right hand picture above - after all that was the shield by the figure of St. Wilfrid in the reredos behind the altar in St. Wilfrid's church and also the badge worn by countless pupils of the Church School at Nyewood as shown in the plaque in the North Transept of the church as shown below. The diamonds, we were told, represented the scales of a fishing net (as held by the St. Wilfrid in the statue below), and recorded the time when Wilfrid taught the starving people of Selsey how to fish. The same depiction and shield decoration is found in the St. Wilfrid window in Chichester cathedral.
As we started to look round York Minster it was Sylvia Bowen who first noted that 'our' St. Wilfrid shield of 7 diamonds was being attributed to a St. William of York and that the shield for Wilfrid was radically different - three gold estoiles with six (or more as below) points to each estoile on a blue background.
NOTE: Pictures in York Cathedral not to be reproduced without permission of the Dean and Chapter of York
Most of us should have noticed a striking example of the St. William shield as we entered St. William’s College next to the tea shop to have a comfort break! Above the entrance are two shields - a seven mascle William shield on the left and a See of York Modern (keys of St. Peter and a royal crown) right. According to Weir's Guide to the Heraldry in York Minster The See of York Modern did not come into use until early 16th century, probably around 1520 when Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop of York, and as the college was built between 1465 - 1467, it must be presumed that the shields were a later addition [the college suffered a similar fate to the cathedral when both buildings were defaced in 1538 at the time of the Reformation].
William Fizherbert, allegedly great grandson of William the Conqueror, is York’s native saint. He was elected to the See of York in 1141 only to be deposed by the concerted efforts of Cistercian monks in 1147 and replaced with Henry Murdac, abbot of Fountains Abbey. On the death of Murdac in 1154 he was restored to the see, only to die (reputedly of poisoning) just thirty days later. One of the miracles attributed to St. William was at his triumphal return to York across the Tweed on a boat when so many crowded unto the bridge to see the procession that the bridge collapsed but the miracle was no-one perished!
Fortunately, York Minster is rich in heraldry with many pieces attributed to both Saints Wilfrid and William and on a subsequent visit to York with John Hayward and my wife Elaine in April, with 3 days spent in and around the cathedral, the mystery was unravelled.
Heraldry began in the twelfth century as a way of identifying knights in tournaments or on the battlefield but went on to serve civilian purposes. The church developed its own particular heraldry - personal and official arms of clergy, corporate arms of religious orders and coat of arms based on religious symbolism, attributed to God and his saints.
St. Wilfrid (d 709) lived way before heraldry was developed but in medieval times the heralds designed arms for important earlier historical figures, notably the saints, and these are known as attributed arms.
The attributed arms of St. Wilfrid in the great Minster both in stained glass and stone - all show a shield based on three gold estoiles (stars with 6 points), on a blue background.
St. William lived at a time when heraldry was coming into use so although it is just possible that that these arms were used by him or a member of his family, it is more likely that they were attributed to him by later medieval heralds.
The most striking example of the St. Wilfrid shield is one of the eight stone shields in the great 15th Century lantern tower - the St.Wilfrid (right) and See of York ‘Ancient’ (left) adorn the East Wall of the tower and are clearly visible (once you know what you are looking for!) as you gaze from the west end towards the centre of the Cathedral. Interestingly, the See of York ‘Ancient’ (pastoral cross with a pallium on a blue background) first appeared in 1396 and fell out of use by the sixteenth century, being replaced with the See of York ‘Modern’ (keys of St. Peter with a crown), probably when Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop in 1520.
Once we knew what we were looking for, it was a case of methodically studying all the known examples and in this respect two booklets were of great help - ‘A Guide to the Heraldry of York Minster’ by Y.E. Weir and ‘A Guide and Index to the Windows of York Minster’ by John Troy.
The city of York is England’s treasure house of ancient stained glass and in the Minster and parish churches is preserved Britain’s largest collection of medieval stained and painted glass. The 128 windows of York Minster are regarded as one of the wonders of the world, spanning nine centuries of the craft, and the search for the St. Wilfrid and St. William examples amongst these treasures was truly exhilarating.
Fortunately all the windows are expertly catalogued and the most striking examples for Saints William and Wilfrid in the same window set are the early 16th century large windows above the south door in the south wall transept and below the famous rose window - right s22 (Wilfrid) and left s20 (William).
St. William’s shield has 10 mascles in 3/3/ 3/1 formation (some other examples 7 mascles in 3/3/1 formation).
Other windows with the shields are early 15th century S11 in the Choir Clerestory, South Side with St. William/shield far left and St. Lucius with shield of St. Wilfrid under far right.
There are figures of St. Wilfrid and St. William without shields in the 14th century Great West Window w1 (many from our St. Wilfrid story - Wilfrid, Paulinus, Bosa, Oswald) and William.
There is a figure of St. William in the 15th century South Choir Transept, West Window S7; a l3thc. window of the life of St. William in the Northern Window of the Chapter House CHn3; a 15th century window of the life of St. William in the North Choir Aisle n9 and in the North Choir Transept the huge 15th century ‘The St. William Window’ n7 (which was partly boarded up whilst under restoration).
In the South Transept, apart from the large windows s20. s22 referred to above, there is a 15th century window in the east wall with St. William shield s14 over a picture of John the Baptist and a very interesting panel in the south wall s26 of St. William, with the shield of St. William under and referred to in John Toys’s guide as ‘wrongly coloured’.
This last panel s26 was extremely difficult to locate, being partly obscured by St. George’s chapel in the South Transept, but once found, had me riveted to the spot. The ‘wrong colouring’ was due to the fact that the colours were reversed - i.e. 7 gold mascles on a red background rather than the other way round. Why was this so interesting? Well, before the second visit I had enlisted the help of my friend, local historian John Hawkins. One of John’s many interests is Heraldry and he was able to ascertain from W. A. R. Bedford’s ‘Blazon of Episcopacy’ published in 1897 that William Fizherbert was ‘gules mascally or’ which means that the shield should be gold mascles on a red background!
It therefore seemed that s26 with ‘the wrong colour’ conformed with the description in Bedford and the other three shields of William in the cathedral didn’t!
Clearly more help was needed and I noted that many of the publications and also the extremely helpful and supportive staff at the cathedral referred to an authority on the glass - Peter Gibson, OBE, CAVALIERE dell ORDINE AL MERITO della REPUBBLICA ITALIANA (an Order of Merit of the Italian Republic) and SILVER CROSS of ST. WILLIAM of YORK.
Having ascertained that Peter Gibson lived in York, rather nervously I phoned him up to ask if he could help us. Imagine our delight when, despite his very busy schedule of University lectures and talks all over the world, he agreed to meet us the following day at the cathedral!
Peter walked with us round all the places where we had found a St. William or St. Wilfrid reference and took a great interest in the Bedford description of the St. William shield and challenged me to say what I was thinking (the inference being that the ‘wrong’ red colour was right and the other shields with the yellow background were wrong!.
We agreed that the only thing we could do was ‘take note’ of the differences on the St. William shields and that the St. Wilfrid shield in the cathedral was the three gold estoiles on a blue background, which is what we really wanted to ascertain.
There was one final item I sought his advice on - s34 in the Nave, South Aisle, a reconstructed 14th century window containing heraldic fragments including what looked like a ‘Wilfrid’ gold estoile. ‘You can forget that one’, he said; ‘I put that there’. It was only then that the penny dropped - we were in the presence of a person who was not only a world authority on the glass in York Minster, but who had personally been responsible for much of the refurbishment of the great cathedral windows.
He then took us down to The Great East Window, which he had been responsible for restoring over 10 yrs, sat us down, and gave us a wonderful talk on just one line of the 108 biblical scenes in the window. Now the full glory of the glass of York was hitting us as we began to understand how these magnificent images were used to illuminate the scriptures to all those who could neither read or write but could still take in the Christian message.
Finally, he took us out of the Cathedral to show us something very special concerning our search for the shields of the Saints Wilfrid and William. Adjacent to the South Transept of the Cathedral is the Catholic church of St. Michael-Le-Belfrey which is the only pre-Reformation church in York to have been built all at one time (1525-1536).
Peter told us that the church was built very near the site of an older demolished church which had been dedicated to St. Wilfrid. On turning the corner and facing the south wall of the Michael-Le-Belfrey we were amazed to be shown stone shields in the brickwork for both St. Wilfrid and St. William!
Soon Peter had to return to his University lecturing but not before we were able to find out that this amazing person was a consultant on the the stained glass for over 50 cathedrals and 2,500 churches. The nuns at Sneaton Castle where we were staying at Whitby were amazed that we had seen him at such short notice. We were so grateful for all his help, something that will live on in our memories for the rest of our lives.
Evidence in other churches
It is a great pity that on the 1999 Pilgrimage 'In search of St. Wilfrid', which included a visit to Ripon Cathedral, that none of us noticed the shield below in the reredos. The image was kindly provided by the Heritage Project Manager of Ripon Cathedral in November, 2007.
St. Bartholomew's Leeds
St. Wilfrid's Mobberley
St. Thomas a'Becket, Pagham
There are also local examples of St. Wilfrid shields that use the three gold estoiles on a blue background albeit with a varying number of points on each estoile - such as the one in the Rose Window in Thomas a'Becket Church, Pagham where Wilfrid is one of twelve English saints commemorated in the window design. The window was part of a refurbishment of the west front in 1836 and the rose design was copied from a church in Palermo; however, the present glass was not installed until 1929 in memory of the convalescence of king George V at Craigweil House nearby.
Another example can be found in the chancel of St. Wilfrid's Chapel, Church Norton which could date from as early as 1934 -1945 -1960 (note rather strangely Wilfrid is shown with an axe and a decapitated monarch!).
Although Chichester Cathedral has a shield of St. Wilfrid with the seven diamonds (see the beginning of this article) circa 1949, the cathedral also has a very fine banner dated around 1900 with the correct shield.
St. Wilfrid's Bognor!
The evidence that St. Wilfrid’s Church has been using the ‘wrong’ shield for some time seems therefore to be conclusive and this all begs the question - when did it all go wrong?
One thing is certain - back in 1908 when the memorial stone was laid, George Fellowes-Pryne, the Architect of St. Wilfrid's church, was certainly aware of the ‘right’ shield for St. Wilfrid. Rather embarrassingly, and long after the York discovery, during a photo shoot of the exterior of St. Wilfrid's Church, John Hawkins and myself were suddenly confronted with the shield of St. Wilfrid - something it seems that everyone had forgotten about!
Looking up the east wall of St. Wilfrid's Church
It seems to me that it was the1919 design of the Reredos in St. John's Church, London Road, Bognor by F. E. Howard where the wrong design for the shield for St. Wilfrid started, an error which was perpetuated when the new St. Wilfrid window was commissioned in Chichester Cathedral in 1949 and led to the wrong school badge for Nyewood C of E School. Was it case of the unfortunate designer of the reredos mistakenly looking left rather than right during a visit to the south transept of York Minster? I hope some day we can unravel this mystery! If any visitors can send me pictures of other examples of St. Wilfrid shields that can be shown on this web page I would be most grateful.
Peter would like to record his appreciation for the heraldic research and research into the history of St. Wilfrid's church and its contents undertaken by Research Historian John Hawkins.