Why we need to preserve the 15th century stained glass at Long Melford’s Holy Trinity Church
PUBLISHED: 12:43 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 12:43 10 June 2020
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The race is on to save a rare collection of spectacular 15th century glass at Long Melford’s Holy Trinity church | Writer: Marion Welham
Suffolk is well known for the masterpieces of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. But there is a spectacle less well known, and nothing like it survives anywhere else in England.
It is the dazzling procession of aristocratic donors to the rebuilding of Holy Trinity Long Melford over 500 years ago, displayed in eight windows in the north aisle of the church.
The stained glass, ablaze with colour, dates back to the Wars of the Roses in the mid 15th century, when Long Melford was one of the richest towns in Europe.
They are now the focus of a unique conservation effort by Cathedral Studios, Canterbury, co-ordinated by former church warden David Hamand.
“It’s thought they were saved from destruction by Puritans in the English Civil War as they are mainly secular, rather than holy, images – except the Pietà (the ‘Pity’) which is Mary cradling the dead body of Christ,” says David.
“And they were originally high up in the clerestory, perhaps too high to reach.” This exquisite national treasure now faces another threat, rapid deterioration caused by corrosion resulting from rain on the outside and condensation on the inside.
This, in turn, has allowed them to be colonised by micro-organisms – such as moulds, algae and fungi – which thrive in damp conditions.
Léonie Seliger, director of Stained Glass Conservation, Canterbury Cathedral, who is leading the project to protect the glass, describes the deterioration since the 1970s, when they were set into the north aisle windows, as hair-raising.
“It is rare to see such deterioration in such a short time,” she says. “Micro-organisms will colonise any surface that allows them to have a ready water supply and light. And as they metabolise they actually have acidic secretion which damages the glass surfaces.” She has come up with a remarkable solution for Holy Trinity.
“We are now using mouth-blown glass imported from Germany and made in a traditional manner just like the glass would have been made originally. The modern twist is that it is laminated to a layer of float glass for safety.”
The key to it all, Léonie explains, is the gap between the external glazing and the historic glass. This buffer zone will have ventilation slots top and bottom to allow cool air to drop out at the bottom and warm air to be drawn in from the top, so that the stained glass can be surrounded by warmer air to keep it dry.
The outstanding and rare Pietà, flanked by the saints Dominic and Peter, is the first window at Holy Trinity to be protected in this way. Meticulous cleaning of the glass has revealed jaw-dropping detail, such as tears on the face of Mary as she gazes at her son.
“It has really regained its emotional impact,” says Léonie. “And for us it was really moving to see the detail up close.” Neil MacGregor, former director of the National Gallery and later the British Museum was shown the glass on a visit to the studio.
“He came to Canterbury to give a lecture and we had the window in the workshop so I buttonholed him,” says Léonie.
“I asked him whether he knew of any other example like this glass where the dead Jesus, cradled by his mother, makes eye contact with her – eyes open. Even Neil MacGregor couldn’t come up with another example so it is really unique.”
Now, says David Hamand, the race is on to raise funds for the other seven windows depicting the 15th century donors in their bright heraldry together with various saints.
John Clopton, of Kentwell Hall, led the rebuilding of Long Melford church around 1480, when the magnificent stained glass was installed featuring so many of his relatives and connections.
Depicted in one of the windows, wearing his armour, his own life was anything but dull. He supported Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses, was imprisoned in the Tower of London with four other Lancastrians, then got himself pardoned the very day the other four were executed in February 1461.
Could the three judges depicted in one of the windows be the ones who pardoned him?
Clopton was summoned to be made Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward V. But as one of the princes in the Tower, Edward was murdered which meant Clopton never got his knighthood.
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He is buried with his wife, Alice Darcy, in the Clopton Chantry Chapel at Holy Trinity.
There is still much to discover about the Long Melford glass but already we have learned about the outstanding skill of the medieval makers, notably in the depiction of the women’s veiled butterfly and horned headdresses.
“They are painted in such a delicate manner and the painters used both sides of the glass,” Léonie Seliger explains.
“A diaphanous veil is laid over a richly embroidered cap for instance. They would paint the richly embroidered cap on the outside of the glass and the very fine veil they would paint on the inside, so you would get that slight diffusion. It would come through that super-thin layer of paint that is applied to the inside. Technically it’s a masterpiece of the glaziers’ art.”
It was the Victorians in the 19th century who took down the glass from the clerestory and placed it in the east and west windows. Then, in the late 1950s, glaziers G King & Son took it to their studio in Norwich for cleaning and repair, returning it in 1971, this time to the north aisle, a damp and more or less unventilated area.
But those conditions are stable, Léonie explains, and, once the windows are cleaned and protected, the future looks bright.
Protecting the glass has been a long process involving meticulous work in both Canterbury and Long Melford, including a year-long experiment funded by Historic England. But, as Léonie says: “There is nothing like this surviving anywhere else in England.”
It is part of our precious Suffolk heritage, a national treasure and it’s on our doorstep. Visit the church, open daily, and prepare to be amazed.
Find out more about how you can donate at longmelfordchurch.com/visiting/stained-glass/
In the late 17th century, one of John Clopton’s descendants met an American woman while buying fur for his hat-making enterprise. They married and now there are around 1,100 of them all over America.
This July a large group of Cloptons will visit Long Melford, as they have every six years since the 500th anniversary of the rebuilding of the church.
“Last time we met over 50 of them at the airport,” says David Hamand, co-ordinating the conservation project.
An American descendant, William B Clopton, was so keen on his family heritage that he gave £130,000 in the 1980s, of which only the interest was to be used for conserving the stained glass.
“He died six months after the gift but it’s yielded £270,000 in interest to date,” says David.
A further £9,000 was recently raised towards the grand total of at least £800,000 needed to protect all eight medieval windows.