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York Minster's Bell Founders Window - a blatant medieval advertisement

York Minster is unique in the fact that it holds over 60% of all the medieval stained glass in England and the largest collection of stained glass in the UK.

Whilst some stained glass (particularly showing St.Thomas a Beckett) was destroyed after Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church, much stained glass particularly showing Catholic saints and the Holy Trinity was destroyed later in time after the English Civil War when Cromwell and his Puritan supporters smashed statues and stained glass windows across the land.

Fortunately York Minster retains most of its stained glass due to a proud Yorkshireman – Lord Thomas Fairfax from Denton near Ilkley. He stated as part of the articles of surrender of York ‘that neither churches nor other buildings be defaced’ and his men would be punished for any damaged caused to the Minster.

But of York Minster’s 128 windows – including some stunning examples of medieval stained glass such as the iconic Great East Window, The Five Sisters and the Heart of York (Great West) Window, I always stop when guiding to tell the story of an often missed window in the North Aisle of the Nave.

As you walk past there is one window which stands out due to the re-occurring shape of a gold bell framing many of the panels.

This is the Bell Founders window. A window which was commissioned and paid for by Richard Tunnoc, a wealthy businessman and goldsmith who also ran a business making bells.

So whilst most stained glass windows feature religious scenes, this window is different and is all about the process of making bells and even includes the donor in the artwork as well!

Being a former marketing man it fascinates me that sponsorship and advertising was going on as early as the 12th century!

But let’s look at the bottom panels of the window and try and explain the story in more detail.

In the bottom left hand panel it shows a bellmaker forming a wax bell in the exact shape of the bell he is about to cast. When the mould is completed, the wax would have been melted out leaving a void into which molten metal would be poured. Sadly one of the faces has faded or been damaged.

In the bottom right panel it shows the casting of the bell, but shows a female figure working in the foundry – raising questions as to the roles of the sexes in manufacturing in medieval times. Another theory is it may have been Tunnoc’s daughter or wife.

Finally, the centre panel which for me sums up Tunnoc in all his vain glory! He definitely wants it to be known about his wealthy patronage so puts himself in the centre of the story!

This panel shows Richard Tunnoc on the left – with a small bell image hanging from his robe just so you know its him, offering the window (also depicted at the top), to St William of York. (He was a former Archbishop who was murdered, and was made a saint in 1227 - his shrine at the time was very close to where the window was to be positioned.

If this is not blatant self-promotion I do not know what is!

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that it looks like Tunnoc has six fingers on the panel – was this the glazier trying to get his own back on the patron for being so vain?

The window is believed to date from around 1320 and was donated ten years before Richard Tunnoc died.

The window separates imagery in bands with what was known as Grisaille or Grey Glass panels surrounded by golden bells. There is another story in one of the upper bands but you cannot really make out the imagery of St William crossing the Ouse Bridge to become Archbishop a second time, as it is too high. The bridge apparently collapsed but no one was injured which folklore has it was one of William’s first miracles.

The window does also show 3 apostles – Peter, John and Andrew right at the top in the tracery lights.

So even back in the 1300’s people with money could get their picture in the second most important church in the land – think of it as a medieval Hello magazine or 12th century direct response advertisement. After all with 40 or more other churches in York needing bells it wouldn’t be a bad place to promote your bell founding business!

The donation obviously didn’t do any harm, Tunnoc eventually became Mayor of York!


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