This is a story about a story.
Or rather it’s about a network of stories — half-heard, half-remembered, repeated, reshaped and embroidered …
all inspired by some exquisite works of art.
This is a detail from the east windows of the Chancel at St John the Baptist Church in Buckland in south eastern Tasmania.
St John the Baptist Church was built in 1846 to a design by architect Crawford Cripps Wegman. It is a replica of the parish church at Cookham Dean in Sussex, England.
Buckland is small and isolated.
The church stands on the edge of town.
Inside, you will find these.
These windows aren’t just beautiful. One panel depicts the decapitated body of St John, with blood flowing, and Salome with the head on a platter.
“The most controversial scene ever depicted in a stained glass window anywhere in Australia of its time.” Ray Brown (2012), Stained Glass Australia.
“The goriest window in 19th Century churches.” Warrick Oakman in Ward, 2015.
When something is as captivating and dramatic as these windows, and as alien to their surroundings, is it any wonder that we are fascinated? We ask ourselves, who made these extraordinary works of art? Where did they come from? How did they come to be here, in this quiet place?
We require that the answers are exotic and enthralling enough to match the objects. And if the truth doesn’t measure up … well, we’re human.
We tell stories.
And just to clarify … this is not a condemnation of the legend-making that surrounds the Buckland windows. I am a story-teller. Narrative is one of the ways we make sense of the world. It is a creative response to something that is intangible and fascinating. This is a celebration.
The stories that have grown around the Buckland windows have involved medieval monks, a churchyard, a Marquis, an Earl, William the Conqueror, the Tudors, Roundheads and Royalists, gemstones and pirates. Some confusion arises because there are two notable Cromwells in British history. It is deepened by the convolutions of the British peerage system.
But really, like all legends, the stories about the windows have origins that are lost in mists of hearsay, gossip and the words of the departed. Here are some of them.
There is a pamphlet available from the church, titled “Parish of Buckland Tasmania: Church of St. John the Baptist: history of church and window”, by R N. Fox. In a section that was probably authored in the late 1950s (Brodie, 2013) rector, Rev’d H. M. Maddock, makes the case for the east window being medieval. He draws attention to “the quantity of silver-yellow stain” in the glass and the absence of “canopy treatment”, concluding that the windows were made in the latter half of the 14th century.
A Report of a Report of a Story that was Current
This seems to have been something that was believed from as far back as the nineteenth century. In a letter to The Mercury on 10th January, 1935, Max Crawford of West Hobart repeats a statement by Mr W. E Cornish (deceased, but a former warden of the church) that “the antiquity of the window in Buckland Church was current in the district in the ’70s of last century, only 30 years after the church was built.”
Eminent Ecclesiastical European Experts
Around the time the church pamphlet was being written, a Special Correspondent in The Adelaide Advertiser (1950) boasted that the windows were exciting the curiosity of many eminent ecclesiastical architects in Europe, who had determined that the windows were at least 700 years old.
And, since the windows were widely believed to be medieval, there needed to be an explanation (or many explanations) of how they might have come to be installed in a church in Buckland.
Saved from the Tudors
In 1926, in The Mercury, in a travel piece about the east coast, there is a reference to the church at Buckland with its beautiful stained glass window “dating back to pre-Reformation days, presented by the late Marquis of Salisbury” (p21).
In 1930, the Marquis seems to be forgotten. The Mercury’s Church Column repeats a story that is “an old one in the parish”. It is not recorded in any of the church documents, but had been “current in the district between 50 and 60 years” and was well known by the recently deceased church warden.
“Originally [the windows] were placed in an English monastery and were saved from destruction when the Tudors were confiscating monastic property, and hidden in the home of a nearby family. One of the descendants, who emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land, had enough of the glass sent out to decorate the church of his pioneer settlement, Buckland.” W. J Rowlands, The Mercury, 1930
The Marquis reappears
By 1934, the story of the pre-Reformation windows was said to be “circulating widely through the commonwealth” in an unidentified ladies’ journal. It was “a household story on the east coast” (“Acro”, Letters to the Editor, The Mercury, 1934).
This letter mentions that the windows were thought to have been rescued from “Cromwell’s soldiers” and eventually came into the possession of the Marquis of Salisbury, who visited Van Diemen’s Land and presented the windows to the church in gratitude for hospitality.
This writer is sceptical, as there is no mention of the gift in church records. Also, he has calculated that a fourteenth century window would be worth around £7000.
Some facts: Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury visited Tasmania in 1851 for his health. (Marquis is an alternative spelling, taken from the french form, and both are widely considered correct.)
Another War, Another Cromwell
Maybe it is because of the mention of Cromwell, but shortly after this, “Bucks” from Glenorchy wrote to The Mercury, explaining that a priest buried the windows in a churchyard, to protect them from Puritan forces.
“During a skirmish between the Royalist and Puritan forces the priest was accidentally shot dead. Many years afterwards the window was laid bare during improvements to the churchyard, and became the property of the lord of the manor.” Bucks, The Mercury, 1st January, 1935.
The lord of the manor had them shipped to “a friend in Tasmania.”
The Puritans, or Roundheads, fought the Royalists in the English Civil Wars of 1642-51.
Maybe this slippage in time is explained by a confusion of two Cromwells. Oliver Cromwell was a commander in the Roundhead forces. He was a descendant of Thomas Cromwell.
A few days later, in letters to The Mercury, “A Woman of 81 Years” reported that she had been told, by Mr Thomas Cruttenden, brother-in-law to the Rev F. H. Cox (builder of the church), that he and his sister had entertained the Earl of Salisbury, who later sent out the window for the church, in around 1869.
In Brittanica I see Lords and Earls mentioned in connection with Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury but I can’t see the titles applied to him. But the British peerage is complicated. Maybe someone can enlighten us.
On 26th January, in a letter from “Buckland Adherent”, a new detail appears. One panel in the windows is of a different shade from others. It is “supposed” to have been broken by a pick when the windows were discovered in their hiding place in an English churchyard.
In 1949, Leo Gregson (aged 13), a contributor to The Mercury’s Junior Letterbox, reports that people are “baffled” by the origins of the windows but repeats “one story” that they had been buried by pirates.
Gemstones and a Cathedral
By July 1950 the locations have slipped. A reader of The Adelaide Advertiser has been told that:
“At the time of Cromwell the window was taken from York Cathedral and buried in a spot known only to members of a noble English family… The glass is supposed to have been made of crushed gems giving the window its beautiful colouring”.
The Earl’s Nephew
In August another reported that “the driver of the motor car” which took them to the church told them that the windows were brought to Buckland by a clergyman, who was a nephew of the Earl of Salisbury.
William the Conqueror
In 1965 and 1979, the Australian Women’s Weekly, contained some feature articles suggesting that Tasmania was “Not quite Australia” but a pleasant place to travel. The Weekly reported that the Buckland windows were medieval, or from 14th century, and that they had been smuggled from Battle Abbey.
Battle Abbey was built by William the Conqueror in 1094, on the site of his victory at Hastings.
The Weekly adds that “Nobody seems sure how [the windows] got to Tasmania.”
And so on …
The rumours that the windows came from Battle Abbey are repeated in Tasmania Sketchbook, by respected artists max Angus and Patsy Adam Smith (p54) and in Tasmania Isle of Splendour, by W Beatty, who refers the the White Grisaille technique as evidence (p140). In Tasmania A Guide (1989), Sally Odgers mentions that they were created sometime between 1350 and 1400 (p134). In 1996, 40 South carried a small article reprising the story of Battle Abbey, and the stories are repeated today on the website of the QVMAG in Launceston.
The truth about the windows is, in fact, fairly simple. On 23rd January 1850, The Courier newspaper of Hobart reported the consecration of the church at Prosser Plains and stated:
The most striking objects in the interior of this Church are the windows of the chancel – a large eastern window of three lights, and a smaller one of two lights in the northern side. These are filled with stained glass, the work of Mr. O’Connor, a London artist.
Various letters to The Mercury have drawn attention to this and to the documents supporting it. For example, J Moore-Robinson of Sandy Bay refers to documents, letters and a ship’s manifest. (The Mercury, 28th January, 1935, p6). He claims that the breakage supposedly done by a pick in a churchyard was wilfully done soon after the church was consecrated.
With the Gothic Revival movement in the nineteenth century, it became commonplace for church architects to imitate styles and elements from the medieval period, and this extended to the design of windows. Nicholas Brodie of the University of Tasmania has explained that the Buckland windows are ‘definitely’ nineteenth century in origin, citing the quality of the glass, the way the figures are dressed, the lack of lead, and the similarity to other works by O’Connor (Brodie, 2013).
The idea of the windows containing crushed gems is not entirely fanciful, as minerals such as cobalt, silver and gold are used in small amounts to create colours and effects in stained glass (Stained Glass Australia).
References and further reading
Angus, Max and Adam Smith, Patsy (1982), Tasmania Sketchbook. Adelaide, S.A.: Rigby.
Brewer, Warren (2005) “Mystery window”. The Mercury, Weekend, Hobart, November 2005, page B13.
Brodie, Nicholas (2013), “Relics of the Tasmanian Gothic: Medieval Artefacts in Medievalist Australia”. Limina, Special Volume: Receptions, 2013. http://www.limina.arts.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/2517284/Brodie-article.pdf
Brown, Ray (2012), Stained Glass Australia: St John the Baptist, Buckland. https://stainedglassaustralia.wordpress.com/2012/07/07/23-01-1850-st-john-the-baptist-buckland-tasmania/
Fox, R.N. (1960) History of the Church of Saint John the Baptist. Buckland, Tas: Parish of Buckland.
Ward, Airlie (2015), “Historic Tasmanian church saved by local community as others struggle to fight off closure”, The Mercury, 6th June, 2015.
The Mercury, Hobart, Tas, Saturday 9th April 1949 page 16.
The Australian Women’s Weekly, Wednesday 30th June 1965, page 49s.
The Australian Women’s Weekly, Wednesday 15th August 1979, page 57.