Video: 900 year-old stained glass window discovered at Yorkshire abbey

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IT IS viewed by many as possibly the greatest act of vandalism in English history.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries is often seen simply as four years of pillaging some of England’s greatest architecture and the destruction of priceless ecclesiastical treasures.

But thousands of artefacts from one of Yorkshire’s most famous abbeys are now shedding new light on the 16th century campaign by King Henry VIII to do away with Roman Catholicism.

New evidence has emerged that the dissolution of the nation’s places of worship, which was carried out from 1536 until 1540, was embarked upon in a far more methodical manner than widely believed.

Fragments of pottery, glass and lead which have been found at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire are being studied by English Heritage’s curators to build up a clearer picture of how the dissolution was performed.

Historical experts are mapping out where the pieces were found in the 900-year-old abbey, which is located in the Rye Valley near Helmsley, using documents dating from the 1920s when a major clearance operation was carried out.

This is showing where clusters of materials were found – revealing how the dissolution of the abbey was a far more measured asset stripping rather than a simple destruction of the ancient building.

English Heritage’s senior curator for the North of England, Kevin Booth, said: “The dissolution was a more regulated and ordered operation than is the common public perception.

“The monks would have taken valuable artefacts with them when they were pensioned off, and King Henry VIII’s men would then have come in to take away what was seen to be the items of worth afterwards.

“Lead was removed from the roof, and the best quality stained glass taken away in whole panes. But the poorer grade lead and glass would simply have been left behind in piles.

“We are now looking at where the materials were found in the 1920s to build up a clearer picture of how the dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey was carried out.

“But the big question remains as to what happened to the paintings and tapestries which were taken away from the site, and it is perhaps one to which we will never know the answer.”

New light has been thrown on the abbey’s stained glass windows, most of which were shattered during Rievaulx’s dissolution in 1538 or sold on to swell the king’s coffers.

Some fragments of glass survived the upheaval, and are now kept at English Heritage’s archaeology store in Helmsley. They were recovered in the 1920s when demobbed servicemen were drafted in after the First World War to clear centuries of accumulated rubble, overseen by Sir Charles Peers, an eminent archaeologist.

Some of the original archive papers from the excavations from nearly a century ago have now emerged, including colour depictions of a small number of Rievaulx’s glass fragments.

While flicking through the impressive folios holding a random piece of glass, an English Heritage curator, Susan Harrison, had an amazing slice of luck.

A fragment of glass which she was holding in her hand matched the picture on the page – literally a one-in-a-thousand chance.

The full significance of the match is that the painting included details of where the glass was found in the abbey, meaning it could be accurately dated for the first time to between 1275 and 1300, a good deal earlier than expected.

Mrs Harrison said: “The 1920s dig uncovered a vast amount of material under three metres (10ft) of rubble and the process of identifying all the pieces continues to this day.

“We know from the 1538 dissolution document that Rievaulx’s glass was categorised as either fair, in which case it was to be stored, a second type which was to be sold and a third which was melted down for lead.

“The glass we have identified came from the Chapter House – the abbey’s “boardoom” where key decisions about its operations were made.

“It’s exciting being able to add a little story to an ancient piece of glass and we have now matched other fragments with the old paintings.”

Some of the historic glass has now been returned to Rievaulx Abbey and put on display in the site’s museum along with copies of the 1920s paintings.

Other finds which are normally kept under lock and key, including medieval weights and ceramic tiles, have also been put on display.

paul.jeeves@ypn.co.uk