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The Original Betley Window

The Betley Window

This photo of the original Betley Window is reproduced by kind permission of the Victoria & Albert Museum - click on it for a larger version. I last saw the Window in Spring 2002 in the V&A British Galleries. It was looking rather forlorn, set in the side of a grey wooden display stand. I felt it deserved a better setting such as period panelling, which my memory tells me it had had prior to the recent refurbishment. Click here to see a photo I myself took on an earlier visit (June 1998).

A section of the photo features on the front cover of "An Introduction to English Stained Glass" (1985) by Michael Archer, who was Deputy Keeper of Ceramics at the V&A. I bought a copy in May 2002 through Amazon, but it is not always available. It is an attractive book and an interesting primer on stained glass: but it has only a couple of sentences about the Window itself.

The actual window measures 38 inches by 15 inches. People who are accustomed to seeing stained glass windows in churches, for example, have the impression from photographs that it is bigger, and are surprised when they see the original.

Strictly speaking, it isn't stained glass but enamelled glass. That process is not known for windows in this country earlier than the late sixteenth century. This helps to date it, but not definitively because earlier examples are known - e.g 1538 and earlier, in Antwerp. In any event, it is one of the earliest enamelled windows to have survived, and is possibly the oldest representation of morris dancers to be found in this country.

An Abbreviated History

(Health warning! I am not an historian: I am merely trying to collate and pass on, in a form digestible to surfers of the Worldwide Web, the gist of what I have read on this subject. Whilst I have tried very hard to ensure I have reproduced only facts and - as far as possible - supportable hypotheses, I have not gone back rigorously to source documents. Though some subjectivity is necessarily involved in selecting quotations, I have tried not to dream up any wild theories of my own!)

This history draws on a number of sources, including "Some Notes on the History of the Betley Window" by Edward J. Nicol in Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. VII No. 2 (1953), and Godfrey N. Brown's "This old house: a domestic biography; living conservation at Betley Court". Betley Court Gallery (1987).

It would be nice to be able to say exactly why and when the window was made, and by whom: but none of these is possible. Best estimate of the date is mid-16th Century - perhaps as early as 1510, and probably no later than 1621. Earlier assessments of the date of origin of the window were based on the costumes of the characters, but this technique can give only a "later than" date, because the clothing was not necessarily contemporary at the time the window was designed.

Flooers It is possibly the work of Barnard Flower, or one of the other members of a Flemish colony of glaziers and glass-painters in Southwark who were much patronized by the court of Henry VIII. Flower himself was King's glazier from 1505 to 1517. Some people have wondered if the cape of the rider of the hobby-horse might not carry the signature "Flooers", one spelling of his name.
It's not known where the Window was first installed. Its recorded history begins in 1778 when George Tollet lived in Betley Hall where the Window had apparently been for many years. His grandfather, also named George, had bought Betley Hall in 1718 from a branch of the Egerton family. George Tollet III himself wrote: "With regard to the antiquity of the painted glass there is no memorial or traditional account transmitted to us." So we don't know for certain whether the Window was in the Hall when the Egertons owned it, or added by George Tollet I when he bought it, or whether it was a still later addition.

George Tollet I was a former Commissioner of the Navy and had lived in the Tower of London before moving to Betley Hall. Godfrey Brown has speculated that the Window might have been in the Tower at that time, and given to Tollet as a gift; furthermore, that the circumstances of the gift were an embarrassment which could explain the lack of recorded history. However, there is yet to be found any firm evidence in support of this speculation.

It is unclear whether the "Tower of London" suggestion complements or contradicts a view expressed in the 1920s by Ralph Thicknesse. The oral "record" in his family had been that the Window came to Betley from nearby Heleigh Castle, the seat of the Audley family, and that it formed one of the twelve parts of a large window representing the months of the year. The footcloth of the hobby horse carries armorial bearings of the Audley family (gules fretty or - i.e. gold fretwork on a red background) which later passed to the Thicknesse family who lived at nearby Balterley from the reign of Henry III until 1790. Local historian Charles Bridgeman included these views in an article he wrote using information from Ralph Thicknesse, after the death of the latter, but with some doubts in his own mind.(C.G.O Bridgeman: Note on the Betley Morris Dance Window. William Salt Archaeological Society: Collections for a History of Staffordshire 1923.) Bridgeman also states as a fact that the Window was "taken from the old manor house at Betley and put into the new hall built there by Mr. Tollet, the then owner, in or about the year 1718" - but the authority for this statement is not given.

A contributory factor to the mystery of its origins could be that George Tollet I died in 1719 and his sons (George II and Cook) were debt exiles in the Isle of Man, so the Tollets could not occupy the Hall for about 20 years. Also, grandfather and grandson never met, since George Tollet III wasn't born until 1725. George Tollet III was a barrister who did not practice but spent his life absorbed in his extensive library, as analysed by Arthur Sherbo (though Sherbo's introductory biography is inaccurate). His opportunity to be a "country gentleman of letters" was at least partly due to being the main beneficiary of the substantial will of his unmarried aunt, the poet Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754).

He was a scholar of some note, if low profile, and made extensive contributions to discussions of the works of Shakespeare. In notes at the end of Johnson's and Steevens' 2nd edition (1778) of Henry IV Pt 1, he included an engraving of the window, a lengthy discussion of the characters, and references to what he had read on the subject of morris dancing and May Day activities. It was this -"Mr. Tollet's Opinion Concerning The Morris Dancers Upon His Window " - which first brought knowledge of the Window into the public domain.

George Tollet III was of the opinion that the date of 1621 above a door in Betley Hall was the year of its being built, and this led him, at one time, to believe that the Window was probably of that date. However, Godfrey Brown has expressed the view that the woodwork was originally in Betley Old Hall, a farm.

Through inheritance and sale, the Window was passed down with the Hall and then with "New Hall" which was built on the same site by George Tollett III's younger brother, Charles, in 1783 after George's death. (New Hall no longer exists.)

In 1922, the Window glass - now in the form of a screen - was offered for sale at Sothebys. Cecil Sharp and other collectors were interested in acquiring it, but since they considered it to be morally the property of the Bridgeman family (heirs of the Tollets through a line from a brother to George Tollet I), they agreed not to bid against them. Rt. Hon. William Clive Bridgeman (who was Home Secretary) then installed it at the family house at Leigh Manor, near Minsterley, Shropshire.

It was acquired in 1976 from the Trustees of the Leigh Manor Estate by the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it is now on display.


Arrow Guided Tour: I suggest you might now wish to visit the page about the Kingston-upon-Thames copy - which is chronologically the first of the copies described on this site.