The Wheel Window - the crowning jewel of St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham
Updated: Mar 12, 2021
In his latest blog, Martin Crowther, Heritage Engagement Officer with the St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham Voices from the Pews project shares his research into one of the building’s most impressive features, its spectacular wheel window.
The dazzling wheel window. Copyright Michael Anderson/St Nicholas Church
A glittering gem high above the altar One of the crowning jewels of St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham is hard to miss, a glittering round gem of a window high above the altar, which radiates colourful light the length of the nave… and literally causes visitors to stop and stare.
It is a rare wheel window, so-called because its eight carved spokes resemble the wheel of a medieval cart.
One of only five in the country The 2012 guidebook to the church states it is believed to be ‘one of only five in the country’, and always one for a challenge, I decided to find out more about this kind of window, and track down the other examples.
One of the problems for researchers is that circular church and cathedral windows have been categorised with different names depending on their size, shape and date of construction, and there is considerable ambiguity and overlap.
The immense Rose Window at York Minster, with its much more elaborate tracery was completed in about 1500. Copyright Martin Crowther.
Wheel, Catherine or Rose? The term wheel window refers to a round window divided by spokes or mullions of carved stone. They are also known as cartwheel windows.
English wheel windows are early, dating to the 12th century. Of the Norman (or Romanesque) style of architecture they have straight spokes, typically eight, radiating from a central boss.
Rose windows are much larger, later and more elaborate, their intricate tracery and colourful glass resembling the petals of a giant rose. Perhaps the most famous example is at York Minster, badly damaged by fire in 1984 and painstakingly restored.
Interestingly, the term rose window was not in use until the 16th century. Before that they were known as Catherine windows, in honour of St Catherine who was martyred on a large wooden wheel.
Outstanding examples in East Kent There are two impressive Norman wheel windows at Barfrestone and Patrixbourne, small medieval churches near Canterbury, in East Kent, both noted for the outstanding quality of their decorative stonework.
Living in Canterbury, I already knew of them, and cycle rides from home on sunny days during Coronavirus Lockdown in February 2021, provided the photos.
St Mary’s Church, Patrixbourne, near Canterbury, built circa 1170, and its impressive Norman wheel window. Copyright Martin Crowther.
Looking up. The wheel window at St Mary’s Church, Patrixbourne. Note the man’s head with fine flowing moustache, zig-zag moulding and spoke-eating grotesques! Copyright Martin Crowther.
The tiny Norman church at Barfrestone, built circa 1180, with its highly decorated wheel window. This picturesque view in 1820 shows it in a fairly ruinous state.
Barfrestone Church today. In a much better state of preservation. Copyright Martin Crowther.
A close-up view of the spectacular wheel window at Barfrestone. Note the incredibly detailed carving, possibly inspired by medieval bestiaries or books of fabulous beasts. Copyright Martin Crowther.
Such is the similarity in the carving of these two East Kent churches, that they are believed to have been built by the same team of Norman masons, whose skills were second to none. Both are constructed from creamy-white Caen stone, imported across the Channel from Normandy.
Stelling Minnis Village Hall, a former Wesleyan Chapel, built 1855. Note its impressive wheel window, set with jewels. My friend Laurence is providing useful scale. Copyright Martin Crowther.
Another local ride revealed a charming Victorian imitation of a Norman wheel window. It was the focal point of the façade of a former Wesleyan Chapel, now a village hall, in the tiny settlement of Stelling Minnis, between Canterbury and Folkestone. Just a few miles from both Barfrestone and Patrixbourne, it was certainly inspired by them. A screech of the brakes, brought a much-needed rest stop and another photo!
The west prospect of Peterborough Cathedral, 17th century engraving (left) and a close-up of two of the three wheel windows (called rose windows in the engraving), from Britton’s Chronological History of British Architecture, 1820 (right).
Peterborough Cathedral The magnificent west front of Peterborough Cathedral, further research revealed, has three wheel windows, of later 13th century date. If cathedrals are allowed, we are already up to six medieval examples!
Two other possibilities An internet search, highlighted two other possible candidates - St James’ Priory Church in Bristol and the Church of St Mary the Virgin, serving the villages of Boyton and Corton in Wiltshire.
The west front of St James’ Priory Church, Bristol, from an engraving in Bristol Past and Present by JF Nicholls and John Taylor, 1882. Note the early ‘wheel window’ top centre, which is believed to date to about 1160.
One of the oldest churches in Bristol, St James’ was founded by Robert Earl of Gloucester in 1129 as a Benedictine priory. High up on the west front is what is described as one of the earliest examples of a wheel window in England, dating from about 1160. However, it is very different to the examples already looked at, consisting of eight smaller circles surrounding a slightly larger one, and without any spokes.
At St Mary the Virgin, Boyton and Corton, the large round window on the west wall of the Gifford chapel has also been described as a wheel window. Dating from 1270-1300 and an impressive twelve feet in diameter, it is a remarkable survival, despite the loss of its medieval glass. However, as more than one expert has pointed out, it has no straight spokes either, so on that basis, cannot be classified as a true wheel window either.
Six of the best! So, discounting the windows at St Mary the Virgin, Boyton and Corton, and at St James’ Priory in Bristol, on the grounds they have no straight spokes, I have identified 6 true medieval wheel windows in 3 English parish churches and at Peterborough Cathedral… and expect there may be more. Do let me know if you discover any more examples.
Graeme Fraser Steele (Chairman of the Friends of St Nicholas Church) left, and Charlie Bird (Castle Hedingham Village History Recorder) right, explore the chancel roof and wheel window in close-up detail, from the top of scaffolding in the chancel, December 2019. Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.
A close-up view While work on St Nicholas church roof was underway in December 2019, a small group of interested people, comprising Charlie Bird, Graham Fraser Steele, Anne Nelson and myself, were fortunate enough to climb the scaffolding in the chancel to get a close look at the inside of the roof, and the magnificent wheel window.
A close-up view showing hand-painted foliage and an impressive cobweb. Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.
Over 1700 pieces of glass Lit by torches and shining through the cobwebs, the intricacy of the design, made from over 1700 pieces of coloured and painted red, yellow, green, blue and clear glass was revealed in stunning close-up detail.
The central panel represents the middle of a flower, with its delicate petals filling the whole window, with one for each of the eight spokes. Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.
Sadly, the medieval glass of the wheel window, and all the others in the church, was destroyed at the Reformation, so we will never know what it originally looked like, though it’s likely many of the windows told the stories of saints and the miracles attributed to them.
Probably from the Reformation (or Commonwealth period) until at least 1820 the wheel window had plain glass. The present stained-glass being added during the middle part of the 19th century.
Detail of the wheel window at St Nicholas, Castle Hedingham, from Specimens of Windows and East Ends of Churches from Britton’s Chronological History of British Architecture, 1820. It appears from this engraving that the colourful stained glass was added after this date, as the window illustrated here appears only to have plain glass.
A bodged job! When the wheel window was restored during Victorian alterations to the chancel, it was found that one of the spokes was made of wood! The medieval master mason must have found one of the imported stones was damaged, or broken, and had to improvise with a quick repair.
Close-up of the St Nicholas wheel window, seen from the churchyard. Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.
Viewed from the churchyard To see the quality of the carving in the wheel window, view it from the churchyard. Take a pair of binoculars and you’ll be well rewarded. The spokes are Norman pillars in miniature each with a decorative capital.
Carved head capitals on the three pillars that make up the lower spokes of the St Nicholas wheel window. Copyright Martin Crowther/St Nicholas Church.
Carved heads The bottom three spokes have capitals in the form of carved heads. The five that form the upper part of the wheel are much plainer, perhaps because they are less likely to be seen from ground level. Instead, the simple, stylised foliage of the capitals replicates that on the full-size pillars in the nave.
Significance As far as Norman or Romanesque wheel windows in English parish churches are concerned, the window at St Nicholas Church, Castle Hedingham, is one of just three exceptional survivors, which all date to the late 12th century (circa 1170 to 1180) and all exhibit the classic cartwheel form of carved spokes radiating from a central boss - the other two examples being at Barfrestone and Patrixbourne in Kent.
It is without doubt, an exceptionally rare gem of a window, and one to be celebrated, cherished and conserved for this and future generations.
With Thanks To local historian, Charlie Bird, for information about the wheel window and the history of St. Nicholas Church, and Michael and Angela Anderson for their excellent photos.