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Windows on to history

From the glittering stained glass in medieval cathedrals to modernist high-rises, windows have illuminated our buildings for centuries. But, argues Rachel Hurdley, the presenter of a new BBC Radio 4 documentary on the history of windows, they can also shed light on the past

Published: October 27, 2021 at 5:09 pm
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Windows are too often treated as merely providers of light, ventilation and views. But there is little more terrifying than a dark window with an unknown face peering in. And there are few more useful places for covert entrances and exits, as prime minister Stanley Baldwin found in December 1936. Pursued by the press, he finally crept into Buckingham Palace through a back window, to talk with King Edward VIII about his forthcoming abdication announcement.

“The history of architecture is also the history of windows,” pronounced Le Corbusier, a pioneer of modernist architecture. As we shall see through the following seven examples, the history of windows is also the history of war, politics, technology, aesthetics and morality. Not simply “the eyes of the house”, windows open up connections between architecture and socio-cultural change, from international conflict to the welfare state.


On the defensive

To see how windows changed history, look no further than Chepstow Castle. One of the first stone castles in Britain, it was built from 1067, a reward from William the Conqueror to his follower, William Fitz Osbern. Its role as a stronghold on the Welsh banks of the Wye was vital, a symbol of the conquering Normans and a defence against the Welsh.


Its fortifications remained poor until around 1190, when William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, strengthened them. He introduced the arrow slits – which, as openings in the walls that allow those inside to look out, and of course fire arrows through, can be regarded as fitting windows for castle towers. The Chepstow Castle arrow slits are some of the earliest in medieval conflict architecture.

These adaptable forms of defence had somehow been forgotten for centuries. Although they may have been the Egyptians’ invention more than 4,000 years ago, historian Polybius claimed that Archimedes of ancient Greece had invented them in the third century BC, during the siege of Syracuse.

Chepstow’s arrow slits vary in height, width and shape. Long straight slits complemented the long bow, while those with short horizontal slits across them also suited the crossbow. The opening (or embrasure) widened within, giving bowmen an extended, but protected, field of view. These slits were seen as innovative at the time and well-designed for their purpose, since the attacker was unable to shoot an arrow through the narrow slit, and the defender had unlimited time to observe and take aim.

Defence was a priority, so the arrow slits were also aimed at the outer bailey, within the castle’s walls.

In later medieval times, the addition of an elegant Great Hall, with richly decorated windows overlooking the Wye, gave good light for comfortable reading on cushioned seats.


Basking in heavenly light

The great east window at Gloucester Cathedral is said to have been the largest in the world when it was installed, in the 1350s. When the sun shone through this tennis court-sized structure, its luminous colours, symbolising the divine light of heaven, stunned pilgrims approaching Edward II’s tomb.

The window encompasses the English medieval world view of a hierarchical society, as the layers ascend from noblemen’s shields to clergymen and kings. Above these are the saints, apostles and angels, with the Virgin Mary and Christ as the centrepiece. As a symbol of secular and sacred authority, it would have awed a largely illiterate society, but perhaps as impressive was its craftsmanship and technology.

Created from thousands of pieces of glass set in lead, the window is a fine example of French Abbot Suger’s conception of stained glass representing “heavenly light” in religious architecture. Various metal oxides and other ingredients such as urine produced the richly coloured glass. Such a huge window required not only Gothic building technology, but also complex stone tracery to support it.

Not only does the hierarchy of power ascend to God, but it also descends to the royal heraldry below, its meaning clear in the alternative name of the Crécy Window. Worshippers walking down the nave would have seen the lower layer of emblems belonging to noblemen who had fought in the Crécy campaign, when English troops had stormed to victory over France in 1346. This great victory, viewed as a sign of divine favour, was an ideal opportunity to assert the authority of the crown under Edward III following Edward II’s unstable reign.

The window’s symbolism, affirming the king’s divine right and England’s power, would not have been lost on the pilgrims to Edward II’s tomb. Medieval cosmology might have centred on religious belief, but this was intertwined with the national political consciousness.

Listen: Cultural sociologist Rachel Hurdley peers into the curious history of windows, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


The ultimate status symbol

Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, who was surpassed only in wealth by Queen Elizabeth I herself, built Hardwick Hall in the 1590s. Planned by Robert Smythson, who was renowned as the first English architect, the Hall was designed to impress visitors with Bess’s affluence and power. Increasing in height with each storey, the windows were made possible only by incorporating the fireplaces into the walls – at the time, fireplaces and chimneys protruded externally, taking up space. Not content with showing her wealth through the display of so much expensive glass, Bess established a glassworks to produce it.

The visitor, suitably overawed by the myriad panes, glittering like diamonds, in the huge windows of the Hall’s facade – Hardwick was described as “more window than wall” – would then be directed up three flights of stairs to the glory of the Great High Chamber. Their breathless ascent would be followed by breathtaking views over Bess’s land, stretching as far as the eye could see. They would be left in no doubt who was in charge: a woman who was a powerful property owner. Topped by her initials in stone, “ES”, Hardwick Hall shows how windows stamped authority on the landscape and domestic interior.


Thrown from power

The execution of King Charles I has its origins, at least partially, in a tale of people being pushed out of a window. In 1618, a Bohemian Protestant mob threw two imperial regents out of a window at Prague (Hradčany) Castle. The victims, who were Catholic and seen as enemies of the Protestant estates, were saved by a convenient dung heap, but the event exacerbated tensions with the Catholic Habsburgs. As both sides gathered their forces, the defenestration proved to be a catalyst for the Thirty Years’ War, which led to 8 million deaths.

A depiction of The defenestration of Prague, which saw two imperial regents thrown out of a window by a Protestant mob
The defenestration of Prague, which saw two imperial regents thrown out of a window by a Protestant mob, triggered political turmoil and conflict across Europe. (Photo by Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis via Getty Images)

While that conflict ravaged Europe, James I of England, who cast himself as “Rex Pacificus” (King of Peace), was dealing with rising tensions in his own country. He upset the virulently anti-Catholic parliament by failing to support his daughter Elizabeth and Protestant son-in-law, Frederick, when they were ousted as king and queen of Bohemia by Catholic troops. Even worse, in an attempt at “balance”, James arranged the marriage of his son, the future Charles I, to the French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria, even allowing her and other Catholics to continue their religious practices.

James’s conduct in the Thirty Years’ War fractured the relationship between the monarchy and parliament. The damage sowed the seeds of the Civil War, and Charles I losing his head.


Lessons in morality

William Holman Hunt designed The Awakening Conscience (1853) as a pair for his religious work, The Light of the World. Whereas the earlier painting centres on a door, symbolising the human heart at which Christ is knocking, The Awakening Conscience shows a window (reflected in a mirror), representing the light of salvation, towards which a “fallen woman” is turning.

The woman, without a wedding ring, is embraced by her lover in a vulgarly furnished room. Contemporaries would have read the symbols of the cat toying with a wounded bird, the tangled web of yarn and the man’s cast-off glove as rich in meaning. However, this painting, unlike the conventional Victorian trope of the “fallen woman” as a lost soul, is an unusual image of Christian charity.

Prompted by her lover playing ‘Oft in the Silly Night’ – a nostalgic song evoking memories of a happy past, the sheet music for which is visible on the piano – the woman looks to move towards the window and the sunlit promise of salvation. Sadly, most Victorian viewers missed this message, revelling instead in the fact that the model was Hunt’s teen mistress, an uneducated former barmaid.

A “fallen woman” is turning to salvation, represented by a window, in William Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting
A “fallen woman” is turning to salvation, represented by a window, in William Holman Hunt’s 1853 painting. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Breaking the glass window

On or about 22 November 1910, my own great-grandmother Charlotte Shaw politely asked a policeman where the office of cabinet minister John Burns was. She then took a brick from her muff and hurled it at the minister’s window. Charlotte was an early adopter of the suffragettes’ “Window Smashing” campaigns. Triggered by the failure of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given some 1 million women the vote, Charlotte and hundreds of others embarked on these campaigns of destruction, using hammers and bricks often inscribed with motifs such as “Better broken windows than broken promises”.


Shortly before her arrest for “wilful damage”, Charlotte had appeared in Bow Street Police Court for “obstructing the police in the execution of their duty”. A London newspaper gleefully reported that they were denied their “martyrdom” since, despite bringing luggage for a stay in prison, all the women were released. The home secretary had declined to offer any evidence against them.

Untroubled by this move, Charlotte threw the brick, receiving a month in Holloway. She was buoyed by a telegram her sister Mabel Capper, also a suffragette, received in the courtroom: “Bravo Victory nearer than ever. Anything needed write home. Best wishes to you and Auntie Char. Mother Father Jack Willie Capper. Manchester.” And their victory finally came in 1928, when women were given equal franchise to men.


Modernism in ruins

In 1993 Hutchesontown C, a high-rise housing estate in Glasgow, was finally demolished by wrecking crews. This was a grim end to the damp, infested ruin that had been Basil Spence’s modernist vision: “On Tuesdays, when the washing’s out, it’ll be like a great ship in full sail.”

Spence was inspired by Le Corbusier’s 1952 “Unité d’Habitation” in Marseilles – described as “streets in the sky”, these huge blocks of maisonettes featured wide windows and large balconies – and designed what came to be known as “Colditz” along similar lines.

High-rise flats in Glasgow, c1960
High-rise flats in Glasgow, c1960. These modernist buildings with wide windows and balconies were demolished four decades later. (Photo by Albert McCabe/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But there was a dark side to this modernist style. Grouping tall buildings together caused extremely high winds to whip around the flats, blowing washing away and damaging windows and doors. Damp was also a persistent issue, partly because such a complex and large building needed constant maintenance, which the city council could not afford. The mass-produced Brutalist housing became associated with deprivation and ill-health – needless to say, it was deeply unpopular with the local people. Spence’s 1950s dream of “gardens in the sky” turned to crumbling concrete.

Rachel Hurdley is a research fellow in cultural sociology at Cardiff University, and she also presented The Hidden History of the Window, which is available on BBC Sounds

This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine


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