DETECTIVE work and a slice of luck has put ancient glass back in its place at Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley.
The 900-year-old ruin is one of the most spectacular in England, with its soaring arches and pillars standing to their full height in the Rye Valley.
English Heritage has now succeeded in throwing new light on the site’s once fabulous stained glass windows, much of it shattered during the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538, or sold on to swell Henry VIII’s coffers.
Some fragments survived the upheaval – numbering in their thousands – and are now kept at English Heritage’s Helmsley archaeology store.
They were recovered in the 1920s when de-mobbed servicemen were put to work clearing centuries of accumulated rubble overseen by Sir Charles Peers, an eminent archaeologist.
Some of the original archives papers from these excavations have now emerged, including splendid colour depictions of a small number of Rievaulx’s glass fragments.
While flicking through these impressive folios while holding a random piece of glass, Susan Harrison, an English Heritage curator, struck gold – the picture on the page and the one in her hand were one in the same which was 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 that it could be accurately dated for the first time to between 1275-1300 – a good deal earlier than expected.
Susan said: “The 1920s dig uncovered a vast amount of material under three metres 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 – Abbey’s ‘Board Room’ where key decisions 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 and put on display in the site’s fascinating museum along with copies of the 1920s paintings and other finds normally kept under lock and key, including medieval weights and ceramic tiles.