The mysterious stained glass of Giggleswick

Giggleswick Church

Very few people know that there is a mystery surrounding the church of St Alkelda in Giggleswick. The whole matter started with a parish fair.  People from the two churches dedicated to St Alkelda, one in Middleham {pingback to March 28} and one in Giggleswick, were looking for items to sell at the fair in a Parish room. The room was a private house the church had acquired in 1932 and it was linked to the vicarage until the early Sixties. During the search, these parishioners came across a pile of old newspapers and they were attracted by something at the bottom. It was a beautiful stained glass that showed a woman being strangled with her feet in water. Everything matched with the description of St Alkelda’s martyrdom.

Giggleswick Church

Immediately after the discovery, the finders contacted the former vicar’s relatives with memories back till 1955 but they could remember nothing. Many questions arose: who was the artist who had made it? When and above all why the panel was never used? Some think that possibly it was considered extremely Catholic and this was perhaps due to the influence of a local historian, Thomas Braynshaw.

The reason the saint is showed with her feet in water, is because her name is the result of an Old English-Norse word haelikeld that is “holy well”. Possibly, she was associated with the wells that are located close to the churches both in Giggleswick and Middleham but her name was very likely to be a different one. The possibility that St Alkelda was a real person is very strong as in 1818, thanks to a refurbishment of the church in Middleham, a stone coffin was found with the skeleton of a woman inside and in the place where tradition refers the saint was buried.

As the stained glass panel was found, the members of the parish decided to clean it and try to get more information about it. During the cleaning, it was noticed that the blue and the red pieces of glass were thicker than the others.  This could mean that those pieces were made with a different technique possibly medieval coming from another glass depicting St Alkelda or a different subject. What is sure is that in A History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick by Brayshaw, a stained glass with many blue pieces was recorded in 1620 so it is likely that the glass was destroyed during the Commonwealth period. In 1890, a photograph shows that the stained glass reported in Braynshaw’s book had been replaced by a plain one. It is a possibility that the old pieces were inserted by the unknown artist in the new glass.

In order to have a more reliable opinion, in 2017, the glass was taken to York Minster’s glaziers. They affirmed that the glass panel was a modern one and that the thick pieces were a sort of imitation of a medieval technique but they were not able to give a definitive answer though. All this makes the glass unique and interesting. However, a question come to mind: why inserting just some pieces made imitating a medieval technique and not making the whole panel using it? It is more plausible that the unknown artist, found or was given the pieces and he had the idea to insert them in his own panel creating a very original artefact.

As regards the name of the saint, we personally have an idea still not supported by evidence. Why dedicating two churches that are very close one to another to both the Virgin Mary and a local saint? Why not just St Alkelda? What if the saint’s name was Mary and the original name of Middleham or Giggleswick church was St Mary of the Holy Well referring to the martyr who baptised converted people using the water of the wells? If her name was Mary, it was easy to mismatch her with the mother of Jesus so this could be the explanation for the adding “of the Holy Well”. At the moment this theory is just our own speculation about this topic.

The good news is that In May 2019 the panel will be allocated in Giggleswick church with a great ceremony. This will be a good occasion to visit both Giggleswick and Middleham, the only two places in the world celebrating St Alkelda but the mystery continues. Giggleswick is also famous for the school, attended by Richard Whiteley and at which Russell Harty taught, did he not?

By Maria

Hi, my name is Maria, I am Italian but my soul is British.

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