Legacy Makers and Boundary Breakers

Extraordinary women of historic churches

By Churches Conservation Trust

Rood screen panel of St Catherine (1501-1532)Churches Conservation Trust

Hidden heroes

Women have always played an integral part in church life. They feature often in church art and literature. Artists, conservationists, patrons and politicians, these women had significant influence in their time. Historically though, their accomplishments have not always been celebrated and their legacies often remain unrecognised. Here we look at the lives and stories of a handful of these extraordinary women associated with historic English churches. 

Queen Emma of Normandy family tree (932-1086)Churches Conservation Trust

Queen Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy (985-1052) was twice queen of both England and Normandy – in modern-day France. She politically united these two kingdoms either side of the English Channel against invading Vikings from the north. After her second marriage, Emma also became queen of Denmark and Norway. Emma wielded substantial political power over a vast region during a time of great social unrest and violent conflicts between Anglo-Saxon and Viking rulers. She outlived both of her husbands and all but one of her five children.

Flint, limestone and Roman brick wall at St Mary's Church (1016-1874)Churches Conservation Trust

St Mary's church sits on the oldest Christian site in Sandwich, Kent. The convent that once stood here was destroyed during Anglo-Saxon & Viking wars in the 11th Century.

Emma quickly had a church built on the same site using flint, limestone and Roman terracotta; building materials commonly used in South-East England but also in Normandy, Emma's birthplace.

Small stone statue of St Margaret of Antioch (1846) by James ThomsonChurches Conservation Trust

St Margaret of Antioch 

Churches are usually dedicated to, and named after, a saint. This 12th-century church in Leigh Delamere is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch (298-304). People believed that devotion to Margaret protected women and infants during childbirth. When it was rebuilt in 1846, a small stone statue of St Margaret was added above the south porch entrance – she watches over and prays for all those who enter.

Guide to Medieval rood screen at St Mary's (1501-1532)Churches Conservation Trust

Holy women of Wiggenhall

This brightly painted carved wooden screen, or 'rood screen' depicts a holy person in each panel. Located in a small Norfolk church it is a rare example of a English medieval screen where each character is still visible. The Wiggenhall rood screen is especially unusual as seven out of the eight figures are women.

This female-dominated depiction of saints may have been influenced by a connection to the nearby Crabhouse Nunnery. The nuns were very active caring and praying for local people and so this display of devotion to women is perhaps not as surprising as it is rare.

Each saint holds a symbolic object they are associated with. Zoom out and move around the image to explore in more detail.

Rood screen panel of St Mary the Virgin (1501-1532)Churches Conservation Trust

These paintings remarkably survived the reign of Edward VI, which saw the systematic destruction of the colourful interiors and human images associated with the Catholic Church.

Centuries on, we can still see brush strokes along St Mary's flaming hair, her face full of devotion for her son.

Anne Hathaway

Not long after this era of brutal religious turmoil had passed, Anne Hathaway (1556-1623) lived with her father and siblings at this farmhouse in the hamlet of Shottery near Stratford-upon-Avon. Anne, an educated landowner, is said to have married her young suitor in All Saints, Billesley – a humble little church in Warwickshire.

Church of All Saints, Billesley (1692)Churches Conservation Trust

In November 1582, Anne married William Shakespeare. At the time, young William was unknown and penniless, his family in severe debt. Marriage into the Hathaway family benefitted him and his aspiring career as a playright.

At the time of the wedding Anne was pregnant, sparking centuries of speculation that this was a 'shotgun wedding'. However, parish records show it was not unusual for brides to be pregnant at the time of marriage.

Interior of St Ninian's, Brougham (1660) by Lady Anne CliffordChurches Conservation Trust

Lady Anne Clifford 

Anne Clifford (1590-1676)  was a diarist and patron of literature who also had considerable influence in civic life in her role as High Sheriff of Westmorland. Born into a noble family, Anne's parents' estate – the Earldom of Cumberland – had bypassed her and went to her uncle when her father died. It was usual at the time for inheritance to pass only between the men in a family. She spent 40 years fighting to regain her inheritance and was finally successful in 1643. 

Church of St Ninian's, Brougham (1660) by Lady Anne CliffordChurches Conservation Trust

Anne found that many of the buildings she inherited had fallen into ruin. She soon became a passionate conservationist, restoring and improving various castles, churches and almshouses. St Ninian's Church was among these, commenting that it was "built up again in the same place larger and bigger than before"

Anne's initials can still be seen in plasterwork above the altar today.

Marble statue of Lady Charlotte Finch (1820) by Francis Leggatt ChantreyChurches Conservation Trust

Lady Charlotte Finch

Charlotte Finch (1725-1813) served as Royal Governess to the children of King George III. As well as being responsible for the education of the royal children, Lady Charlotte is believed to have invented the jigsaw puzzle – it was reportedly used as a device to help the young princes learn geography. 

Monument dedicated to Lady Charlotte Finch (1820) by Francis Leggatt ChantreyChurches Conservation Trust

This beautiful monument dedicated to Charlotte is expertly carved from alabaster marble. It is in the Holy Cross Church, in her family's estate of Burley-on-the-Hill in Rutland. The monument was created by Francis Chantrey, a leading portrait sculptor of the era.

Crypt of Harriot Mellon, Duchess of St Alban's (1837)Churches Conservation Trust

Harriot Mellon

The life of Harriot Mellon (1777-1837) is a true 'rags to riches' story. Born into a family travelling theatre, she was an actor living in unglamourous conditions. After one theatre performance she met and eventually married the wealthy Thomas Coutts, founder of Coutts & Co. bank. She inherited his vast fortune and had a senior role at the bank. Harriot became well known in London Society, hosting parties for the rich and famous and later married the Duke of St Albans. Harriot is buried in St Andrews church, Redbourne.

Ornate Georgian font in St Andrew, Redbourne (1775) by Richard HaywardChurches Conservation Trust

Harriot commissioned many ornate additions and changes to this church which do not survive today, aside from a vivid stained glass window and marble memorial plaque. This intricate stone font pre-dates Harriot's restoration.

Holy Trinity, York, by candlelight (1401-1937)Churches Conservation Trust

Anne Lister

Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a successful industrialist, wealthy landowner and mountaineer. Anne's distinctive style of dress – always in black and without 'feminine' skirts and frills – and her unusual openness about her lesbian sexuality earned her the nickname 'Gentleman Jack'. After her death, Anne became known for her diaries which detailed her daily life, including her relationships and eventual marriage to Ann Walker in the medieval church of Holy Trinity, York, in 1834.

Plaque commemorating Anne Lister at Holy Trinity (2018) by York Civic Trust, York LGBT ForumChurches Conservation Trust

A permanent plaque celebrating Anne's life and wedding ceremony was erected in 2018 at Holy Trinity after a three year campaign by York LGBT Forum and York Civic Trust.

Anne's diaries were written in her own coded language, 'Crypthand', a combination of various symbols borrowed from algebra and the Greek alphabet which she believed would never be decoded. However, a later family member did break the code, helping us to better understand the life of this extraordinary woman who is often referred to as 'the first modern lesbian'.

Intricately carved Norman stone arches at St Peter's (1101-1200)Churches Conservation Trust

Anne Baker

Anne Elizabeth Baker (1786-1861) conducted an incredible conservation project in St Peter's Church in Northampton. For 11 years she painstakingly removed plasterwork by hand with a bone knife, to uncover an equisite series of Norman carvings. These carvings were likely hidden under plaster following the English Reformation.  After two centuries of white plaster walls, Anne was able to unveil the remarkable foliage, scrollwork, birds and beasts that lay beneath. Dating to c.1086, St Peter's boasts some of England's finest surviving Romanesque carvings.

Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases by Anne Elizabeth Baker (1854) by Anne Elizabeth BakerChurches Conservation Trust

As well as historic buildings conservation, Anne was also keen to preserve other types of Northamptonshire cultural heritage, such as local language and native plant species. She dedicated her two-volume 'Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases' to her brother, George.

Anne often travelled with George and contributed to his publications, also.

Monument of Lord and Lady Curzon (1906-1925) by Sir Bertram MackennalChurches Conservation Trust

Lady Mary Curzon

Mary Curzon (1870-1906) was born and raised in America. She served as Vicereine of India as the wife of Lord Curzon, holding the highest official title in Imperial India under British rule. She was responsible for a number of important medical reforms for the care of women in India. She was  instrumental in protecting one-horned rhinoceroses and also helped revive traditional Indian crafts. By influencing master craftspeople to adapt their designs to European tastes and by facilitating trade, Indian materials and motifs became highly fashionable in European cities. In recent popular culture, it has been speculated that Mary Curzon and her daughters inspired the main characters of popular TV series 'Downton Abbey'.

Monument dedicated to Lord and Lady Curzon (1906-1925) by Sir Bertram MackennalChurches Conservation Trust

After Mary's death, a chapel was built on the grounds of Kedleston Hall, designed by architect George Bodley. This exquisite alabaster monument to Mary and her husband at rest on their tomb also includes two angels holding the veiled crown of life above their heads.

Nativity scene stained glass (1933) by Margaret E. Aldrich RopeChurches Conservation Trust

Margaret E. Aldrich Rope

Margaret E. Aldrich Rope (1891-1988) was a prominent stained glass artist working in the the Arts and Crafts style. She created this striking window in St Mary's Church, Edlesborough, depicting a Nativity scene. Margaret was a prolific designer of stained glass for churches, always using her signature style.

Watercolour cartoon and stained glass window (1933) by Margaret E. Aldrich RopeChurches Conservation Trust

Here we see the Edlesborough window alongside a design or 'cartoon' for a very similar window by Margaret.

It is unkown whether both window designs were intended as part of a nativity series, but the reccurent motifs are clear – from the diagonal shafts of light falling across the image and resting on Mary and baby Jesus on the left, to the kneeling visitors on the right.

Artist signature on stained glass (1933) by Margaret E. Aldrich RopeChurches Conservation Trust

Margaret used her mother’s maiden name 'Aldrich' in her career to distinguish herself from her cousin Margaret Agnes Rope. Both women worked for a time at Glass House, founded by suffragist campaigner Mary Lowdes. The elegant blue and pink hues in the window have long been associated with women and female devotion.

Window to Womanhood in All Saints, Cambridge (1944) by Douglas StrachanChurches Conservation Trust

Window to womanhood

This window dedicated to Kate Louisa Murrish (1864-1942) was commissioned by her husband after her death. It was designed by the Scottish artist Douglas Strachan  in 1944. This glorious window, made as a tribute to remarkable women's achievements, particularly highlights people who carried out great work in their communities or who helped other people at great personal cost.

Elizabeth Fry in 'Window to Womanhood' (1944) by Douglas StrachanChurches Conservation Trust

Elizabeth Fry

Perhaps the most famous woman depicted is Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845). A Quaker and social reformer, Elizabeth's face adorned the British five pound note until 2016. Appalled by the squalor and overcrowding she witnessed when visiting a British prison, she campaigned to improve the living conditions for women prisoners and their children and became a major force behind new legislation which successfully improved life for prisoners and better supported inmates' education and rehabilitation. 

Josephine Butler in 'Window to Womanhood' (1944) by Douglas StrachanChurches Conservation Trust

Josephine Butler

Josephine Butler (1828-1906) campaigned for women's right to vote, better education for women, the abolition of child prostitution, and the end to human trafficking of vulnerable young women and children around Europe. She wrote over 90 books, essays and pamphlets supporting her campaigns to raise public awareness.

Mother Cecile Isherwood in 'Window to Womanhood' (1944) by Douglas StrachanChurches Conservation Trust

Mother Cecile Isherwood

The nun Annie Cecile Isherwood (1862-1906) founded a religious community in Grahamstown, South Africa. Shortly after establishing this community, the nuns opened an orphanage and a school for children of railway workers and orphans living in poverty and without education.

Edith Cavell in 'Window to Womanhood' (1944) by Douglas StrachanChurches Conservation Trust

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a pioneer of modern nursing. A British nurse working in Belgium, she saved hundreds of lives during World War One. Collaborating with a group of covert agents, she was able to get over 200 Allied soldiers out of occupied Belgium and into the Netherlands, neutral territory where they would be safe. Unfortunately, she was caught by the occupying German army and despite international pressure for mercy, was executed by firing squad at the age of 49, just a year after the conflict's outbreak. 

Memorial of Lady Mary Curzon (1906-1925) by Sir Bertram MackennalChurches Conservation Trust

More to explore

Each extraordinary woman included here made a unique contribution to their community, the lives of others and their parish church. These artworks are evidence of their legacies, which live on today.  Here, we have highlighted just a handful of stories, but there are many more artworks and artefacts holding clues of remarkable women’s lives, just waiting to be uncovered and shared with the world.

Credits: Story

Contributors:
Jessica Clarke, Chloe Meredith and Leigh Trefny

Contributing photographers:
Hannah Boatfield, Joseph Casey, Adrian Powter and Graham White

With thanks to:
The British Library, Matt Jenkins, Mary Nottingham, Arthur Rope, York Civic Trust, York LGBTQ Forum


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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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