The medieval church of St. Mary’s in the town of Fairford is notable for the menagerie of nightmarish demons that lurk among more conventional religious imagery in the stained glass windows. Goggle-eyed demons pout, cackle, drool, gnash their teeth, and loll their bloodthirsty tongues from fanged maws while wielding clubs and bladed weapons with menacing intent.
In a number of the central window panes, red and blue-skinned apparitions are depicted gleefully swinging spiked maces or merrily poking tridents towards the naked bodies of condemned humans, who run shrieking from their tormentors and the flames that seem to engulf them. The religious reason for portraying these nightmarish creatures alongside the images of suffering sinners, pious priests, and stoic saints was simply to terrify the people in the church congregation. These colorful windows would have essentially been used as an artistic complement to the priests’ sermons, to paint a fearful picture of the torments of Hell. In the 15th century, this was just one of many methods authorities believed would produce good Christians.
The 15th century was a turbulent one for the people of England, who suffered continuous carnage during the War of the Roses (a civil war that lasted 30 years and claimed over 40,000 lives), several outbreaks of the bubonic plague, cholera, and smallpox, as well as terrible famines and chronic economic depression.
The church attributed these hardships to the supernatural. Talk of devil worship and witchcraft generated mass hysteria that often resulted in witch hunts. Innocent men and women who had been accused of being witches or werewolves were seized by frenzied mobs and subjected to kangaroo courts. Many of these incidents ended with the accused being hanged or drowned in local rivers and ponds.
It may come as no surprise then that the belief in such nightmarish demonic beings, as depicted in the stained-glass windows of St. Mary’s Fairford Church, was widespread in the British Isles and loomed large in the collective unconscious and the medieval imagination.
The fact that the medieval windows of St. Mary’s survive to the present day is quite unusual. In the post-Reformation era of the 16th century, such images were considered to be idolatrous and were destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII.
Historians have proposed several theories as to how these windows survived, including painting over offending images of saints or the intercession of a local aristocrat who was able to protect this medieval masterpiece from vandalism. Whatever the true reason for their survival may be, the medieval stained glass windows remain to be enjoyed in all their gothic horror by the modern visitor to St. Mary’s church.
Know Before You Go
The church of St Mary's Fairford is open everyday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance is free of charge.
Be sure to also try spotting other medieval monsters at the church such as the stone gargoyles that can be glimpsed on the roof and the miserichord carvings in the wooden pews.