The Saint William Window depicts the life and miracles of William Fitzherbert, the Minster’s own archbishop saint, who died in 1154. He was buried at the east end of the nave, and miracles were reported at his tomb from 1177 onwards. He began to be revered as a saint, and was formally canonised by the pope in 1226.
The window dates to about 1414 and is attributed to John Thornton, who created the great East Window in 1405-8. It was donated by the baronial family of Ros of Helmsley, who are depicted in five donor panels at the base of the window (row 1), headed by Lady Beatrice de Ros, who was probably the principal donor. Above the donors are 95 scenes from the life and miracles of Saint William, which make up one of the largest cycles of the life of a saint in existence. The tracery lights contain figures of archbishops and kings, with Christ and the Virgin Mary enthroned at the apex of the window.
The story starts at the bottom left (panel 2a) and continues upwards, left to right and row by row, ending with panel 24e at the top right. The bottom half depicts the life and early miracles of Saint William (rows 2-12). This section is based on the Latin Life of St William, which dates probably from the 1220s, supplemented by additional scenes taken from other Latin sources. The upper half is more episodic and depicts numerous miracles of the saint (rows 15-24). Some of the panels in rows 15-17 depict miracles recounted in the Life and other early miracle stories; some are representative examples of different categories of miracles; some have no parallel in the extant written sources. Rows 18-20 are based on liturgical readings in the Latin Breviary. They start with William’s canonisation in 1226, and then show events connected to the translation of his relics in 1284. Rows 21-24 depict later miracles for which no textual sources survive. Some are specific miracles with distinct stories of their own. Others represent generic types of miracles which were recorded at the tomb, and many of these incorporate design elements copied from earlier panels.
The window, which was in very poor condition, was restored by York Glaziers Trust between 1997 and 2007. It required complete releading, and significant repair work to the panels. Furthermore, the panels had been out of order for centuries. New research by Professor Christopher Norton of the University of York revealed the original order, and the panels were reinstated in their proper order with external protective glazing. For the first time in centuries, it is now possible to read the window as originally envisaged by John Thornton.