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The Great Glass Mystery

Dr Jonathan Foyle examines the mysterious wartime disappearance of stained glass from Coventry Cathedral. He investigates rumours the windows were stolen and sold on the black market. But, more than 70 years on, could the truth embarrass reputations both at home and abroad?

30 minutes

Last on

Sun 2 Mar 2014 16:10
BBC One West Midlands only

The glass mystery

The glass mystery

For more than 70 years people in the small Icelandic town of Akureyri, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, have taken communion below their cherished “Coventry window” – a stained glass window believed to have miraculously escaped unscathed from the ruins of the only English cathedral destroyed in the Blitz. 

In Akureyri, the story of the glass has been taught to generations of Sunday school children.  

This is perhaps surprising - considering many suspect it was stolen and smuggled across the U-boat infested waters of the Atlantic.  

Nevertheless, the story has led to an international ecclesiastical friendship between the two churches.  

A few years ago a delegation from Coventry Cathedral even travelled to Iceland to help cement the relationship. 

But a new documentary reveals that the glass is a fraud, and the story is nothing more than a 70 year old myth. 

Dr Jonathan Foyle is Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain. He had already helped to restore the precious medieval stained glass that was removed from Coventry Cathedral before the Blitz.  

But he also wanted to find out what happened to the Victorian stained glass that filled the rest of the cathedral - not least because so little of Victorian Coventry survives. 

In The Great Glass Mystery Jonathan meets Canon Kenyon Wright who spent 11 years as a minister at the cathedral.  

He tells Jonathan that, as Hitler scrambled his bombers, the medieval windows were taken down and stored in the nearby village of Hampton Lucy.  

So too were some of the Victorian windows. But some of those windows went missing and ended up in an antiques shop in London – where they were sold to an Icelandic trader: Helgi Zoega. 

Helgi shipped them back to his twin brother Kristjan – who owned an antiques shop in Reykjavik. There he sold them to the church. 

The documentary follows Dr Jonathan Foyle as he travels to Akureyri. In Reykjavik he also visits another church which claims to have windows from the cathedral.  

But as Jonathan learns more about the story he grows increasingly sceptical and returns to Coventry to investigate. 

Detective story 

Newsreel footage taken after the bombing shows that all the windows left in place were destroyed. So Jonathan examines documents from the cathedral’s archives to see if any Victorian glass could have been removed before the bombing and saved.  

The documents explain what happened to the medieval glass but none mention any Victorian windows.  

Ninety-three-year-old Irene Chainey agrees. She tells Jonathan she remembers that the Victorian glass was left in place.  

Finally, Jonathan asks Dr Jasmine Allen - Curator of the Stained Glass Museum in Ely - to compare the windows in Iceland with photos of the cathedral’s Victorian windows taken in the 1930s.  

Dr Jasmine Allen agrees that none of the windows in Iceland came from Coventry Cathedral. Instead, the cathedral’s Victorian stained glass was simply left in place and destroyed by the Luftwaffe.  

As for the glass in Iceland - Dr Allen believes it came from a number of different English churches and that the 1940s London antiques dealer simply lied – claiming it was from Coventry Cathedral to boost its value. 

What next?

Dr Jonathan Foyle’s conclusion is a potential embarrassment for the churches in Iceland and Coventry.  

But when Jonathan shares his findings with them he is told that the transatlantic friendship will continue.  

The Dean of the cathedral, the Very Reverend John Witcombe, tells the programme: “We've kind of in a sense both been, if you like, duped a bit by the story. So, well there's a sense of sadness because in a sense you always want something to be true, don't you?  

"So there's a bit of a sense of that but, yeah, it means we can kind of greet each other well. And not have any animosity.”  

Pastor Svavar Jonsson from Akureyri Church tells Jonathan: “Yes, it's surprised me but we will then update our text about this window but we will continue to cherish this window and it has always been a mystery around this window – how did it get to Iceland? It will be much more mysterious now.”  

But there is some relief too – that the glass wasn’t stolen from Coventry.  

It’s a revelation that is a great relief to the daughter of the Icelandic antiques dealer – Kristjan Zoega.  

Kristin Zoega tells Jonathan that rumours her father sold glass stolen from Coventry have upset her.

But she welcomes Jonathan’s findings. Speaking after the meeting Dr Jonathan Foyle said: “That really pleased me actually. This little journey has done something I didn't anticipate that it would. And I think her mind is really at rest now.”  

Mystery of Coventry Cathedral's glass

Mystery of Coventry Cathedral's glass

Dr Jonathan Foyle examines the mysterious wartime disappearance of stained glass from Coventry Cathedral.  

He investigates rumours that the windows were stolen and sold on the black market. Some believe that the stained glass windows were taken away and smuggled to Iceland. 

Watch the video feature about the mystery of the Coventry Cathedral glass.


Role Contributor
PresenterJonathan Foyle
ProducerJoel Mapp

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