The mystery of Coventry Cathedral's Victorian stained glass windows revealed on BBC One West Midlands

Date: 27.02.2014     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.11
Category: English Regions
A stained glass window believed to have miraculously escaped unscathed from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and delivered to a small Icelandic town of Akureyri during the Second World War has been proven as nothing more than a myth in a new BBC documentary entitled The Great Glass Mystery for BBC One (West Midlands).

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' which resides in the town’s church. In Akureyri, the story of the glass has been taught to generations of Sunday School children, despite a theory the window was stolen and smuggled across the U-boat infested waters of the Atlantic.

In The Great Glass Mystery, Dr Jonathan Foyle, Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, meets Canon Kenyon Wright who spent 11 years as a minister at Coventry Cathedral. He tells Dr Foyle that, as Hitler scrambled his bombers, the medieval windows were taken down and stored in the nearby village of Hampton Lucy.

Canon Wright asserts that some of the Victorian windows were also removed and stored in Hampton Lucy. 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 apparently shipped the windows back to his twin brother Kristjan in Iceland – who owned an antiques shop in Reykjavik. There he sold them to the church in Akureyri.

The intriguing story interested Dr Jonathan Foyle, as he had already helped to restore the precious medieval stained glass that was removed from Coventry Cathedral before the Blitz. However, 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.

The documentary follows Dr Jonathan Foyle as he travels to Akureyri. In Reykjavik he also visits another church which claims to have windows from Coventry Cathedral, but as Dr Foyle learns, more about the story he grows increasingly sceptical and returns to Coventry to investigate.

Newsreel taken at the time of the bombing appears to show that all the windows that were left in place before the attack were destroyed. Dr Foyle 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.

An eye-witness, 93-year-old Irene Chainey, agrees. She tells Dr Foyle that she remembers that the Victorian glass was left in place before the bombing.

Dr Foyle also speaks to 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 Allen agrees that none of the windows in Iceland came from Coventry Cathedral. Instead, she confirms what Irene Chainey says, declaring that 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 the glass was originally from Coventry Cathedral to boost its value.

Dr Jonathan Foyle’s conclusion is a potential embarrassment for the churches in Iceland and Coventry. The 70-year-old 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. However, when Dr Foyle shares his findings with them he is told that the transatlantic friendship will continue.

The Dean of Coventry Cathedral, the Very Reverend John Witcombe, tells the programme: “We've kind of both been, if you like, duped a bit by the story. There's a sense of sadness because you always want something to be true, don't you? There's a bit of a sense of that but it means we can kind of greet each other well. And not have any animosity.”

Pastor Svavar Jonsson from Akureyri Church tells Dr Foyle: “Yes, it's surprised me but we will then update our text about this window and 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.”

There is also some relief that the glass was not stolen from Coventry. It is a revelation that is a great comfort to the daughter of the Icelandic antiques dealer who purchased the supposed Victorian stained glass window from Coventry Cathedral – Kristjan Zoega. She tells Dr Foyle that rumours her father sold glass stolen from Coventry have upset her. But she welcomes Dr Foyle’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.”

The Great Glass Mystery - BBC One (West Midlands), Sunday 2 March at 4.10pm - and also available on BBC iPlayer