Does the "Royal Window" at Canterbury Cathedral show us what Edward IV's two sons really looked like?

Obviously most of the images one sees of the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ are definitely not real portraits of them. They are merely comparatively modern inventions. However, it does tend to be assumed that genuine fifteenth-century images of Edward IV’s two sons exist on the left hand side of the ‘Royal’ stained glass window, on the north wall of the northwest transept at Canterbury Cathedral. Indeed, one of those images is thought to be the only surviving fifteenth-century image of Richard of Shrewsbury (though there are other fifteenth-century images of Edward V).

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In its original form the ‘Royal Window’ probably dated from about 1480. But unfortunately the window was smashed in the seventeenth century. It ‘was mostly destroyed on December 13th, 1643 by a minister wielding a pike “on the top of the citie ladder, near sixty steps high” ’.{1} The surviving strip of stained glass which depicts Edward IV and his family ‘was originally at the bottom of the window but was moved to its present central position in the late 18th century when much of the glass in the cathedral was re-ordered’. {2} This is the image of Edward IV’s younger son, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York as it exists today.

It was a puritan who destroyed the ‘Royal Window’ during the Civil War. His name was Richard Culmer. {3} ‘In 1644, in Cathedrall newes from Canterbury, the iconoclast Richard Culmer described with relish the cleansing of the cathedral that took place in December 1643. … The history of the restoration of the cathedral’s glazing is a complicated and badly documented one. Glass was being restored, moved and replaced from the 1660s, and in the early nineteenth century a systematic restoration campaign began which continued until 1952 and which was at times aggressive. Old glass was cut, repainted and reused for different parts of the cathedral and original panels were removed and replaced with modern replicas’.{4}

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It is clear from the glass we see today in the ‘Royal Window’ that the depictions of Edward IV and Elizabeth Widville comprise restored versions of their original images, which have been moved to a higher position in the window frame. As we can see in the case of Edward IV, although his face had obviously been broken in 1643, the pieces survived. Thus the glass which depicts him today is still his original (repaired) image. However, the depictions of some of Edward IV’s children are definitely not original. For example the Canterbury image of Cecily of York, kneeling on the right hand side between her sisters Elizabeth and Anne, is known to be a modern replica, because the original stained glass image of Cecily is no longer at the cathedral. It now forms part of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

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It is also obvious that the depictions of Edward and Elizabeth’s two sons are modern ‘restorations’. First, their faces are formed of modern glass. That can clearly be seen in the ‘portrait’ of Richard of Shrewsbury (above). Second, the ‘princes’ are both depicted wearing bizarre crowns. They are closed crowns - which would normally be worn by reigning monarchs, not by princes. Also the crowns appear to be eighteenth-century in style, not medieval. For example, the crown which is now shown on the head of young Richard is very similar to this German crown which was made in 1807.

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However, a surviving depiction of Edward V’s crown (on a genuine fifteenth-century image of him which survives in Devon) is quite different from the crowns worn by Edward and Richard in the restored Canterbury stained glass window. Significantly, the fifteenth-century Devon window depicts Edward V wearing an open crown – the style of crown which would normally have been considered suitable for a prince.

In other words the Canterbury ‘Royal window’ depictions of the two sons of Edward IV as we see them today are simply later inventions in terms of their faces, their hair and their crowns. Thus they offer us no authentic information as to what the two boys may have looked like.


{1} (consulted November 2017).

{2} (consulted November 2017).

{3} (consulted November 2017).

{4} (consulted November 2017)