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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: The Frideswide Window

Written by Ruth Buckley, posted on Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Frideswide WindowThe possible toilet in the Frideswide Window has been a source of debate amongst the Cathedral community for some time. Is it in fact a Victorian toilet or a medieval washstand? Is it a joke made by a 24-year-old Burne-Jones or is there more to it? The complete truth may never be known, but in this week's 25 Objects blog Cathedral Guide Ruth Buckley gives her fascinating take on the 16th pannel of the Frideswide window and tries to understand just what is peeking out from behind the Saint's bathroom curtain.


The 1858 Burne-Jones window of the legend of St Frideswide in the Latin chapel is one of the treasures of Christ Church Cathedral. It a completely unique example of how to tell a story in stained glass and was made by a young artist at the beginning of a long and very prestigious career. Burne-Jones, only 24 at the time, had never seen a window like it, and would never make another quite the same.

There are many little interesting details and asides that young Jones added to his 16 panels that can be spotted on a close look at the window, but the one that is most eye-catching and most intriguing, is what looks like a toilet in the last panel.

What is this image?Panel 16 Frideswide Window

If you ask an art historian, he or she will say it is almost certainly a medieval washstand not a toilet. If you Google ‘medieval washstand’ you will find one or two that look remarkably similar to this image. One of these, for instance, shows a woman in blue with a washstand, consisting of a waist-high bowl over which is suspended a teapot from which she is pouring water.

However, our image is not the same. It appears to be at a level on which a person could sit and has a round cover not present in these other images. It also has a vertical pipe and handle, that look remarkably like a Victorian toilet.

Just suppose it really is a toilet, isn’t 1858 a bit early?

Believe it or not, a flush toilet, using water from a high-level cistern was first described in 1596 by Sir John Harington during the reign of queen Elizabeth I. In 1775 Alexander Cumming was granted the first patent for a flush toilet using an S-bend to control odour. Neither of these caught on. Despite the examples the Romans left us, the first public flush toilets were not devised until 1851 when George Jennings installed the ‘Retiring Rooms’ at the Great Exhibition. From the 1860s and 1870s, the outside toilet began to move inside, and an integral water-closet started to be installed in middle class homes.

By the 1880s, the row of privies at the bottom of most gardens were being replaced by enclosed toilets tacked onto the backs of houses, where one water pipe could supply the kitchen as well. This arrangement lasted until the mid-twentieth century. So in 1858, Burne-Jones must have known about flush toilets but probably had to use a communal one in his street. Giving Frideswide an inside flush toilet was certainly high-status, but could there be there anything more to the back-story?

Did Burne-Jones have a deeper reason for giving Frideswide a toilet?

In 1857 Burne-Jones was in Oxford working on the murals for the Student Union Debating Hall walls with his friend William Morris when he met Benjamin Woodward, the architect of the Student Union building, and also of the cathedral. In 1857 he had also been introduced to James Powell and Sons of Whitechapel Glassworks, and had already designed two windows for them, and these two instances got him the commission for the Frideswide window the following year.

Late in 1857, having completed his part of the murals, Burne-Jones returned to his lodgings in London while Morris stayed on in Oxford to court his wife-to-be, Jane Burden. In the early summer of 1858, alone in his lodgings, Burne-Jones became seriously ill. He was so ill in fact that he had to move in with the family of his friend Val Prinsep, another pre-Raphaelite painter, to be nursed by the mother, or he might have died.

1858 was the year of the Big Stink. London’s population had grown to over 3 million, but its sanitation had not kept up. Open sewers drained into the river Thames which, in the heat of summer, became a foul smelling, putrid, death trap. Parliament had to be abandoned and a new sewerage system for London was devised, which is still in use today. Burne-Jones biographer, Penelope Fitzgerald, connected Jones illness, which was probably Malaria rather than Cholera, with the inadequate sanitary conditions. He certainly had a relapsing fever, and Frideswide is seen in panel 16 lying on her bed of sickness, as Jones had done so recently.

The legend tells us that Frideswide died of a fever. This must have resonated with Burne-Jones, and the inclusion of a toilet was his way of suggesting that proper sanitation could have saved her life. If so, it was a subtle political message, well understood by Victorian visitors. It also reminds us that our good sanitation, that we take so much for granted, was the biggest contributary factor to the health of the nation.