• Rebecca Somerset

Helena Wintour and the Jesuits

As the new online exhibition Hot, Holy Ladies on our Jesuit Collections website focuses on the remarkable embroidery work of the formidable Helena Wintour, I thought it might be of interest to reveal some of the Jesuits who influenced or dealt with Helena and her work.

Black ink manuscript text with several signatures at bottom
Helena's Will (Ref MS.A.I.22)

Helena had a great admiration for the Jesuits as evidenced by her generosity to the Society in her will. A volume, known as MS.A.I.22 Mrs Helena Wintour’s Bequest of vestments etc to the Society, containing letters and testimonies as well as Helena’s will, is held by the British Jesuit Archives, though it is currently on loan to Stonyhurst College for the physical Hot, Holy Ladies exhibition. As a recusant she did not have any legal rights to bequeath property, nonetheless, although legally more a declaration of wishes than a will, she dictated the following on her deathbed:


I doe hereby declare that all the pictures in my house, and most part of the bookes doe belong to the Society, and the rest I doe freely give to them; I doe also leave and bequeath unto the said Society, all the vestments and other altar ornaments thereto belonging, whereof I am at present possessed. given under my hand this fifth day of May one thousand six hundred seventy one. all this I doe declare as part of my last will and testament.


Jesuit Influencers

There are certainly two English Jesuits who seem to have had a remarkable influence on Helena’s designs. They are Henry Hawkins SJ (1572/5-1646) and Robert Southwell SJ (1561-1595). By carefully considering her imagery it becomes apparent that Helena was familiar with the writings of these two Jesuits and the descriptions they used.


Fr Henry Hawkins entered the English College in Rome to complete his studies in 1609 as a mature student. He was ordained a priest in 1614 and joined the Society of Jesus the following year. Having been banished from England along with some other Jesuits in 1618, he returned and laboured on the mission for many years before dying at Ghent in August 1646. Hawkins was a writer, and his best-known work is the emblem book Partheneia Sacra, or the mysterious and delicious garden of the sacred Parthens which was originally published in 1633. The British Jesuit Archives holds a copy of his first original work, which is a biography of St Elizabeth of Hungary published in 1632, though sadly not a copy of the Partheneia Sacra.

Embroidered circle in red thread around circles of white and yellow with sparkly details in centre
Detail of Alleluia Chasuble

Partheneai Sacra was a meditative aid to prayer and contemplation including images, emblems, poems and texts to praise Mary using the Catholic metaphor of Mary as a sacred garden. As Jesuit spirituality is intended to deepen spirituality through the engagement of senses and imagination, through Hawkins’ visual descriptions in this work English recusants, who had limited access to a priest and the sacraments, could gain spiritual comfort. Hawkins encourages his readers to observe closely the details of the garden and contemplate Mary’s virtues as seen through floral imagery. Dr Sophie Holroyd has highlighted that Helena Wintour relied on the Partheneia Sacra heavily drawing parallels between Helena’s imagery and the descriptions and images that appear in Hawkins’ book. For example, the Alleluia Chasuble (1650), which is now property of the British Jesuits, contains embroidered rose, tulip, marigold and lily flowers, all of which Hawkins featured in his book.

Oval portrait of a young man with a beard looking serious and to right of viewer
St Robert Southwell SJ

St Robert Southwell, having been born in Norfolk in 1561, studied at Douai and Paris before entering the Society of Jesus in Rome in 1578. In 1586, he accompanied Fr Henry Garnet SJ (1555-1606) to England. He was captured in July 1592 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His crime was being a Catholic priest in England. Southwell was martyred on 21 February 1595 at Tyburn and canonised in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.


Southwell was also a poet and the influence his poetry had on Helena’s design has been discussed by Dr Jan Graffius and Prof Peter Davidson (we hope to bring this as a podcast soon). The White Dalmatic (1655-1656) which was remodelled in c1866 and is the property of the British Jesuits displays a clear echo to Southwell’s poem ‘Christ’s Bloudy Sweat’ in which in verse 2 he writes:

He pelican’s, he phoenix’ fate doth prove, Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die: How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love, Can one in flame and streame both bathe and fry? How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

This poem draws a parallel between Catholic suffering and the sacrifice of Jesus, and a line from this was used for the title of our first virtual exhibition on relics, which amongst others featured a relic of Southwell which is held by the British Jesuit Archives. Furthermore, it can be seen as symbolic for the hanging, drawing and quartering execution that martyrs suffered. It plays on the imagery of fire, water and blood. Hawkins also used the phoenix to represent both Christ and Mary:


One Virgin-mother, Phenix of her kind, And we her Sonne, without a father find. The Sonne’s and Mother’s paines in one are mixt, His side a Lance, her soule a Sword transfixt


Helena included an embroidered pelican and phoenix on the White Dalmatic (1655-1656, remodelled c1866), which is the property of the British Jesuits. The pelican is near a running stream whilst the phoenix is surrounded by flames so as with Southwell's poem the imagery of water and fire is present. The imagery of the martyr’s execution would have been personal to Helena, whose father and uncles endured this penalty for their role in the Gunpowder Plot. There is a pelican on another surviving work, the Spangled Stuffe suit (c 1660), which is the property of the Stonyhurst College Governors.

L-R: Detail of White Dalmatic, Detail of White Dalmatic, Detail of Spangled suit


Jesuit Contacts

Helena is likely to have encountered many Jesuits who were on the English Mission and would have said Mass in her house, eaten at her table and acted as her confessor. There is documentary evidence that the following Jesuits were in personal contact with Helena during her lifetime.


Fr George Gray SJ (1608-1686) entered the Society of Jesus in 1629 and was initially engaged at various Belgian Colleges of the English Province before being appointed as Socius (Assistant) to Fr Matthew Wilson SJ (c1582-1656), the Provincial, in 1653. From 1665 he missioned particularly in the Worcester District until he in turn was declared Provincial in 1671. He died in London in January 1686.


In 1668, whilst working in the Worcester District mission Gray was asked to visit Helena, who lived in the area, to discuss with her the legacies she had promised to the English Jesuits. On 17 November he wrote a report to his Superior, Joseph Simons SJ (c1594-1671), in which he stated that she was planning to bequeath Evelinch Farm, worth £60 per annum in rents, as well as £10 a year to support a Jesuit priest in the area. Helena hoped that a secret school could be opened at Evelench. In addition she wanted to leave another £2,000 from her own estate as well as honour her nephew’s bequest to the Jesuits of £4,000, which due to various financial difficulties had not been paid. Of particular interest to us is that he mentioned her vestments as can be seen in this extract.

Cropt detail from a manuscript letter
Letter from Gray, 17 Nov 1668 (Ref MS.A.I.22 )

A transcript of the above is:

4) She hath bene these many yeares, and is yet, piously employed in making rich embrodered Churchstuffe, which she designes for this particular Mission, or the intended College, not being willing it should be conveyed beyond Sea upon colour of safe custodie, least it should never returne againe. A parcell of curious worke I saw actually in fieri upon the frame; but I understand she hath severall whole suits ech of severall colours, to comply with the Rubrickes.


These embroideries were of sufficient value to be listed along with the financial bequests, and it is clear also that there were a substantial number of vestments in the different liturgical colours. By noting that he saw work in progress and that she had been doing so for many years, Gray implied that Helena made the vestments herself, rather than commissioning them from professional embroiderers, as many women did at that time. He further states that the vestments had been specifically designed with the Jesuits in mind and that Helena was determined that her vestments should stay in England, indeed in Worcestershire, and not vanish abroad like so many Catholic artefacts to be kept safe in exile.


Gray was not the only Jesuit known to have visited Helena. As a local Jesuit it was Fr Anthony Turner who was called to Helena’s deathbed on 5 May 1671.

Engraving portrait of young man looking directly at viewer with rope around his neck and knife stuck in his chest. Image is surrounded by an ornate oval frame which reds Societatis Iesu Sacredos R P Antonius Turnerus
Bl Anthony Turner SJ

Bl Anthony Turner SJ (1628-1679) entered the English College, Rome with his brother Edward on 27 October 1650 and left the College for the noviciate at Watten on 18 April 1653, where he was professed of the four vows in 1668. He was ordained a priest at Liege in April 1659 and sent to the English Mission about 1661 and “probably spent the whole of his missionary life in the Residence of St George (Worcester and Warwick District), of which in the time of the Oates Plot he was Superior. He had the repute of being an indefatigable missioner with great talent for preaching and controversy.” (Br Henry Foley SJ’s Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, vol 7, part 2, p 786) Turner was martyred at Tyburn in June 1679 and was beatified in 1929.


On arriving at her deathbed, Wintour asked Turner to take the vestments away there and then, but perhaps due to some premonition, he suggested she provide documentary proof of his right to take them in case he was challenged. Following Helena’s death, Lady Wintour, the wife of Helena's nephew, claimed that she should have the vestments and as these loud demands were in danger of attracting unwanted attention to the clandestine Jesuits, Turner gave in to her petitions and handed some of the vestments over to her. No information survives about how the division was made.


Jesuit Restorers

Fr Henry Campbell (1783-1874) was not a Jesuit but rather a secular priest educated by the English Jesuits at Stonyhurst and employed by the English Province until his death. Campbell was a missioner at Grafton Hall in Worcestershire between 1813 and 1860. It is due to his research that we know more about what happened to the vestments following Turner’s receipt of them in 1671. In 1854, he wrote to Fr Joseph Johnson SJ (1810-1893), the then Provincial, about the poor state of the vestments and the preservation actions he was taking:


….I was obliged to have the embroidery taken of & mounted onto new silver and velvet…the materials used in the repair cost me at least £30.


The surviving vestments were then brought to Stonyhurst, where they have remained.

Watercolour drawing showing an elderly man sitting at a desk holding a magnifying glass with a white cloth with embroidery on the table in front of him
Br Houghton at work by Agnes Trehearne

We are particularly grateful to the skills and record keeping of the Jesuit Br James Houghton (1796-1876). Houghton entered the Society at Stonyhurst in September 1816, where he remained his entire life acting as “head tailor at Stonyhurst College for about forty years, and embroiderer of vestments, in which delicate art he was distinguished.” (Br Henry Foley SJ’s Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus, vol 7, part 1, p 375) He recorded the work that he carried out on these vestments and it was he who remodelled some of the vestments by removing the embroideries and transferring them to new vestments in 1866. Houghton noted that he tried to keep as much of Helena’s designs as possible. His admiration for Helena's work is evident as in this description of the Alleluia Chasuble (1650), which is now property of the British Jesuits:


2 butifull red roses…whorked in buttonhole stich verey neatly done…I have never seen aney so elabreat and so well done… a butifull peece of whork

Silver and gold embroidery on a red velvety background. Designs show a dove with wings spread either side of the body and head
Detail of the Pentecost Red Chasuble

And concerning the Pentecost Red Chasuble (c1650), which is now the property of the British Jesuits, he noted in 1866:


it as been in the house a long time I have never examined it close before it semes to me to equel in riches aney that we have but all the ornements of the embroydrey have been cut out of the original ground and have been much ingered and just put on this good velvet just with a few stiches so that some of them are ready to fall of it is a pitey to see it as it is ….this would be a verey valiable vestment if it was put to rights.


This reflects the work that Campbell had commissioned to be done to preserve the vestments, but Houghton clearly tackled the problem as the next line reads:


it as been put to rightes since and is now a most excellent vestment.


The vestments that remain the property of the British Jesuits are cared for as part of the collections at Stonyhurst College and it is wonderful that they have been reunited with the surviving vestments which Lady Wintour was given by Turner, which are now the property of Douai Abbey Library. Short videos exploring each of these vestments will soon be available on the virtual exhibition Hot, Holy Ladies.


The images used in this blog post are all copyright Stonyhurst College.

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