Helena Wintour was born in dangerous times for Catholic families in England. Her father was Robert Wintour who, along with his two brothers, was executed as a traitor in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot which had been foiled the year before. The name Wintour was even enough to convict Robert’s younger half-brother, John, who had no part in the plot, but suffered death nevertheless. Helena was only six years old when her mother Gertrude was left alone to bring up the four children. Her refusal to attend Anglican services resulted in the loss of the family house at Huddington Court. Gertrude died only three years later, and it is thought that the care of the children was then overseen by the tightly-knit recusant community. By 1615 however, Helena’s older brother, John, had managed to pay the recusancy fines and he and his wife move back to Huddington Court. Helena and her two sisters presumably lived with them.
Despite John producing children, Helena, living at Badge Court in Worcestershire, was by 1658 the only surviving member of her family. She never married, but had spent much of her life caring for others. Now she was able to devote all of her time to creating the lavishly embroidered vestments that would become her legacy.
The Alleluia Chasuble was bequeathed to the Society of Jesus, and is one of the most richly decorated in the collection, the bold and complex design incorporating text, images and heraldic motifs amid golden scrolls and flowers. A roundel on the reverse contains the image of a falcon landing on a tower, the Wintour family crest, and the words Orate pro me Helena Wintour (Pray for me Helena Wintour). In putting her name and family crest on an item of such overt Catholic and Jesuit imagery, she risked arrest and imprisonment.
A volume of manuscripts in the Archives tells the circumstances of Helena’s death on 5 May 1671 and the ensuing fight with her niece by marriage, Lady Mary Wintour, over the vestments. One of the most important documents in this volume is what is known as Helena Wintour’s will, although it is actually a declaration of intent, dictated from 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 & 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 5th day of May 1671. All this I doe declare as part of my last Will & Testament.
The documents in this volume were preserved by the English Jesuits along with their share of the vestments as proof of ownership. They were collated by Rev Henry Campbell (1783-1874), a secular clergyman educated by the English Jesuits, who sent them to Stonyhurst along with the vestments. The manuscripts are now part of the Province archives in London.
Helena’s determination to dedicate her life to the Catholic faith and create these beautiful vestments, despite her tragic background and the dangers associated with being a Catholic in England at that time, is a true testament to her incredible strength of character.
The manuscript volume containing the will is currently on loan to Stonyhurst College as part of the exhibition Plots and Spangles: the Embroidered Vestments of Helena Wintour at Auckland Castle until 11 April 2016. For more information about the volume, please contact us.