The church of the York Glaziers Guild
In the late middle ages, York had a number of glass painters based in Stonegate. The arms of the guild are now in the west window of the south aisle. As St Helen was their parish church, it is likely that the church contained a significant amount of decorative glass, of which the only remainder today is the west window, much of which is medieval. Since the church was rebuilt during the brief Catholic restoration under Mary I efforts would have been made to retain the glass, and York escaped the deliberate destruction of idolatrous images in the sixteenth and especially seventeenth centuries which led directly to the loss of most of the medieval glass in churches in the rest of England. Nevertheless we know that a good deal of glass was lost in York's churches. The explanation lies largely in changes of fashion and the vicissitudes of history. It was treated largely as a historical curiosity, was damaged, or very often physically fell out as the lead holding it in place became deformed through time. That more survived at St Helen until at least the eighteenth century is evidenced by a reference in a York history and guide by Hargrove, published in 1818, which tells us that 'the windows formerly exhibited a considerable quantity of stained glass but most of it has been removed'. In 1923 JA Knowles, the glass restorer and historian, placed a glass memorial plaque to the Glaziers Guild outside the church, but ironically all we have today is a paper copy, since it in turn was destroyed in the air raid of 29 April 1942.
The west window
The west window, containing fragments of glass from the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is rarely mentioned and indeed often unnoticed altogether unless visitors look up as they leave. In any other place, without York's profusion of medieval glass, it would be celebrated. Its history is uncertain, as it is clearly a composite. Before it was placed here after the completion of the 1857-8 restoration it was in the east window but intriguingly Thomas Gent, in his 1730 History of York, described an effigy of St William in a north window and in a west window that of St Helen. These are likely to be two of the figures in the present west window, and it is very possible that at some later date, possibly the early nineteenth century restorations, the glass in the east window was assembled from the best survivals from around the church.
The first of the four principal figures may well be St William, a local saint, and corresponding possibly with the effigy described by Gent, but heavily restored. The second appears to be the Virgin Mary, as Queen of Heaven, the third, with the label 'elena' St Helen the patron saint of the church, and the final kingly figure quite plausibly the Emperor Constantine her son.
In the row below, various theories have been advanced for the subject matter of each panel, the figures under canopies may be from about 1340 and represent the Virgin and St John from a crucifixion group.
The east window
The east window is known to be a composite. Representing the four gospellers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the main figures were originally placed in the side windows of the new chancel in 1858 onward and are by Hardman. In the 1960s under the architect George Pace they were placed in the east window together with an assembly of nineteenth century glass by Wailes from the east window of the south aisle of St Martin Coney Street (where it was replaced by a new window by Harry Stammers).
The decorative glass arranged in the aisle windows under George Pace includes a number of round panels, probably Flemish, which date from the sixteenth century or possibly later. They have an unknown history but are described by JA Knowles in his 1936 History of York Glass Painting as being in the east windows of the aisles. If they are survivals from the 1550s rebuilding, they would be exceptionally rare survivals of Marian liturgical fittings.