“Contested heritage” – St Mary Redcliffe

Following the events which led to the statue of Edward Colston being thrown into Bristol harbour on 7 June 2020, the St Mary Redcliffe PCC and the Diocese of Bristol took the decision to remove the four panels at the bottom of the church’s “Good Samaritan” window in the North Transept. The panels bore the name of Edward Colston, his emblem and his motto “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37).

There was concern that protestors might try to damage the windows, and it was decided to remove the commemorative panels, with a view to replacing them with stained glass images which would not connect the windows with Colston. As a temporary measure, these were replaced with plain glass.

The church conducted a competition to design four replacement panels for the bottom of the Good Samaritan window, and on 23 September 2022, details of the winning design were reproduced in the Daily Telegraph (£) together with comments from the artist, Ealish Swift; a more recent report by the BBC includes photographs of the new designs and further background is provided by on the church’s web site.

The consistory court judgment, reviewed below, also includes the document produced by Rhys Williams, St Mary Redcliffe’s Heritage Development Manager, “Edward Colston and the Transatlantic slave trade“, cited with approval at [26] and summarized at [27] to [41].

In Re St Mary Redcliffe [2023] ECC Bri 1

The Chairman of the North Transept Window project petitioned for:

  • a confirmatory faculty for the removal of the four stained glass panels in the North Transept window containing the Colston family motto, a dedication to and shield of Edward Colston;
  • an application for the permanent removal of those panels;
  • the installation of four modern stained glass panels in their place;
  • the relocation of a wall plaque, marking the ringing of the bells to commemorate the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of slavery, from the bell tower to beneath the window;
  • the installation of an interpretation board beneath the window to explain the removal of the panels and selection process for the new designs; and
  • the installation of a stainless steel protective grill outside of the window [1].


The PCC unanimously supported the petition; the DAC recommended that it be granted subject to consulting the Church Buildings Council (CBC), Historic England (HE), Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and the Victorian Society (VS) [2].

HE considered that the most appropriate solution would be to retain the panels in situ, placing them in their historic context through appropriate interpretation. It noted, however, that the Church’s proposals would cause only a minor degree of harm to the Grade I listed church and would “preserve some of the historic context of the window, as it would allow an important element of its significance to continue to be understood”.

The CBC stated there would be “a low heritage impact for high missional benefit”; the inscription to Edward Colston “gives ground to remove this specific instance but is not a commentary of the wider Colston family; [and the CBC] agreed that the case for removal was made”. It added that whilst it is acknowledged that Edward Colston was a great philanthropist locally and nationally, his wealth derived in part from the slave trade, and his active participation in the Royal Africa Company (RAC) and the South Sea Company. His role in these organisations was not acknowledged after his death in 1721. In 1870 a window sacred to his memory was installed in the Church, and it was not until 1920 when Rev H.J. Wilkins published Edward Colston 1636-1721 A.D. A Chronological Account of His Life and Work that his involvement in the Slave Trade became clear.

The SPAB and VS submitted no comments.

Petitioners’ case summary

“[3]. Whilst it is acknowledged that Edward Colston was a great philanthropist locally and nationally, his wealth derived in part from the slave trade and his active participation in the Royal Africa Company and the South Sea Company. His role in these organisations was not acknowledged after his death in 1721. In 1870 a window sacred to his memory was installed in the Church.

It was not until 1920 when Rev H.J. Wilkins published Edward Colston 1636-1721 A.D. A Chronological Account of His Life and Work that his involvement in the Slave Trade became clear. Since that time his involvement with the slave trade has been excused by the Church and others. St Mary’s now feels it is time that the false narrative of Colston’s life be corrected.

The family motto ‘go thou and do likewise‘ in a memorial window which sets out the seven corporal acts of mercy and images of the Good Samaritan is wholly incongruent with his life. The uncritical memorialisation of Colston is a stumbling block for the work and mission of the Church. They propose removing the four panels that commend Colston and replacing them with modern stained glass, with an interpretation board installed by the windows”.


On 17 June 2020, Christopher Cooper wrote personally to Gau Ch. seeking information on how he might become a party “to reverse the actions of removal of parts of windows &c?” [4]; On 21st June 2020 he wrote to all 44 Diocesan Registries in an email headed “Iconoclasm/Cultural Marxism/Cowardice” [5]. The Registry at the Diocese invited Mr Cooper to say whether he intended to maintain his objections, to which he emailed his response [6].

The Chancellor considered whether Mr Cooper had “sufficient interest” as required by Rule 10 Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015 [7], assisted by an analysis of the parallel jurisdiction of the Administrative Court, for which the current test is set out in S31 Senior Courts Act 1981. He cited Lord Fraser in R v Inland Revenue Commissioners ex p. National Association of Self-Employed and Small Businesses Ltd [1982] AC 617, [at 10] and noted the particular relevance to the instant case of McCourt [2020] EWHC 2320 (Admin). These indicated that the test was one of fact [12].

The Chancellor concluded Mr Cooper appeared to fall squarely into the category of person identified by Lord Fraser as being specifically excluded from having sufficient interest, and was therefore satisfied that he did not have sufficient interest to become a party opponent in this case [13]. On assessing whether he should give the matters Mr Cooper raised any weight, Gau Ch. said he did not understand most of the objections, some of them were factually inaccurate, and gave them no weight at all [14].

The Church building and the Statement of needs

Gau Ch. noted and reaffirmed his description of the church in Re St. Mary the Virgin Redcliffe [2017] ECC Bri 1 which included the statement of Queen Elizabeth I  [15,16]; however, the detailed HE listing which is reproduced at [17] includes no reference to the North Transept window. The context of the statement of needs is at [18], the background at [19], and issues related to the window from [20]. The Church used the Church Building’s Council Contested Heritage matrix to come to the decision to replace the windows with new images and instal an interpretation board placed beside the window. They held a competition to decide which new images should be used. The brief was to design images that reflected the question “And who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10 25-37).

As noted above, the petitioners submitted a document produced by Rhys Williams, St Mary Redcliffe’s Heritage Development Manager, “Edward Colston and the Transatlantic slave trade“, cited with approval at [26] and summarized at [27] to [41]. This included a calculation by Dr Roger Ball of The University of the West of England of the approximate gain Colston made through the Royal Africa Company [34] to [36]. The document also states:

“[38]. Colston became enormously wealthy and was an enormously generous philanthropist both in life and death. In his will Colston bequeathed £100,000 to his relatives and some £71,000 to public charities: the latter having an equivalent value of between £11,620,000.00 and £1,871,000,000.00 today (Measuring Worth, 2022)”.


“[43]. What the petitioner’s research has shown, however, is that there were also small but high profile and articulate condemnations of the slave trade during Colston’s life by members of the established Church.

The petitioner postulated that Colston must have been aware of the sermon by Morgan Godwyn in Westminster Abbey, as it was a direct attack upon the Royal Africa Company; however, there was insufficient evidence for the Chancellor to make any findings of fact [45].

The Law

The Chancellor noted that there have to date been only a few cases on “contested heritage. He cited Re St Margaret, Rottingdean (No 2) [2021] ECC Chi 1 in which a faculty was granted for the the re-carving of two headstones which used offensive language concerning two music hall artistes. In this judgment, Chancellor Hill stated:

“[20]. The term contested heritage is a somewhat euphemistic expression applied to memorials and other structures associated with individuals from the past whose conduct is considered abhorrent and inimical to contemporary values and, of particular relevance in faculty cases, to Christian theology and standards of behaviour. Most commonly, the issue arises from property memorialising slave traders or erected on the profits of slave trading.”

At [48] of Redcliffe, the judgment stated that Re Jesus College Cambridge [2022] ECC Ely 1, Deputy Chancellor Hodge QC refused to allow the removal of a memorial to Tobias Rustat in Jesus College Chapel saying, in his opening summary of the case:

“[7]. …I am satisfied that the parties opponent have demonstrated that the widespread opposition to the continued presence of the Rustat memorial within the College Chapel is indeed the product of the false narrative that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade, and that it was moneys from this source that he used to benefit the College.

The true position, as set out in the historians’ expert reports and their joint statement, is that Rustat’s investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa (the Royal Adventurers) brought him no financial returns at all; that Rustat only realised his investments in the Royal African Company in May 1691, some 20 years after he had made his gifts to the College, and some five years after the completion of the Rustat memorial and its inscription; and that any moneys Rustat did realise as a result of his involvement in the slave trade comprised only a small part of his great wealth, and they made no contribution to his gifts to the College…

[8]. I am also persuaded that the appropriate response to Rustat’s undoubted involvement in the abomination that was the enslavement and trade in black Africans is not to remove his memorial from the College Chapel to a physical space to which its monumentality is ill suited, and where that involvement may conveniently be forgotten by many of those who attend the College Chapel”.

In the case of In the Matter of Dorchester, St Peter, Holy Trinity and All Saints, [2022] ECC Sal 4, Arlow Ch. granted a Faculty for the removal of a memorial to a slave overseer who had put down a rebellion by slaves in brutal fashion. Chancellor Arlow was satisfied that the ‘moderate harm’ caused by the removal of the memorial was outweighed by the pastoral and missional harm caused. She stated:

“This memorial is quite different to Tobias Rustat’s memorial in Jesus College Chapel. On its face it celebrates in language of acclamation the violent quelling of a rebellion by enslaved people against a status which is now universally acknowledged as morally repugnant and contrary to Christian doctrine. That status was imposed upon them largely because of their race. Its continued presence in the building implies the continued support, or at least toleration and acceptance, of discrimination and oppression…”.

Gau Ch. observed that it was clear from the diversity of decisions in these cases that any grant of a Faculty is fact specific; the test that he had to apply is set out in the case of Re St. Alkmund, Duffield [2013] Fam 158 together with the Church’s statutory duties under S35 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018.

“[51]. The balancing exercise using the Duffield framework is helpfully set out as follows at paragraph 87 (of Duffield).

Bearing in mind that there is a strong presumption against proposals which will adversely affect the special character of a listed building […], will any resulting public benefit (including matters such as liturgical freedom, pastoral well-being, opportunities for mission, and putting the church to viable uses that are consistent with its role as a place of worship and mission” (emphasis in Redcliffe judgment).

“[52]. It is the section in bold that is of most importance. It lists examples of possible justifications for change. It is clearly intended to be non-exhaustive, as it starts with the word ‘including’. It may be that there are certain objects in churches, such as memorials or their inscriptions, which are so closely associated with slavery or other forms of oppression and marginalisation of people on the basis of race or otherwise, as to be theologically unacceptable to the Christian faith. This will be a question of fact and degree in each case. But in every instance the burden of proof will be on the proponents of change.”

[53]. Removal is not the only option where this piece of contested heritage is concerned. One option is to do nothing, but it should be a positive decision to leave matters as they stand, reached after discussion and consideration, rather than the outfall of inertia and non-engagement. Other options include interpretation, contextualisation, or the addition of explanatory text. Alternatively, an item could be altered in some way or relocated to a different position in the building. Removal to storage, disposal to a third party, or destruction are more extreme options for which the justification must be stronger.

Chancellor Gau was satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that [54]:

  1. Colston was an investor in the Royal Africa Company (RAC) as were his father and brother;
  2. Colston was an Assistant in the RAC from 1687;
  3. Colston used his connections with the RAC to trade in goods used for the purchase of slaves;
  4. During meetings of the RAC when Colston was present there were discussions about the purchase, transport and sale of slaves;
  5. In 1687 the RAC discussed and recorded, with regret, the financial cost to the RAC of transporting ill slaves;
  6. Colston became Deputy Governor of the RAC in 1689 a position requiring his presence, along with that of the Sub-Governor, on all company committees;
  7. Colston obtained substantial financial benefit from his investments in the RAC;
  8. The views of the Church during Colston’s life were not wholly supportive of the slave trade.
  9. When the window in question was introduced in 1870 neither the Church nor wider society were aware of his involvement in the slave trade
  10. From his death until 1920 there was little or no information about his involvement in the slave trade k. From 1920 until 2017 the Church attempted to justify Colston’s behaviour as reflecting the morals of his day.

With regard to the Duffield framework and S35 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018, Chancellor Gau stated inter alia:

  1. On the heritage significance of the windows: the four small portions of the huge North transept window are of little or no heritage significance, particularly in the context of this ancient Church.
  2. Justification for change: In direct contradistinction to the Rustat case, this is an attempt to correct a false narrative of the life of Edward Colston. Now that the extent of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade is clear, it is entirely inappropriate for that to be the exhortation ‘Go thou and do likewise’.
  3. What are the options.

a) The option to do nothing is clearly inappropriate. The petitioner and her team have researched assiduously the life of Edward Colston and have discovered evidence that makes the doing nothing wholly wrong. To leave it as it is will be perceived as the Church’s support for the memorial;

b) To leave it in place with an explanatory board is inappropriate for the same reasons;

c) To leave the blank windows in place would draw attention to the window but would also, in my view, suggest that the Church either supported the original window or was not attempting to use this as a missional opportunity;

d) To replace the windows with the proposed alternatives appears to me to be entirely consonant with S35 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018;

He concluded:

[56] There is no indication that the introduction of the windows will cause anything but slight harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest. I am also satisfied that the work and mission of the church are being hindered by the presence of the window and their replacement would assist pastorally in this multi-cultural and diverse parish.

[57]. I am satisfied that the Faculty should pass the seal for the reasons set out above. The conditions of the grant of the Faculty are: (a) The colouring of the panels is to match as closely as possible the rest of the window, and (b) the works are to be carried out under the close supervision of the architect.

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Post revised 15 June 2023 at 15:46. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Contested heritage” – St Mary Redcliffe" in Law & Religion UK, 15 June 2023, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/06/15/contested-heritage-st-mary-redcliffe/


2 thoughts on ““Contested heritage” – St Mary Redcliffe

  1. it’s fortunate indeed that those who take exception to the new window(s) wld not be tempted like others to damage property

  2. Pingback: “Contested heritage” – St Mary Redcliffe – Law & Religion UK | Fulcrum Anglican

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