Among Margaret Rope’s many wonderful stained-glass works in Shrewsbury Catholic Cathedral is one dedicated to a lowly, virtually unknown soldier – Private Eugene Cox, who died in the Great War aged just 20.
The window shows scenes from the lives of St Martin and St Ignatius (who were both soldiers themselves), and ranks among Marga’s best, especially for its exuberant colouring.
Historian Arthur Rope dates the window to 1919-20.
The work is very large – some twelve feet in height, made up of two main lancets plus smaller pieces of tracery and two topmost lights – and fills the north side of the cathedral’s Sacred Heart Chapel. (Click here to jump to an image of the window at the bottom of this page).
It is full of careful details and thoughtful images. Among the well-researched images are ones connected with the Irish Guards, Eugene’s regiment; in fact one of Marga’s trademark ‘hidden references’ is present – in the dog by the horse, an Irish Wolfhound.
It is one of a number of war memorial windows completed by Marga.
But this is not a usual war memorial window. Usually such a window featured a Biblical scene or saint, with the only reference to the soldier who died being in the dedication scroll. However, in this window, in both of the two topmost lights, we see Eugene Cox himself, in his soldier’s tunic.
This would seem to be a very personal, and unique, work.
Whatever else it is, it is a very ambitious venture – and surely must have been very expensive to commission.
Yet… and here’s a great mystery … it was commissioned by Eugene’s mother, a poor widow working as a shopkeeper…
Maude Cox, Eugene’s mother, had arrived with her family in Shrewsbury sometime around 1910. She was an Irish Catholic by birth, and appears to have worshipped at Shrewsbury Cathedral.
With her husband, Sidney James Cox, she was given the management of the grocery & tuck shop at Shrewsbury School, the famous public school in the town, probably around 1912. (She took up residence at ‘Schools Cottage, Kingsland, Shrewsbury’, and was to continue in this post until her retirement in 1939).
But her husband died (aged just 42) in 1913, leaving her with a young son and daughter as well as the business to look after.
Which begs the question: how could a poor widow, far from home, possibly have afforded to commission a grand window?
A humble private
There is no clue to the answer in any profile of Eugene. In fact we know almost nothing about Eugene. (Another Eugene Cox was quite a well-known hymn-writer, but that is not our man).
Apart from the fact that the census records him as attending St Bede’s School in Manchester for a while, and that he served in WW1, he is lost to history.
His military record is thin too.
We know that Eugene enlisted for service in World War One in Shrewsbury, and chose the Irish Guards for his regiment – presumably because of his mother’s nationality.
Next we know is that, in 1917, dispatches state that he was badly wounded in the Bourlon Wood engagement (part of the Battle of Cambrai), taken prisoner by the Germans, and then died, two weeks later, on December 15th.
Cambrai, which lasted three weeks, was a brutal encounter, resulting in nearly 50,000 Allied casualties and some 9,000 taken prisoner. (Rudyard Kipling gives a full account of Bourlon Wood in his history of the Irish Guards).
So, Eugene’s military experience seems to have been short and sad, and (as far as we know) he earned no particular accolades in his time in the army.
Certainly, the cathedral’s Roll Of Honour mentions many others of the congregation who were among the fallen during WW1, so Eugene was not unique in that sense.
So we must look elsewhere for reasons for the creation of this window.
There seems to be little doubt that Maude was a determined woman.
We see this characteristic come out in her extraordinary decision to exhume her son’s body from its military grave, and have it transferred to a nearby civilian grave.
Eugene had originally been buried in 1917, in Fourmies Communal Cemetery in France, in a ‘war plot’, where there are a number of British WW1 graves. But Maude appears to have decided that this wouldn’t do, and in 1920, Eugene was exhumed and reburied a few yards away in the adjacent civil plot, i.e. in a private, family-owned grave among civilians.
On the face of it, it is a strange and puzzling decision: and what’s more, a very expensive, bureaucratically-fraught process.
Maude wasn’t to stop there in ensuring her son was to be properly remembered.
Another project of her’s (though she may have been aided by her uncle) was to create a full monumental gravestone in Dublin, remembering her father, husband and son all on one stone. (At first, the inscription even leads one to believe that Private Cox is buried there – but this is what is known as a ‘cenotaph grave’, in that it commemorates someone buried abroad in war).
With this sort of driving force in her, did Maude ‘persuade’ the cathedral to create a window for her son?
There’s no doubt that the window is a very personal tribute.
In one light there is a portrait of Eugene hearing mass at the Cathedral, and in the other he is depicted as receiving a ‘martyr’s crown’ from Jesus as Saints Martin and Ignatius look on approvingly. Quite a remarkable tribute to a young man!
Roger Hall also identifies a tiny piece of text (hard to see with the naked eye) across the altar cloth in the left-hand light. It reads: Mitis Sum et Humilis Corde (“I am gentle and lowly in heart” – Matthew’s Gospel 11;29).
Can one deduce from this that Eugene was also much loved in his community? With Margaret also a strong member of that cathedral community, she too may have admired his ‘gentle and lowly’ qualities and been moved to offer her talents.
But… we still don’t know who could have paid for the window. Margaret, though a professional working woman at this point, was not rich enough to have provided the funds, even if she had put a ‘discount’ on her own fee.
Also, so far no ‘faculty’ for the window has been discovered (a faculty being a document that explains the need and the finance for a church project). Such a document, if ever found, might explain the puzzle.
We are in the dark.
One game for the amateur historian is informed-speculation. While there is little proof for the speculation I’m about to produce, it might be a research-line worth following.
One person who could have afforded to pay for the window was the administrator of the cathedral, Canon Moriarty. Not only was he very ambitious to promote the cathedral (which was less than 70 years old) as a great church integral to the region, he was also Margaret’s patron, having commissioned a number of windows from her already, including the cathedral’s Great West Window, and a rich man in his own right.
He may also have been aware that political rights had been given to Catholics in England only some 90 years before, and Catholics were still regarded suspiciously at the time. The rebellion in Ireland in 1916, right in the middle of World War One, had given rise again to the thought that Catholics might not be as loyal as they professed to be – especially those of Irish ancestry.
But this ‘Soldier Window’ proves the opposite point: that Irish-ancestry Catholics were just as ready to lay down their lives for their country as any other community. Did Moriarty ‘select’ Eugene – at Eugene’s mother’s strong prompting perhaps – to be the figurehead in a great & prestigious illustration, one which would prove to the town that Catholics now deserved to be accepted fully into English society?*
Certainly, many of the Catholics worshipping at the cathedral would have been Irish, or of Irish ancestry, following a wave of immigration into the region in the 1850s.
Much research still needs to be done. With such a cupboard bare of facts, this article can only be the first part of this project. So – any more information would be very welcome! If you can help with comments or your own research, please email us.
Research that this article drew upon must be credited to, among others: Roger Hall, Jane Morgan, Anne O’Donoghue, John O’Grady and Bill Pearson. Thanks to them all.
Roger Hall’s booklet ‘Letting In the Light of Christ’ gives a detailed two-page account of the Soldier Window.
(* The cathedral was marginalised by the town even until the 1950s. See Cathedral neglected)