New research indicates that some stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral may be among the oldest in the world.
The panels, depicting the Ancestors of Christ, have been re-dated using a new, non-destructive technique.
The analysis indicates that some of them may date back to the mid-1100s.
The windows would therefore have been in place when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was killed at the cathedral in 1170.
Léonie Seliger, the head of stained glass conservation at the cathedral, and part of the research team said the discovery was historically “hugely significant”.
“We have hardly anything left of the artistic legacy of that early building [apart from] a few bits of stone carving. But until now, we didn’t think we had any stained glass. And it turns out that we do,” she said.
She said she had been so happy at hearing the news, she had been “ready to dance.”
Ms Seliger added: “[The stained glass] would have witnessed the murder of Thomas Becket, they would have witnessed Henry II come on his knees begging for forgiveness, they would have witnessed the conflagration of the fire that devoured the cathedral in 1174. And then they would have witnessed all of British history.”
Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral by four knights who believed they were acting on the orders of Henry II, with whom the archbishop had clashed. However, some historians doubt that Henry issued the command to assassinate Becket, and that his words may have been misinterpreted.
The re-dated panels are part of the Ancestors of Christ series depicted over one of the cathedral’s entrances. It was thought for centuries that they were made by master craftsmen in the 13th century.
The art historian Prof Madeline Caviness suggested in the 1980s that some of the panels were earlier than previously believed because they were stylistically different. That suspicion has now been confirmed by a team of researchers from University College London (UCL), who built a device called a “windolyser” to solve the mystery.