300 years ago window glass was a comparative rarity; 400 years ago it was unknown to householders in the island.
Before that there would have been glass in the churches, and perhaps at Mont Orgueil Castle, which was virtually Government House, and in some of the manor houses as a great luxury.
The earliest window to survive with its glass, I believe, was one in a house dated 1688, and in other houses a few fragments of leaded lights have survived from about that date. What, then, were the windows before that?
We can see that the older the window the smaller it was, the reason clearly being the price of glass. What alternatives were there?
Use may have been made of parchment or horn, but it seems more likely that these small windows were open to the elements when possible, and closed with shutters when it was too cold. The depth of the window embrasure, afforded by our immensely thick walls, would have kept out all but the severest rain.
Two examples of oak windows have been found recently and preserved, from houses in St Lawrence and St John, and they can be dated at about 1550. In both cases the actual aperture is only about 20 in x 30 in, and is divided by thick wood bars; there is no indication that these ever held glass.
There may be other such window frames in existence in old houses, perhaps covered over by plaster, or overlooked in outhouses, and if found they are very worthy of preservation, and can often be saved by modern treatment, even when at first sight they appear to be beyond salvation.
Such wooden frames were succeeded, perhaps in about 1650, by casement windows, when glass became more readily available. At a later date, perhaps nearer 1750, sash windows were introduced and gradually became universal. At first they were almost square and with many small panes of glass.
With each succeeding change the actual window opening became larger, and the appearance of many houses has been impaired by inartistic enlargements. The size of the windows is often a problem facing those who buy old houses, the modern trend being to make them as large as possible, and then to cover them with blinds and net curtains.
Draughty and dark
There is little doubt that, were we to be transported back 300 or so years, we should find the rooms both draughty and dark, but those very draughts made the fires burn brightly, and reduced the smoke nuisance which confronts today’s owners who want to use their open granite fireplaces.
Dark they would have seemed to us, by day and night, for the only artificial light would be provided by lanterns, with horn side panels, or the local crasset, a kind of metal saucer containing oil and wick, and shaped rather like a Roman lamp, invaluable no doubt, but affording a weak light.
By about 1700 the facades of local houses had become symmetrical, and the windows were surrounded by dressed granite blocks, up to 12 in number. But the earlier the house the less uniform the size and position of the windows.
Leoville, a very early house, is a case in point, and here the surrounds are formed of only four or six stones, with the lintel elaborately carved.
All through this early period our stonemasons were exercising their skill and ingenuity in carving details on fireplaces and doors and windows, and the variety of design they evolved is remarkable. It seems likely that a man who commissioned a builder to erect his house automatically had it built of granite, with massive fireplaces, and usually with a round arched entrance, and he ordered as many carved embellishments as he could afford.
In a few cases (about twenty have been noted), he added a further refinement, a carved projecting window sill, marking the "master bedroom". The theory sometimes advanced, that these sills were intended for putting out bread for lepers, is scarcely tenable, as they are always found upstairs.
In many cases holes, which used to hold iron bars, can be seen in the stone surrounds. These were probably a device to keep out intruders when the windows were mere openings, but they may sometimes have been an addition to the glass, put there to protect this valuable commodity.
Windows in the south
Nearly all the windows used to be on the south, to gain the maximum warmth and sunshine, but old windows do occur in the gable ends of houses; on the north you let in the minimum of wind and cold.
Perhaps the most remarkable window in the Island is a circular one of 2 in diameter. It is known as La Oui-chi, meaning a means of hearing And seeing and identifying the visitor knocking on the door.
It is at St Ouen's Manor, and is constructed behind the panelling in the main drawing room, and looks on to the beautiful little round arched entrance on the east rampart.
There are other examples of a tiny window being constructed beside a round arch, with the same intention, but none as small as this.
If you look carefully as you travel round the island, you will often see houses whose windows have been enlarged, and you can then visualise the gradual changes which have taken place, not all at once, but perhaps many times, to suit the tastes of each succeeding generation.