Why is There a Memorial to the 'Queen of the Desert' in Rural Yorkshire?

The Church of St Lawrence, East Rounton
North Yorkshire

Listed: 1966
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Church of St Lawrence

In February 2015, the film 'Queen of the Desert' premiered in the USA. The epic biopic follows the life of the British traveller, writer, linguist, archaeologist and political mediator Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). Played by Nicole Kidman, the film illustrates Bell's remarkable journey from her childhood and accolades at Oxford University, to her central influence at King Faisal of Iraq's court and in Lawrence of Arabia's Arab Bureau.

From Oxford to Iraq, via the Gertrudspitze

Bell's pioneering influence impacted across world politics and culture. At Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, she was the first woman to be awarded a First Class Honours degree in Modern History in 1888. Traversing the Alps, Bell forged a number of first ascents between 1899 and 1904 and a Swiss peak was named 'Gertrudspitze' in her honour.

Bell's most celebrated adventures were in the Middle East, where she played a central role in the founding of modern Iraq, advising King Faisal and British military intelligence. Speaking Arabic, Persian, French and German, Bell helped to draw up Iraq's modern-day boundaries in the early 1920s. She also contributed to Iraq's cultural legacy, founding its Archaeological Museum and National Library, as well as suggesting the distinctive star be added to the new state flag to differentiate from earlier versions.

Her unique career is commemorated much closer to home, in the rural Church of St Lawrence in East Rounton, North Yorkshire. Listed in 1966, the church's list description was updated in 2014 to acknowledge the importance of two stained glass windows by Douglas Strachan, one of which illustrates the church's connection with this truly incredible woman.

Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell

The medieval Church of St Lawrence was a built as a chapel of ease to serve East Rounton village, and was reconstructed in 1885 by the architect Robert James Johnson. These renovations were commissioned by Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a renowned Victorian industrialist who had constructed the model village of East Rounton estate in 1865, and lived in the newly constructed Rounton Grange.

Between her expeditions, Bell's granddaughter Gertrude spent time at Rounton Grange helping to lay out the formal gardens. Following her sad death from an apparent overdose in 1926, it is unsurprising that both her family and East Rounton's community wanted to memorialise her life's work. Obituaries poured in across the world, and the archaeologist and scholar D.G. Hogarth expressed his respect:

'No woman in recent time has combined her qualities - her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency - all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.'

Memorialised in glass

In this vein, the Church of St Lawrence commissioned the internationally acclaimed glass artist Douglas Strachan to memorialise Bell's unique career. His north window is highly distinctive, integrating leadwork into the simple stone tracery.

The two-light window depicts figures of East and West in the stained glass. The West section illustrates a figure of a monk above a view of Oxford University, and below this an Alpine scene depicting the Swiss Matterhorn (which Bell climbed in 1904). In the East section, a female figure in exotic Arabic dress is placed above a view of Iraq. Below this is a camel train, representing how Bell travelled widely through Arabia before the First World War.

The whole window is surrounded by inscriptions, including Persian text believed to be part of a poem by the mystical poet Hafiz, who was translated by Bell and published in 1897.

'Queen of the Desert' is due to be released in Europe later in 2015: directed by Werner Herzog, it also stars James Franco as Henry Cadogan, Damian Lewis as Charles Doughty-Wylie and Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence.