Some Anglo-Saxon Monuments


(Bewcastle, Gosforth, Irton and Penrith in Cumberland/Cumbria; Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire; Dewsbury in Yorkshire; Durham, etc.)

. Throughout the northern and western pats of Britain there are hundreds of stone crosses which date from the Anglo-Saxon epoch, some of them being religious monuments marking holy places and others being grave-stones. They are almost always richly sculptured, sometimes with figures of men and animals, but more generally with complicated decorative patterns and convolutions, such as an endless interlacing of ribbons or snake-like creatures or tendrils of the vine, plaited and looped and twisted in and out, until the stone looks like the most elaborate crochet-work.  Some of these sculptured designs have an obviously Celtic or British origin, and are found both on the Anglo-Saxon crosses in England and on those in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, so that one might think that the English sculptors had derived their art from the Irish through the early missionaries, such as those of Iona, who came from Ireland to Scotland and thence into England.  But other designs and themes seem to have had their origin on the Continent, and it is noticeable that the pattern of the divergent spiral, so common in Scotland, does not occur at all on the crosses found in Anglian or English territory. Yet other patterns are thought to be derived from those used by the Romans in their tessellated or mosaic pavements.

Be the origin what it may – and the point remains very undecided – the workmanship is often so highly skilled, and the designs are so involved, that these crosses are marvels of intricacy and beauty, telling of a splendid phase of art which flourished in the Seventh to Eleventh Centuries, and which is the more surprising because it has no clear parent and no descendant.   There are two large crosses of outstanding importance which must be first mentioned. One of these stands in the churchyard of Bewcastle in Cumberland/Cumbria; there being casts of it in the Tullie House Museum at Carlisle, in the Cathedral Library at Durham, in the South Kensington Museum in London, and elsewhere.  Bewcastle itself is a very remote little place, situated amidst the wild and romantic scenery of the Cumberland/Cumbria uplands, six or seven miles/9.6-11.2km north of the Great Wall and of the high road between Carlisle and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. To reach it it is best to take the northern road at Brampton, ten miles/16km east of Carlisle, and thence, past Walton, to follow the narrow road which winds its way at last over the border into Scotland.  The village, once of some importance since it stood on the site of a Roman fort, and in later times possessed a castle, now consists of little more than the inn and the church. The cross towers up amidst the tombstones and the trees beside this church: it is made of sandstone, and rises from a great block of stone in which it is socketed. The top is lost, but even so it is nearly 15feet/4.5m in height; and as it dates from about the year 670A.D., it has stood thus for more than 1,350 years, nor have these years done the sculptures upon it much damage.  On one side of the shaft there are three panels containing well-executed figures of St. John the Baptist, the risen Christ, and St. John the Evengelist. On the other side are superb decorations of intertwined branches, amidst which are birds and animals; and other patterns include scroll and checker-work. On one side is a sundial. There is an inscription upon the shaft which reads: “This slender memorial was set up by Hwaetred and Wothgaer in honour of King Alcfrith son of Oswy.” This Oswy was the King of Northumbria from 655 to 671 A.D., of whom has been spoken about previously; and Alcfrith reigned under him as sub-king of Deira (Yorkshire), dying, according to tradition, here at Bewcastle.   Another somewhat similar cross of the same date and probably from the same workshop, now stands in the parish church at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire/Dumfries & Galloway; and east of it are to be seen in the Museum at Edinburgh/Edwinburgh, at Durham, in the South Kensington Museum, and elsewhere. In the religious convulsions of the Seventeenth Century it was smashed up by the over-pious Scots who regarded it as a monument of idolatry, but the pieces, which had been buried, were dug up, put together, and erected in the garden of the manse, in 1823; and in 1887 the cross was put under the protection of the Ancient Monuments Act, and was afterwards removed to its present position.  On two sides of the cross, which is nearly 18 feet/9.5m high, there are fine designs in scroll-work, and on the other side are sculptured scenes representing the Crucifixion, Annunciation, and so forth. There is also a long inscription, written in Latin and Runic letters, giving part of a religious poem in the North Anglian dialect. The words are supposed to be spoken by the cross itself, which fact, with much other evidence, goes to show, perhaps, that a cross at this time was to our primitive forefathers not far otherwise than a sort of totem or idol having a supernatural individuality of its own, just as in Egypt an obelisk was not only a symbol of the sun-god but was itself a god.   In this inscription the cross is made to say: “God Almighty prepared himself (on His knees) when He was to be crucified; but I, courageous before all men, did not dare to bow. I lifted up the mighty King, Heaven`s great Lord, and had not the courage to fall down. They reviled us two both together: me, stained with the blood poured from the man`s side, and Christ who was on the cross. Then, hastening thither from afar, came nobles to Him in grief; and I who beheld all, I was stricken with the wound of sorrow.”  So it goes on ; and the strangeness and importance of the poem does not only lie in its meaning, but also in the fact that it is written in this early English language, although Ruthwell was then part of the British/Welsh Kingdom of Strathclyde which had not been conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. Another version of the same poem has been found in a manuscript now in the Cathedral Library at Vercelli.  At Gosforth in Cumberland/Cumbria there is another famous cross, a slender shaft some 15 feet/8m in height with a four-holed cross at the top. The decorations include the figure of a bound devil, somewhat similar to one which is sculptured on anther cross at Kirkby Stephen in Westmorland/Cumbria. Yet another fine cross stands in the churchyard at Irton, also in Cumberland/Cumbria; and of this and of the Gosforth cross there are casts in the South Kensington Museum. The date of these monuments is thought to be about 700 A.D. Sandbach in Cheshire two fine crosses stand in the Market place, and are said to have  been erected by King Peada of Mercia in about  the year 655 A.D., but perhaps they are of somewhat later date.  A fine collection of crosses and other memorial-stones of this age is to be seen in the Edinburgh Museum; and amongst these mention of a slab of stone, found at Hilton-of-Cadboll on the Moray Firth, not far from Inverness, on which a hunting-scene is sculptured, wherein a woman with long hair is shown, riding side-saddle on a horse while two attendants blow long horns, and mounted huntsmen, carrying spears and shields, pursue a deer which is being attacked by hounds.  It dates from the Ninth Century, but whether it is to be regarded as of indigenous workmanship, or whether it was made by Scandinavian craftsmen, is hard to say. Certainly the sculpture is quite good as that which is found on late Roman or early mediaeval monuments in Britain.

Another fine collection is to be seen at Durham, and this includes the famous cross brought from the tomb of Acca, Bishop of Hexham, who died in 740 A.D. It is an exquisite piece of work, having most elaborate patterns of vine-tendrils and bunches of grapes sculptured upon it. Also worth mentioning is the collection preserved in the parish church at Dewsbury, Yorkshire, which is quite worth a visit.  Besides these crosses a great many tombstones still exist which are made in what is known as the “hog-back” form. These are blocks of stone standing on their side, the upper edge being curved or arched like the back of a hog, and the front face being usually decorated with elaborate designs. Sometimes at either end there is a figure of a muzzled bear or other animal. They used to be placed over the grave, and are supposed to have represented the roof of the dead man`s last home, or possibly the house itself.  At Penrith in Cumberland/Cumbria four of these hog-backs are to be seen in the churchyard at the sides of a tomb now known as the “Giant`s Grave,” and on one of these the sculptured design shows a serpent representing Satan, on whose head a figure of Christ is treading. Near this tomb is the shaft of a much-damaged cross now called the “Giant`s Thumb.”  These pieces, or some of them, are thought to belong to the grave of Owain, or Eugenius, a British King, vassal of the Anglo-Saxons who reigned about 920 A.D., and who is to be identified with the “Giant” or “Champion” Owen Caesarius of the Inglewood Legends.  There is a fine collection of “hog-backs” in Brompton Church, Northallerton, Yorkshire, where also there are some Anglo-Saxon crosses. There are, however, so many “hog-back” tombstones and crosses in the country that there cannot do more than just mention here these few outstanding specimens; but, as mentioned before, the art which they display is of such a high order that the general refinement of the life of this period is apparent, and any idea we may have had of the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxon age fades from the mind. These early English ancestors of ours, whether they brought their stone-workers` art with them or derived it from the British, were evidently men of taste; and the elaborate and graceful designs they carved in stone could hardly be bettered at the present day.