The Anglosaxon Tradition

Around 2,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon sculpture are known from England and southern Scotland. When they immigrated into Britain, the Angles and Saxons were Pagan, but they came under the influence of Celtic Christianity when Irish missionaries arrived to found monasteries in Wessex and Northumbria. Later, Roman Catholic missions came from the continent, and it was this influence which proved more lasting. In Northumbria, Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid brought in stonemasons and glaziers from Gaul and Rome to build churches and make artefacts, including, most probably, stone crosses. The designs on the earliest Northumbrian crosses have affinities with Egyptian and Syrian sources, and it is likely that their sculptors were trained outside the British Isles. The earliest of these Anglo-Saxon high crosses are at Bewcastle, Easby, Hexham, Otley and Ruthwell. They are all in the form of tapered cross-shafts sculpted with panels containing religious figures and ornament. The Bewcastle cross has a runic inscription that has been interpreted as being either a memorial to King Alcfrith or commemorating the Christianization of Cumbria by force of arms, around the year 670.

Anglo Saxon Ornament
Anglo-Saxon cross-slab from Hanley Castle, Hereford and Worcester, England.

The fragments of a Northumbrian cross that commemorates Wilfrid's successor, Acca, can be seen at Hexham in Northumberland. According to the Historia Regum of the twelfth-century chronicler Symeon of Durham, Bishop Acca, who died in 740, was buried outside the east wall of Hexham Church. His grave was marked by two wonderfully carved crosses, one set up at the head and the other at the foot.

The designs on the earliest Northumbrian crosses have affinities with Egyptian and Syrian sources, and it is likely that their sculptors were trained outside the British Isles.

and superstition', smashed them with religious zeal. Even the best crosses did not escape. In the seventeenth century, one of the finest, at Ruthwell, was pulled down and broken up by activists following a Church of Scotland edict concerning 'idolatrous monuments in the kirk of Ruthwell'. Those we see today have been either re-erected or re-assembled from broken pieces.

The only Anglo-Saxon cross still retaining its original head is at Irton in Lancashire. It is similar in form to the Irish high crosses, but, in common with its Anglian counterparts, does not have a wheel-head. A fine full-sized replica of it can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In addition to the Northumbrian school, there were separate schools of crossmaking in the other Anglian and Saxon kingdoms. The finest examples of Mercian crosses can be seen at Sandbach in Cheshire and at Bakewell and its environs. A school of cross-sculptors has been identified in Derbyshire at Bakewell, from which 65 examples, in various states of preservation, are known. Later Mercian crosses were refined into a form close to the classical Celtic wheel-head, by the addition of a ring.

Following Pagan practice, the Celtic church used mark-stones to sanctify crossing-places, such as fords and bridges and the entrances to holy enclosures. This practice was transmitted by Irish priests to the Anglo-Saxon church, through which it became part of the sacred landscape of England. Perhaps the most powerful instance of the cross as boundary-marker was at Beverley in Humberside (formerly Yorkshire), which in former times was one of the most holy places of England.

They bore the inscription that Acca was buried there. The crosses were smashed at a later date, and only fragments were recovered. At the Reformation and in Cromwell's wars, most of the surviving Anglo-Saxon crosses suffered attacks from Protestant extremists, who, considering them to be symbols of'Popery

The minster was given its rights in the year 937 by King Athelstan after he had borrowed the standard of St John of Beverley to use as his holy war-banner at the Battle of Brunanburgh where his greatly outnumbered English army defeated the combined forces of the Celto-Danish confederation. In the Beverley charter, Athelstan stated: 'In your church shall be a college of canons, endowed with ample possessions. It shall be a sanctuary, with a Frithstool before the altar, as a place of refuge and safety for debtors and criminals. Four stones, each a mile distant from this place, shall mark the bounds of the privileged ground. Your monastery shall be extended, and revenues increased, and the shrine of the Blessed John be amongst the most magnificent in the land.' King Athelstan was a promoter of the craft of masonry, which, as the masonic Regius Poem (c. 1400), tells us: 'came into England ... in the time of good King Athelstan's day.' Clearly, it was these masons who sculpted and erected Athelstan's stone crosses.

Standing stone crosses were the significant markers in Athelstan's geomantic layout of the Beverley sanctuary. Originally, the holy ground extended 2.5 km (1V2 miles) in every direction from the Minster. The area within this was divided into a number of concentric enclosures of increasing sanctity, of which there were two main areas, one inside the other. The entry-points into the Outer and the Second at the north, east, south and west were marked by stone crosses, three of which still exist. The churchyard wall was the third boundary, inside which the western church door was the fourth. The next boundary-

Thor Fishing

Left: A fragment of cross from Gosforth in Cumbria, England, with a scene depicting the giant Hymir and the god Thor fishing in the Atlantic for the world serpent Jormungand, using an ox-head as bait. This story is from the Pagan scriptures known as The Edda.

Opposite: The binding of Loki in the underworld, a carving from an Anglo-Scandinavian cross-fragment at Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, England.

Irish Cross CarvingsManx Carvings

Above: A representation of the crucifixion on a slab from the Calf of Man. (Manx National Heritage)

line came at the choir screen inside the church, and the sixth was the frithstool itself. This was a stone throne in which the fugitive from justice had to sit in order to claim sanctuary. Violators of the sanctuary were punished with an increasing scale of fines, beginning with the outer boundary with a fine of one Hundredth (£8), being doubled at the next cross and so on as far as the frithstool in the inner sanctum. Violators of the frithstool itself, however, were declared outlaws and punished with death. Similar enclosures, marked by crosses at the four quarters, existed around holy places in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

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Responses

  • amaranth banks
    What is an anglo saxon cross?
    7 years ago
  • charley
    How to make a anglo saxon cross?
    7 years ago
  • bernd
    What is the AngloSaxon academic tradition?
    7 years ago

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