Posted by: kljolly | August 10, 2013

Crosses and Hogbacks

One of the things I went to see were carved stone monuments of various kinds, pillars, crosses, grave markers, some of Anglian design and some of viking design from the ninth and tenth centuries.  Carving stone requires time, skill, and purpose:  these monuments meant something to those who commissioned and designed them as well as those who saw or gathered around them.

Hard for us to imagine, but these intricately carved stones were painted in colors that would make the interlace patterns and story images stand out.

Painted cast of the Ruthwell Cross, Manchester Museum

Painted cast of the Ruthwell Cross, Manchester Museum

As at Glendalough, stone crosses can mark boundaries, the precincts of the religious community, or stand as a center of worship, perhaps prior to the building of a church in the early conversion period (6th-8th centuries).  Certainly the majoirty are associated with churchyards, although the original location of  surviving monuments is hard to assess.  Many were knocked down (in the Reformation, for example), the pieces re-used in buildings or walls, then recovered in the nineteenth century and reassembled.  Most are heavily worn by time and weather, some still outside, others brought inside churches or museums for preservation.

The vikings took to this art form when they settled into Northumbria and Cumbria, carving crosses with their own themes integrated with Christian imagery.   They also carved their distinctive humped grave stones, called hogbacks from their appearance.

I visited various and sundry, took pictures probably not as good as the professional ones found in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, and recorded some of my reactions.


I arrived in Penrith with enough daylight to get a look at St. Andrew’s churchyard monuments.  The so-called “Giant’s Thumb” is a fragment of a Norse cross dated to 920, and the “Giant’s Grave” is a set of hogbacks.  I am not sure how or why they acquired the “giant” name other than their size, but clearly this is a modern perception of the fragments.

Penrith St. Andrew's Church, Norse cross c. 920

Penrith St. Andrew’s Church, Norse cross c. 920

The cross is too worn to make out much more than some circular carvings, but its height relative to the cross (even with the bit missing at the top) is common on a lot of the surviving crosses.  This is meant to be seen from a distance.

Penrith St. Andrew's Norse cross side view

Penrith St. Andrew’s Norse cross side view

The hogbacks in the “Giant’s grave” are marked by two stone pillars or crosses at either end.  I am not sure if this was the original configuration, but it does show how the hogbacks–usually fragments seen alone–might have been arranged in a grave site.

Penrith St. Andrew's "Giant's Grave"

Penrith St. Andrew’s “Giant’s Grave”

Now these crosses and graves stand around looking lost in a world that has moved on–the church is 17th century, graves of far later date surround it, not to mention the houses and shops crowded around the church.  How would these monuments have looked in the tenth century to a visitor?


Tim Clarkson at Senchus has already written a much more complete site analysis of Dacre than I attempted in my brief visit.  I focused on the “bears,” although they could be other animals.  What surprised me was how short they were–I guess most photographers did what I did and got low to the ground to catch them face on, which gives the illusion of man-height.  The are actually just over waist-high.

Dacre "bear"

Dacre “bear”

I was thinking about whether they were a form of hogback now set on end, but seeing them in person and in comparison to other hogbacks, I don’t think so.  Each animal is upright, grasping something (another animal?) and has a tail carved behind which would be invisible if set down on its back (looking rather ridiculous as well).  So upright they were and are, but why?  Boundary protection?

Now they are so weathered that this one from side looks like a man praying.

Dacre bear 2, side view

Dacre bear 2, side view

Of course they could have been repurposed over the centuries, starting out as pre-Christian markers and then acquiring Christian meaning, religious or political, if that distinction had any meaning.

St. Andrew’s at Dacre also has carved fragments inside the church.  I visited here and other churches on a Sunday, unfortunately always missing the service but fortunately running into the people who knew something about their church’s monuments.  The stone bits show both ninth-century Northumbrian and tenth-century Scandinavian styles.  The layers of history and story these fragments tell!

St. Andrew's Dacre, 9th cen. fragment

St. Andrew’s Dacre, 9th cen. fragment

My pictures are not as good as Tim’s and need to be edited once I get to my office computer with better software.

St. Andrew's Dacre, 10th cen. fragment

St. Andrew’s Dacre, 10th cen. fragment


The present-day St. Michael’s church in Workington may stand where the Anglo-Saxon church once stood, and where St. Cuthbert’s people wept as the ship carried his body away from them on its aborted trip to Ireland, but one can’t tell how that would have looked since the waterway has changed out of all recognition over the centuries.  Instead, we have fragments of stone, graciously shown to me by Eric Howe as preserved in the upper floors of the church.  This piece may be one used by stone carvers to try out styles.

Test carving, St. Michael's church, Workington

Test carving, St. Michael’s church, Workington

Also, one of their historic information boards had a better 16th century drawing of the Derwent:

Derwentmouth in the 16th century, St. Michael's church, Workington

Derwentmouth in the 16th century, St. Michael’s church, Workington

This post is long and it is getting late, so I will tackle St. Bee’s, Gosforth, and Kirkby Stephen in a second post on stone monuments.  But I will leave you with a stained glass image of St. Cuthbert from St. Michael’s Church in Workington.

St. Cuthbert, St. Michael's Church, Workington

St. Cuthbert, St. Michael’s Church, Workington


  1. Thanks for the link, Karen. Interesting to see your photos from St Michael’s Church, which I have yet to see. Glad to notice the sun was shining when you visited Dacre, and I’m looking forward to reading about the other places you visited.

  2. I have more photos from St. Michael’s Workington, thanks to guide Eric Howe who unlocked the upper floors. My camera and photo-taking skills are not the best, though.
    If you do go, I suggest contacting them in advance–I was just lucky showing up unannounced on a Sunday and finding the right person who was gracious enough to show me around.

  3. Great Article :Yes i think the Bears depict Arthurs life , as they are not central to the Saxon or Norman part of the Church we presume they predate this building . Arthur “Bear” content (eating a Salmon) , then being attacked by a Lion (Saxons) then content after victory .
    St Andrews Penrith ,Owen Caesarius hogback and grave of Owen of Strathclyde killed a couple of miles away in 937 ..Tim agrees it could be him and less likely to be Owen ap Urien.(Once they dug out a cellar adjacent to the yard , and for very deep there was nothing but bones).

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