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Saxon Crosses in the Derbyshire Peak District (and a little bit beyond) pt 1.

The Anglo-Saxons have certainly left their mark in history and our landscape, and while there is a great deal of scholarship on the former, in a number of posts we'll be looking at the latter. In this post, and with more to follow, we'll be looking at monumental crosses in particular. There are several stone crosses dated to the Saxon period to be found in Derbyshire and in this post we'll focus on the fine example to be found in All Saints' churchyard, Bradbourne.

Saxon cross in Bradbourne churchyard

The first record we have for the cross comes from a local antiquarian Major Hayman Rooke in 1796. Rooke was a former Artillery officer who developed his interest in several fields of study after he retired, including antiquities. He was active on both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, making some detailed drawings of ancient monuments and artefacts, including Arbor Low, Nine Stone Close stone circle and the cross at Bradbourne. The cross at that time was in pieces which were found across the site, and Rooke drew three fragments which were published in 1796, some 16 years after he visited the site. Over the next 150 years these fragments were moved a number of times before finally being being refitted and erected into the cross you can see today.

So, the cross at that time was in pieces, but where? Well, two of them formed a stile in the churchyard wall, with the third being in the wall of the porch. Later, a piece of the cross head was found, also forming part of the churchyard wall. It was near the gateway to the vicarage and yet another piece was reported to have been moved to Tissington, 2.5 miles away. It wasn't until the 1880s that pieces of the cross started being bought together. In 1885 George Forrest Browne gave a talk to the Archaeological Institute at their summer meeting in Derby on the early stone sculpture of Derbyshire. Then in 1886, the two stile fragments were removed from the wall by Browne, in the company of the vicar and the local antiquary, Albert Hartshorne, and placed inside the church. The fragments of the shaft were still separate at this time, but the tricky task of seeing if the really did fit together was undertaken and the stile pieces were found to continue, without break, the decoration of the lower part of the shaft. It wasn't until 1947 that the stones were placed in the configuration you can see today.

So what do we know about Saxon crosses? Well, most were erected between the 8th and 10th centuries, and are today found mostly in northern England. The Peak District has examples of both Saxon and Viking period crosses, and the one here in Bradbourne is Saxon and is thought to date to the 9th century. It is made from local Gritstone and is rectangular in section, and we'll look at each face in turn.

Beginning with the North face, what can seen today are carvings of figures set within panels. The uppermost panel contains the remains of two figures. The head on the right figure still survives, and faces forwards. It has short hair, and it is noticeable that both are wearing heavily pleated robes which hang down each side of the figure. Although the head and shoulders of the figure on the left have been lost in damage to the upper part of the stone, it too seems to have been similarly clothed. Just below this panel is another one, and this also contains the remains of two figures but they are suffering badly from the ravages of time and the carving itself is very worn. However, the outline of the heads and the shoulder of the figure on the left of the panel are still visible. There is enough of the carving left to suggest that these too were clothed in heavy, pleated robes. Below the break in the lower half of the shaft, two further figures can clearly be made out. Only the very lower parts of their robes remain, cut off by the arched moulding dividing them from the panel below.

North face - lower section detail

This panel contains two half-length figures whose heads again face forwards. They have short hair and deeply drilled eyes. Like the figures in the uppermost panel there are signs of clothing, with heavy folds of drapery around their shoulders. The garment appears to fall down either side of the body and there looks to be pleats of an under-garment are gathered horizontally across the body. The hands of the figure on the right are visible and are held, one above the other, across their chest. The figure on the left suffers from more erosion but you can still make out the same arrangement. There may even have been a book in the hands.

The lowermost panel is filled with three human figures, with the largest, centrally placed above two more figures, dominating the group. The figure, like the others, is thought to be that of a man based on the short hair and again has deeply drilled eyes. His robes replicate those worn by the figures above, being gathered in folds around his shoulders. His arms, swathed in the over-garment, are held out from his body and bent at the elbows, so that the hands, emerging from the drapery, hold a large square object in front of his chest that rests on a T-shaped stand set before him. A rectangular object is set at a slight angle under the arched frame over his left shoulder. A bird perches on his right shoulder, its beak extending towards his head. Under this figure’s elbows are the heads of two diminutive figures that face the centre; their shoulders are lost in the break at the base of the stone but they appear to lean towards the centre over indistinguishable features.

The narrower East and West faces of the cross have less content and they are decorated in vegetal/plant scrolls and vines in what is called relief carving. Within this you can still make out the occasional beasts or birds intertwined in the pattern. Interestingly, there also seems to be a figure of an archer with a bow and one of an unknown type here too. They too are difficult to make out. The image here is of the East face.

The South side is again full of details. The remains of the uppermost panel are extremely worn but it is still possible to see the remains of a human figure in the top left: you can just see the outlines of the head and shoulders. To the right and apparently crossing the body of this figure at a slight angle, are the remains of a staff that seems to have a slightly bulbous lower end. On the right of the panel are the remains of a second figure, and it's outline seems to mirror that of the shoulders of the figure on the left. Centrally placed, and extending over the lower portion of this uppermost pair of figures, are the worn remains of a human head; the body, apparently clothed in a full-length robe, is still visible standing with the feet centrally placed on the horizontal moulding dividing the panel from that below. On a plane slightly behind this figure is a large flat ‘block’, whose upper edge extends horizontally across the panel at the level of the shoulders.

The panel below seems also to have contained more two standing figures. The figure on the left seems to have been half turned to the centre, with the right arm bent at the elbow across the body. A slightly rounded feature in the space between the heads suggests a head of a smaller figure had been set between them. The carving below this area, however, is again too worn to make out any sign of the body of either this possible figure, or indeed, the one the right. Below this panel there is more damage which makes it difficult to decipher.

The lowest panel shown here on the right, is filled with the remains of what is generally believed to be a Crucifixion scene. The panel is filled and quartered by the cross bearing the figure of Christ whose arms are slightly flexed at the elbows, but whose hands do not ‘droop’. A hole, drilled into the centre of the right palm, is clearly visible. The head of the crucified figure seems to have been short-haired and faces forwards. The body stands stiffly upright and appears naked, indicating that Christ originally wore a brief loincloth, the outlines of which can be discerned in certain lighting across the waist and the upper part of the right leg. The graphic nature of the scene continues with the feet which are shown side-by-side with drilled holes placed centrally in each.

Below these the arm of the cross widens slightly; the remains of a circular cavity fills the base but it is unclear whether this is the result of damage to the stone at this point. The portion of the cross above the head of the crucified figure is plain and the upper quadrants of the panel are filled with large discs. The one the right contains the remains of a head in profile, facing the centre, while the other bears a crescent. The lower quadrants are filled with two full-length figures wearing short robes whose hems are visible behind the legs. The bodies are three-quarter turned towards the centre, while their faces turn outwards to face the spectator; both had short hair. The figure on the left holds a long staff diagonally across his body, his right hand holding it at waist height, his left arm visible and extended up ‘behind’ it. Interestingly, the legs of this flanking figure are flexed, supporting the weight of the upward thrusting motion which is mirrored by the figure on the right. What are they doing? The staff or rod held by this figure extends across the chest of the crucified figure, and in certain lights, you can make out a slightly bulbous shape over the left shoulder.

What can we we understand from this cross? Well, it sits within a tradition of crosses and remaining cross shafts which mark the religious and social identity of it's makers and users. There is a wealth of scholarly work on the use Christian iconography on these monuments which shows that there are many aspects of the bible story shown on them. Of course, the majority of the population in 9th century 'England' were illiterate and these images would have reinforced the message of what was still a relatively new religion as it wasn't until the 7th century that Christianity was 'officially' adopted here in the Peak District, and even then it isn't clear that old beliefs and practices had completely died out. It is also thought that these crosses were brightly painted, like, for example, the Sandbach Crosses. So, like stained glass windows after them, the monuments illustrated the Christian ideology to the people. The Bradbourne cross also has stylistic similarities with the crosses at Eyam and Bakewell, but more of those in later posts.

It is not known where this or any other of the crosses were erected originally. They may have been in the vicinity of a Saxon church, at a symbolic location such as a routeway or at a territorial border. It may be that All Saints, shown below, began as a Saxon church as there are elements inside which suggest an early date of construction. There are also fragments of Saxon period worked stone in the walls of the building. Much of the current building dates to the 12-14th centuries, so it is possible the cross was in-situ at that time. Who knows...

If you would like to see our 3D scan of the cross have a look here.

Much of the story told here is only made possible by the work of others. An invaluable source for information on Anglo-Saxon crosses and other stonework is the Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture, in particular the contribution of Prof Jane Hawkes and Dr Phil Sidebottom who worked on the volume dedicated to Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Without their contribution and and that of the many others involved over the years, much less would be known about the monuments. Thank you to you all.

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