ANGLO- SAXON AND VIKING STONE SCULPTURE

Introduction Sources of Evidence Late Roman Britain The British Kingdom of Elmet Anglo-Saxon West Yorkshire Religion in the Anglo Saxon and Viking period
Viking Rule in West Yorkshire The impact of the Norman conquest Timeline Photo Gallery
Links

 


Introduction
One of the key indicators of the presence of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in West Yorkshire is the number of places where fragments of stone sculpture have been found. Only a few can be discussed in detail here. For a fuller list click Here.

Early Anglo-Saxon sculpture
The majority of fragments of Anglo-Saxon sculpture which can now be found in the churches of West Yorkshire are parts of cross shafts, some of which may have been up to 4 metres high. Archaeologists believe that the majority of these were not grave markers as now seen in modern cemeteries. It seems more probable that they were erected initially as preaching crosses or as memorials to the dead. Some were erected outside churches, or at least where churches were later built. Others, such as the Walton Cross at Hartshead, cannot now be linked with any known church site.

Such crosses would only appear singly or in pairs and might form a focus for the layout of the churchyard. This seems to be the case at Addingham where an excavation revealed that the Anglo-Saxon burials were not in straight rows but fanned out from a central focal point. This may have been a large courtyard cross though no trace of it now remains.

In a few places, such as Dewsbury, Thornhill and Otley, there are larger collections of sculptured stones. This might suggest that such sites were monastic and that some of the sculpture is liturgical in nature rather than being memorials or places where the gospel was preached to the public.

Decoration
The sides of each cross shaft were divided up into panels depicting a variety of subjects. Some of these were vine scrolls (e.g. Birstall) others were complicated geometrical patterns (e.g. Walton Cross and Rastrick). Many show scenes from the Bible or representations of saints (Dewsbury).

Nowadays the designs can be difficult to pick out. Many of these fragments are from crosses like those at Ilkley which formerly stood in the open air and suffered erosion from wind and rain. Others like those at Dewsbury are fragments that have been sawn up and used as construction material in the walls of later medieval churches. The clarity of the images would not have been a problem for the Anglo-Saxons. Not only would the sculpture itself still have been crisp, but the surface of the stones would also have been limewashed and then painted. Each strand of the sculptured knotwork patterns would be picked out in a different colour making the design easier to follow. The faces of the evangelists and biblical characters would also be painted in so that an observer would be able to make out their expressions. At Dewsbury there may have been a further embellishment. The figures in the panels portraying scenes from the life of Christ have holes bored where their eyes should be. It seems possible that these were set with glass which would reflect light from their surroundings and which would give the illusion of being alive.

Viking sculpture
After their conversion to Christianity the Vikings took up the idea of raising churchyard monuments. This was not something which they had done to any great extent in Scandinavia where there was no great tradition of erecting stone monuments. The one exception is on the Swedish island of Gotland where there are a number of stones carved with elaborate patterns and runic inscriptions, but these are different in character to Viking monuments in Britain.

Under Viking patronage the function of the crosses changed. More Viking sculpture can be seen to be funerary monuments than was the case in Saxon times. New forms of sculpture were also introduced including the hogback grave marker. This is a stone which was laid flat on the ground to mark the position of the burial. Many resemble houses or upturned boats with a ridged central spine (hence the name hogback). Others, such as those at Brompton on Swale (North Yorkshire) have large beasts resembling bears clutching both ends of the hogback.

The decorative style of the Viking sculpture is also different. Although many of the motifs remain the same others are introduced. There are still images of the saints as at Ilkley and Otley for example, but the Leeds cross also has a depiction of the Viking hero Wayland the Smith. The style in which they are carried out is also different. The figures are more flowing and the knotwork seems less regimentally symmetrical. Often it contains dragons and other creatures from Scandinavian myth.

Related topics
Early Christianity

Religion of the Saxons and Vikings

List of Anglo-Scandinavian Stone Sculpture in West Yorkshire

Photo Gallery
Addingham: Cross shaft

Bingley: A possible Viking Age font

Birstall: Part of a cross base

Dewsbury: Christ in Majesty

Dewsbury: Scenes from the life of Christ

Dewsbury: An artist's impression of the Dewsbury cross

Dewsbury: The hogback

Hartshead: The Walton Cross

Ilkley: The Ilkley Crosses

Ilkley: Detail of the central cross

Ilkley: The two smaller crosses

Otley: Cross shafts

Raistrick: The churchyard cross

Further reading
Bailey, R. N., 1980, Viking Age Sculpture
Collingwood, W. G., 1927 (reprinted 1969) Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age
McGuire, A. and Clark, A., 1987, The Leeds Crosses

Web Site
Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture

Places to visit
a list can be found by clicking here

  • Many of West Yorkshire's older churches contain Anglo-Saxon and Viking carved stones. A list can be found by clicking here. It should be noted that many churches are now kept locked through fear of vandalism and theft. It is, therefore, advisable to check with the church authorities to ensure that the church will be open at the time of your visit.
  • The Tolson Memorial Museum at Huddersfield houses the sculptured stone from Kirkheaton. Leeds Museum also has a number of cross fragments.
  • Walton cross at Hartshead stands adjacent to a public footpath at SE 172 237.