An Ancient Mystery: Solved or Created? Back to the Main Historical Society page
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An Ancient Mystery: Solved or Created?

From the Barwicker No.101
March 2011

Readers may be surprised to learn that contemporary researchers are still trying to understand the meaning of the 1000 year old Anglo-Saxon Stones in All Saints' Church in Barwick-in- Elmet.

The most interesting carving on these well weathered stones depicts a group of three standing figures. The central character is twice as tall as the other two smaller figures and has his hands placed on their heads. People have long argued what this crude and indistinct representation means. Elizabeth Coatsworth,¹ a distinguished scholar, has advanced a new interpretation.

She makes an extremely thorough study of the fine grained dolomitic limestone of the two pre-Conquest sculptures. Colman² " wrote that the two sculptured stones were fragments of memorial crosses. He thought that the carving, may be a scriptural subject or it may be an allusion to some Scandinavian Saga. One stone had subsequently been built into the outside of the east end of the north aisle of the church and the other into the inside of the south aisle.

Coatsworth writes that the stones are dirty but 'have been slightly burned to create pink surface discolouration in places. ' Apart from the effects of fire, the stones appear to have been 'heavily whitewashed, , which makes them difficult to interpret.

In an extremely detailed and erudite analysis Coatsworth compares the stones with other examples of Scandinavian stonework in the north of England by examining patterns and relationships in the art work. She quotes all the examples and authorities to give traditional interpretations of what they mean.

Thus the scene could represent the conveying of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands, or the specific theme of Holy Orders. It could be the theme of Christ blessing two individuals or be intended to show the creation of Adam and Eve.

Traditionally a Garden of Eden scene has included God with Adam and Eve and a serpent's head to represent the Fall of Man; stone shafts at Coverham and Spennithorne in North Yorkshire include these details. Coatsworth invites a comparison of the Barwick stones with these examples.

The plant form next to the Barwick figures would then represent the Garden of Eden, and one of the interlacing forms might represent the snake. Both the smaller ancillary figures are frontal and can be interpreted as hiding their nakedness. She then proceeds to compare scenes of Adam and Eve knowing their nakedness by referring to pictures in the Moutier-Grandval Bible"³ in France showing God reproving Adam and Eve after the Fall. These images show a definite similarity to the way in which the Barwick figures are holding their arms. They appear to be drawn and sculpted in a similar artistic style or tradition.

The author writes The crossed arms of the figures strongly echo those of Eve in the manuscript (and of Adam in a later mosaic from Palermo, Sicily.)

Elizabeth Coatsworth then proceeds to examine Norse-Irish influences at this time by referring to other decorative elements in the stone; the weight of evidence she gives suggests that the three Barwick figures do indeed represent a Garden of Eden theme.

Previous interpretations about the stones include a political view that following the great Christian victory over the pagan Penda at nearby Whinmoor in 655 a memorial of some kind could have been erected in Barwick.4 The central figure in the stone could represent a king or military ruler with his subjects or vanquished foes. Colman writes that the stones,
Belong to the period which intervened between the Danish wars and the Norman Conquest and were memorials of an ecclesiastical or secular ruler connected with the place or district.

Coatsworth's impressive study may mean that she has written the final word on the symbolism of the Barwick stones, but her work raises an important question. She writes that as a result of the stones being burned they have been subject to the slight calcining effects of fire.

The question then arises that if quicklime has been produced by burning then where did the fire come from?

At the time of the Conquest, Christianity was well established in Barwick. There was a church and the 10th; century Barwick stones were part of that Anglo-Saxon structure. The Church may well have been destroyed at the time of the wicked Harrying of the North in 1069 when Norman soldiers put a flaming northern countryside to the sword.

Colman writes that there is no evidence of that destruction. But he goes on to say that either the Saxon church suffered in 1069 and had to be re-built, or it was reconstructed in accordance with Norman ideas.

The possibility thus arises that the pink surface discolouration in places on the stones is evidence of a fire that destroyed the church.

Intriguingly, as we gaze at the neglected stones in the choir stalls, awaiting their probable future relocation somewhere in the church, we may have the only evidence of what happened in Saxon times. Elizabeth Coatsworth may have solved one problem but she has raised a new one. Did the Normans burn down the Anglo-Saxon church?

The stone depicting a central figure with its hands on the heads of two smaller figures.


1 Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Vo/. Vll1. Western Yorkshire. Elizabeth Coatsworth. 2008 (For the British Academy by Oxford University Press). pp93-95
2 A History of the Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet. Revd F.S.Colman. pp.33-34
3 Moutier-Grandval Bible. Circa 834-843 (Images available on the Internet via Google)
4 A Short History of All Saints' Church. Barwick-in-Elmet. 2010. Church Guide. Martin Tarpey p34
Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede. 731
Ducatus Leodiensis. Ralph Thoresby 1714
The Old Kingdom of Elmet, Edmund Bogg 1904
A History of Barwick-in-Elmet, Revd. ES. Colman, 1908
'Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the West Riding. , The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 23. Professor W.G.Collingwood 1914
The Ancient Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet. Revd. N. Butcher. 1970
The Barwicker Number 61 March. 'Bone and Stone' Martin Tarpey 2001
Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish (Viking) Comprehensive Gazetteer of Yorkshire. Guy Points. 2007.

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