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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.