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The Saxon Stones Mystery

from The Barwicker No.68
Dec. 2002

All Saints' Parish Church at Barwick-in-Elmet, is full of mysteries, one of the most intriguing being, the origins and meaning of the two free standing Saxon or Anglian stones situated by the choir stalls. These 1000 year old stones are known and well described, but not understood. The purpose of this short article is to remind us of the existence of these treasures within the context of the history of the period. We should examine anew these oldest remnants of the church, stemming from Anglo-Saxon times and wonder at the meaning within their intricate designs. They have a story to tell.

These badly weathered sculptured Runic stones were taken from the outside church walls in 1900; both stones are parts of different monuments. The smaller and perhaps the older of the two may have formed a portion of the shaft of a tall memorial cross (see back cover). It is only 29 inches high, 14 inches in breadth and 8 inches thick; its typically Scandinavian interlacing tracery may depict Celtic symbolic entwined beasts. Professor Collingwood refers to a double scroll running at the top of the stone into a pierced plait, with one strand passing through a hole in a broader strand. He observes that this is distinctly characteristic of the Viking Age (10th and 11th centuries) though the leaves and flowers depicted are never seen in Scandinavian art of that period. He calls this a 'remarkable combination.' It is possible the series of scrolls represent continuity of existence, stemming from the tree of life.

The other larger stone, shown opposite, was probably the lowest part of the shaft of a larger cross from the 10th or 11th century, it is 28 inches in height, 23inches in breadth and ten inches deep. The lower part of the stone is roughly carved, being the foot of the shaft built into a base, which, may indeed have been built round it. The most interesting carving on this stone 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; they appear to hold his garments. Scholars are unsure what this means; it could represent either the giving of a blessing or individuals being claimed as captives.

The Revd. Colman writing in 1908 speculates it may be a religious subject or some reference to a Scandinavian saga. Collingwood's paper of 1914 refers to other similar stones found in Viking England, which show birds on the shoulders of the figures. He is not sure that the character is biblical, because in all these early stones Christ's costume is not that of a contemporary civilian or church figure. He also states that, 'the subject of Christ blessing the children does not seem to have been represented in early Christian art.'

Collingwood thinks the Barwick stones are 11th century, perhaps representing the conveying of inspiration, symbolised by the laying on of hands. He states that 'the subject of Holy Orders is not unknown and would be suitable for the gravestone of a priest.' Interestingly at the Induction of the newly appointed parish Rector this year, the Revd Brunel James released a dove at the end of the ceremony as symbolic of his mission; such is the continuity of Christianity.

Referring to the broader side of the stone, Collingwood concludes that the rude knot and spiral together with a quadruped which may be a deer, very commonly found in Elmet at the time, is indicative of the late pre-Conquest stones at Lancaster and elsewhere. He is very critical of the carving, and is in no doubt the 'the rough hacking is pre-Norman.' It is possible that the monument represented the gravestone for a priest or religious figure.

The historian Edmund Bogg complains that the carving of the stones is, 'grotesque and rude, and not by any means the work of an artist who has been taught the ordinary rudiments of sculpture.' He concludes, probably correctly, that the sculptor has received no art training when producing this 'uncouth' work. Bogg speculates that these relics could have come from Thridwulff's monastery formerly situated in Elmet wood, probably between Barwick and Potterton and that Eanbald, Archbishop of York died at this monastery in 796.
The larger Saxon stone

The larger Saxon stone

The stones were carved in the turbulent times between the Danish wars and the Norman Conquest. The central figure could be a representation of Christ, or an individual or stereotypical figure or concept, an English king or regional warlord, or perhaps a Scandinavian figure from history or legend. We will never know; but it is interesting to reflect on who or what these figures represent. To my untutored eye, they resemble the design and style of other Saxon carvings seen in the Yorkshire Museum in York. But a work of art must speak for itself to the beholder and the simplicity of the carving indicates to me, a caring central father figure gently holding the inclined head of a child or dependant beneath his right hand. This smaller figure is clearly voluntarily clutching at the clothing of the dominant character.

What we do know is that the area around Barwick witnessed one of the last great struggles between paganism and Christianity in this country. These violent upheavals may well have influenced the only artistic expression available at the time, namely the design, building and ornamentation of churches or memorials. This part of Yorkshire has been a cockpit of warfare throughout our history and the victory of the Northumbrian King Oswy over the mighty pagan warrior king Penda of Mercia, at Winwaed, in 655, ensured the supremacy of the Christian religion.

The struggle had been a long one, with Christianity coming to Barwick possibly from Gaul, in the second century, it was certainly well established by 1066. The religion was practised by small groups of individuals initially, gradually becoming accepted, as it co-existed with paganism in its many forms.

The Brigantes, the dominant British tribe, holding land in what approximated to the West Riding, had resisted the Roman occupation, which lasted from A.D. 50 to 410. Barwick was the major stronghold in this kingdom, its mighty earthworks indicating its power.

The political vacuum left by the departure of the Romans was exploited by a series of continental invaders, especially the Angles and Saxons. Elmet proved to be a barrier, stopping the Angles driving west, from their power base on the east coast. Ruthless internecine warfare between the Humber and Tweed in the kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, led to the re-creation of the kingdom of Northumbria under Edwin, who conquered Elmet, probably in 625. Colman is certain that the attack would have been delivered at Barwick; thus British Elmet was subsumed into English Northumbria. Edwin was converted and baptised in 627, shortly before the great mission of Paulinus to Yorkshire, in 627, to help revive and protect the faith from paganism. Christianity of course at that time was seen as a branch of politics, as the Synod of Whitby 664 revealed.

The great pagan warrior Penda was intent on overthrowing the overlordship of Edwin when he ascended the Mercian throne, this he achieved in 633 by defeating Edwin at the battle of Heathfield. There followed a tragic and tortuous period in our history with rapidly changing fortunes of war. Eventually Oswy, a Christian king, succeeded in winning back the kingdom of Northumbria, meeting Penda's much superior Mercian forces at the battle of Winnmoor, on 15th November 655.

This battle known variously as 'Vinwed,' (Bede) or 'Winwaed;' was fought within this parish. The battle site is uncertain, but Whinmoor, or Winnmoor keeps its name from the Anglo Saxon winnan, to fight or struggle, and mor, a moor. Thoresby saw in the name Seacroft, a derivation from the Anglo Saxon saec, a battle, and croft, a field. This area was marshy ground at the time and the River Cock played a large part in the outcome of the battle, as it did at Towton in 1461.

Bede tells the moving story of how the desperate Oswy, outnumbered by 30 to 1 and fearful of being overwhelmed in battle, prayed to God, promising that if successful he would give his year old daughter Aelffled and large tracts of land to a religious establishment. It is probable that Oswy collected his soldiers in the Barwick stronghold and attacked Penda's legions in a loop of the river; he was remarkably successful and many of the defeated Mercians were drowned in their subsequent retreat. Oswy cut off Penda's head and began converting the Mercians to Christianity. He kept his word and his daughter entered the monastery at Hartlepool, ruled at that time by the famous Hilda, who founded the monastery at Whitby two years later. Aelffled eventually became Abbess there.

Bede writes vividly of the terrible cruelty and barbarism of the age and Oswy's success in battle would have been seen as a miraculous deliverance from evil. Is it possible that this great Christian victory against massive odds resulted in the building or extension of a church, religious foundation or memorial to God or a saviour king in Barwick?

The Norman invasion in 1066 was the most significant political event in this frenzied period of English history. Barwick was certainly a long established settlement at this time with Christian worship, most likely on the current church site. Colman writes that the two churches in Barwick and Kippax were built at the same time with the same Saxon lords and the same Norman lordship to almost the same dimensions. Similarly, the contemporary historian Guy Points, comments that crucially, Barwick took over from Kippax as the administrative centre for the area, around 1100. We do not know whether or not 'The Harrying of the North affected Barwick' in 1069-70, but presumably an old church was either re-modelled and re-built, or a new church was created.

What is certain is that existing building materials would be re-cycled to build the new church. Stone particularly, was such a valuable and expensive commodity it would be re-used endlessly. I saw the evidence of bone and stone being inter-mingled and re-used in the building aggregates used in the church walls and foundations during the re-ordering of Barwick church in 2000.

Finally, as with all conundrums we return to where we started; the beginning is our end. Who is the central figure in the large stone or what does it represent? Unfortunately there is no definitive answer; all we can do is gaze at this thousand-year old puzzle, marvelling at its secrets as we gain insight into our inheritance and ourselves. See.
  1. 'Anglian and Anglo-Danish Sculpture in the West Riding.' Professor W G Collingwood. 'The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal,' Vol. 23.1914-1915
  2. 'A History of the Parish of Barwick-in -Elmet.' Revd. F S Colman 1908
  3. 'The Old Kingdom Of Elmet.' Edmund Bogg 1904
  4. 'The Ancient Parish of Barwick-in-Elmet.' Revd. N. Butcher. 1970
  5. 'Ecclesiastical History Of The English People.' Bede. 731
  6. 'Bone And Stone.' Martin Tarpey 'The Barwicker' Number 61 March 2001
  7. 'Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish (Viking) Comprehensive Gazzeteer for Yorkshire.' Guy Points. To be published shortly.


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