Some Famous Old Crosses
No relics of a bygone age have a greater interest than the ancient crosses which the piety of our ancestors caused to be placed by the wayside, in churchyards or in market-places, to foster those religious sentiments which were so fully expressed in these works of art.
There are several stones with incised crosses in the head which are, in effect, tombstones of Romano-British Christians. An extremely interesting example is to be seen at Trevena-popularly called "Tintagel" -on the north coast of Cornwall. It is a roughly-hewn slab of granite incised on both sides with a wheel cross, with the inscription:
"AElnat + fecit ha(n)c crucem p(ro) a(n)ima su(a)"
and the names of the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Latin means "Aelnat (?) made this cross for his soul's sake." This may be seen in front of the Wharncliffe Arms. It came from a farm at Trevillet, two miles distant, where it served the grotesquely unsuitable office of a gatepost. It probably dates back to a.d. 570.
The three famous crosses at Sandbach in Cheshire are of high antiquity. They stand, an imposing group, in the middle of the street in that little town, opposite to the Black Bear inn: three cylindrical sandstone pillars, of different heights, greatly weathered and of a very dark hue, the sculptures with which they are freely covered becoming ever less sharp and defined. That is not remarkable, for they are well over a thousand years old-if the conclusions of antiquaries be correct. It is thought they were erected to celebrate the conversion to Christianity of Peada, son of Penda, King of Mercia, and of his marriage to the daughter of Osivi, King of Northumbria, about a.d. 645. The tallest of these crosses is fifteen feet ten inches. The smallest is ten feet nine inches. Figures of the Apostles and scenes from Scripture history, together with a profusion of sculptured dragons and foliage, decorate them.
The Sandbach crosses have had a stirring history: more so than most. Early in the seventeenth century that very bad time for crosses-they were broken into pieces by a Puritan mob and their fragments dispersed. The middle portion of the tallest was removed by some appreciative person to the shelter of a park at Utkinton, whence it afterwards was taken off to Tarporley, and thence to Oulton Park. At last, owing to the entreaties of a Cheshire antiquary, all the scattered pieces were collected and re-set; the group being re-erected in 1816. The wonder is that they were thus so successfully retrieved after that long passage of time. One piece had formed the step of a cottage, another was found in a well, and other fragments were among the paving-stones.
The tall shaft of a cross standing on its original site in the churchyard of Bewcastle, Cumberland, fourteen and a half feet high, with the top, or cross, portion broken off and missing, is generally ascribed to a.d. 670. That ascription is made possible because the elaborately sculptured tapering shaft bears a number of runes which, although they look hopelessly unreadable, have in fact been read. Not to give here the cumbrous Anglo-Saxon original wording in all its grotesque length, that inscription is briefly as follows:
"This thin sign of victory Hwaetred Wothgar Olwfwolthu set up over Alcfrid, once King, and son of Oswy + Pray for the high sin of his soul."
Among the sculptured figures are those of the Saviour and Mary Magdalene, with the word "Gessus," for "Jesus." A cross at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire, resembling this at Bewcastle, is of like date, and has somewhat similar sculptures, but they are rather better in execution. Inscriptions prove it to be a monument to a victory by Ecgfrith, King of Deira, following the suppression of a rising by the heathen Picts.
We have numerous other early crosses, notably those in the churchyards of Eyam and Bakewell, Derbyshire. That of Eyam, elaborately sculptured, is thought to be of the ninth century. It is distinctly of the beautiful Irish type of cross.
An early Romano-British cross in Cornwall has been mentioned. Cornwall is pre-eminently the first region in England for the number of its ancient crosses, and they are for the most part very ancient and primitive. Most of these rudely fashioned crosses seem to have been set up by the early missionaries, chiefly from Ireland, who established oratories in this then wild and almost trackless land, and set up these crosses to guide the faithful to them. All are of that rugged material granite, and generally are short, squat stones, round-headed, with a cross worked upon them, either incised or in relief. But the Cornish crosses have a great range in style and date, between such early examples as those to be seen by the wayside at Madron, near Penzance, and Crowz-an-Wra (which is Cornish for "Cross-by-the-wayside") and the tall shaft of the fine cross in the churchyard of Lanteglos-juxta-Fowey. The tallest of the Cornish crosses is that in St. Ives churchyard, ten feet six inches in height. None, however, equals in size and height or in elaboration the finest of the Irish high crosses, of which there are forty-five; the finest of them being at Monasterboice and at Kells. The first-named stands twenty-seven feet high and is most elaborately sculptured. It has been ascribed to the thirteenth century.
Among our ancient English crosses the Eleanor Crosses stand foremost, alike for their decorative and historic interest as well as for their size. Theirs is a story cherished as one of the most touching in the history of this realm.
It is that of Queen Eleanor accompanying her husband, Edward I, to the Holy Land in 1270 in his Crusade against the Saracens. History tells how, on the evening of June 17, 1272, the king was seated, alone and unarmed, in his tent in the camp before Acre. It was his birthday, and he had received an emissary from the Emir of Jaffa, who, having delivered the letter he had brought, stood waiting before the king. Bending low in answering a question the king had put to him, he suddenly put his hand to his belt, as though to produce other letters; but, instead, drew a knife, believed to have been poisoned, and struck at the king with it. Edward endeavoured to shield himself, but received a deep wound in the arm; then, as the man sought to strike again, giving him a kick that felled him. to the ground, he wrenched his weapon from him, and plunged it in his would-be assassin's heart. The king's wound was serious, and although all the. available medicaments were applied, it grew worse. Then it was that the queen sucked the poison, from the wound and saved his life.
Whatever the truth of the tale, the king loved, her for all his life. Eighteen years later she was dead, at Harby, in Nottinghamshire, having been removed from the Royal hunting-palace of Clipstone, in Sherwood Forest, suffering from a low fever. The queen died November 28, 1290. After lying in Lincoln Minster, her body was taken in long procession to Westminster; starting December 4, and reaching Westminster Abbey on the nth. The route chosen was by Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Duns-table, St. Albans, Waltham, West Cheap and Charing. This somewhat indirect route was chosen chiefly because of the proximity to it of great abbeys or churches in which the queen's body could rest at the close of each day. At or near each place of resting the king caused to be erected a memorial cross by the roadside so that it might bear witness of his royal grief to the generations to come.
Detailed accounts of the cost of the crosses exist to this day in the Record Office. They were not of uniform pattern or plan, but they all fell into one group: a lofty structure pinnacled and gabled, diminishing gradually. Unhappily, nine of them have utterly disappeared; not one single worked stone of them being now discoverable; but old prints and accounts serve to give some idea of them, and their relative size and importance. While most of the series seem to have cost the equivalent of £60 or £70 each, those at West Chepe (or as we should now say, "Cheapside") and Charing were works of the greater magnificence. Charing Cross occupied from 1291 to 1294 in building. It was left for the Puritan fury to destroy these beautiful London crosses in 1647, and it is not a little ironical that it remained for our own commercial times to re-edify a Charing Cross, in memory of the original, in the courtyard of the railway station there. That modern cross, by Barry, was built in 1863, and cost £1,800. Indeed, the Eleanor crosses have inspired several modern works, including Sir Gilbert Scott's Martyrs' Memorial at Oxford.
The three remaining Eleanor crosses, those at Hardingstone, near Northampton, at Geddington, and at Waltham Cross, are in fairly good preservation. Those at Hardingstone and Waltham Cross have a close family likeness; that of Geddington is peculiar, being triangular in plan, and showing its three sides in the middle of that village street. It is built over a spring which still, as ever, flows copiously. In tabernacles on each face are statues of the queen, as they are in similar niches in the crosses at Harding-stone and Waltham. All are in a marvellously good state of preservation.
Our several surviving market crosses are also of great interest. Some of them are of considerable scale; notably that at Chichester, a beautiful fifteenth-century canopied structure, standing where four roads meet, in the centre of the city. It is the finest of that similar group in which are included the market cross at Malmesbury, and the Poultry Cross, built originally as the Yarn Market cross, at Salisbury.
Another kind of cross is found in the "Preaching Cross." In pre-Reformation times one stood in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. "Paul's Cross" was then famous for its stirring addresses to the people. A new Paul's Cross was erected some years ago, within the churchyard at the north-east of the cathedral, from funds left by an enthusiast. The fifteenth-century Blackfriars Preaching Cross at Hereford is a fine example; and there is another in the churchyard of Iron Acton, in Gloucestershire.
The market cross of Shepton Mallet, in Somerset, has survived the market itself. This is an anusual type of cross, resembling, as it were, a combination of market and Eleanor cross. It was the gift, in 1500, of Walter and Agnes Buckland, and it still bears the original brass plate setting forth an appeal to all who pass by to pray for their souls. It is to be wondered how many do so. Shepton Mallet treasures its fine cross, and restored it in 1841. A very striking market cross survives at Leighton Buzzard. It is a fourteenth-century structure, and so valued by the town that when the Lord of the Manor proposed to remove this cherished antiquity to his park, the townspeople resisted at law, and maintained the right to keep their own market cross. This curious incident seems to be the latest instance of that appreciation of venerable antiques by country squires for the adornment of their domains which developed in the eighteenth century. It was the fashion, Walpole had spread it; and the rage was all for something romantic with which to decorate the view from the windows of a country mansion. If authentic antiquities were not to be procured--well, then, sham ones would serve; and thus it is that all over the country we yet may see sham castles and bogus ruins, as at Reigate.
If the lord and the squire, for their part, were eager to acquire these venerable survivals, the towns, the possessors and natural guardians of them, were then not loth to part: nay, they were ready and eager to oblige. Thus it was that the city of Bristol lost its beautiful High Cross, a lofty composition of slender shafts, tabernacles and pinnacles which was the peculiar glory of the centre of that venerable place. It dated from 1373, and stood first in the centre of the city, at the intersection of the four principal streets, as such a cross should do. It was enriched with painting and gilding, and at a subsequent period, in 1633, it was further embellished with statues of Henry the Sixth, Elizabeth, James the First and Charles the First, monarchs who had granted or renewed various Charters for Bristol's benefit. The height of the cross was at that time thirty-nine feet six inches.
The citizens of Bristol seem at one period to have been proud of their High Cross, for in 1697 it was repainted so that no other throughout the kingdom could compare with it for beauty. But in 1733 it was removed, on the complaint of a silversmith near by, who daily feared the cross would fall and crush him. The obvious course, it might be expected, would be to place the structure in proper repair; but this was the eighteenth century, and the once cherished possession was taken down and the stones were thrown into a disregarded corner of the Guildhall. Here they remained till taken out and re-erected on a new site in College Green. Not for long, however. In 1763 the cross was again pulled down, this time on the plea that it was an obstruction in the way of promenading couples. The stones were removed to the cathedral, until a dean who was tired of seeing them there gave them to Sir Richard Colt Hoare, the wealthy antiquary-banker who,- in 1766, at a cost of £300, re-erected the High Cross on the outskirts of his park at Stourhead, Wiltshire, where it yet may be seen, presiding over the gushing springs which form the source of the river Stour. But observe the irony of change! Since that time Bristol has acquired a new High Cross, in a design following largely on that of the old. It was erected in 1851, at a cost of £450, upon the site where the original was alleged to be obstructive.
Some years later than the ravishing away of Bristol's possession, Winchester very nearly lost its ancient Butter Cross. That was in 1785. This elaborate pinnacled cross, a familiar object in the High Street, dates from the last years of the fourteenth century or the initial years of the next. The Corporation sold it to a neighbouring magnate for a trifling sum, and workmen actually had begun operations for removing it when the indignant citizens intervened, drove them off, and saved their cross. It was "restored"-unhappily, very badly-by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1865.
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