Stone Crosses

Edward Green


  Two stone crosses with terraced houses behind
The Sandbach crosses (early 9th century): east faces decorated with figures and creatures within a lattice framework and neat lines of scroll work, and, on the nearer cross, Biblical scenes

Stones carved with symbols of Christianity are found throughout Britain and Ireland in churchyards, in town centres, and along the wayside. Some of the most elaborately carved examples date from the 8th century AD, predating almost all surviving churches. Medieval examples are more common, and many more were constructed as war memorials following the Great War. The earliest examples are now of unparalleled importance in Christian art in this country, yet they often remain exposed to the elements, eroding, unprotected, and at risk.

In some cases the standing stone itself forms the cross, whether an early medieval cross with its arms contained within a wheel, or the fully developed crusader cross which is now most commonly associated with war memorials. In many cases the stone bears a representation of the cross only. This may be simply an incised two-dimensional representation, or a more elaborate three dimensional relief such as ‘the Holy Rood’, the image of Christ on the cross with the two Marys weeping at its foot.

Some of the early Christian monuments may have reused prehistoric standing stones. In Dartmoor standing stones are commonly found across the moor, some marked with a simple cross incised upon them, and it is likely that some of these are pre-Christian monuments, whether way markers, boundary markers or objects of religious veneration, which have been adopted by travellers between the monastic settlements and adorned with Christian symbols.

The cross, which Bill Harrison argues is a pre-Christian symbol (see Recommended Reading), did not acquire its present symbolic significance for several centuries after Christ’s crucifixion. One useful guide to the date of these stones is the chi-rho monogram which was widely used in the first few centuries AD. It appears on the Latinus Stone (c450AD) and the Peter Stone (600AD) at Whithorn in Scotland. (In Greek, Christ’s name was written ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The chi-rho was formed by superimposing the first two letters, X ‘chi’ and P ‘rho’.)

Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans during the last century of their rule. By 200 the Romano-British Christian church was flourishing, extending not only into the areas of Britain which the Romans controlled, but also beyond. In the Celtic fringes of Wales and the Cornish peninsula, Christianity survived the invasion of illiterate heathens – the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others – who overran England in the centuries which followed, driving out the Celts and Romano-Britons.

  Stone cross in churchyard with church building behind it  
  The 7th century Bewcastle cross with scrolling decoration and interwoven designs, carefully executed in perfectly regular patterns and, uniquely, a sundial towards the top of the cross. (Photo: Nicola Didsbury)  

It is likely that some of the carved stones and the fragments of early stone crosses found in the Welsh hills, Dartmoor and other remote areas date from this pre-Augustinian period, and by the time of St Augustine’s landing in Kent in 597 to establish the Gregorian Church of Rome, in some parts of the British Isles there was already a well established tradition of erecting stones to mark a place of Christian worship. As Christianity established itself, the stone crosses, cross-bearing slabs or simple cross-incised monuments became an important part of the Christian landscape.

Many magnificent monuments have survived from the 8th century. These bear lavish ornamentation, typified by intricate patterns of inter-weaving lines, often combined with panels of naively carved figures representing saints and scenes from the Book of Genesis and the New Testament. Sometimes the complex plaited decoration is executed with geometric precision. In other examples the decoration seems crude and irregular. In most cases the decoration is set within bordered panels. Regional variations in style reflect different schools of sculpture and different attitudes to how sculpture was used.

Some of these earliest standing crosses were erected as preaching crosses, marking where people would gather to hear sermons and proclamations. Others commemorated events or the dead. Some were initially of wood, later replaced by stone. In some cases the cross was associated with a stone or timber church. Nun Hygeburc, writing of the 8th century Anglo Saxon missionary St Williband, illustrated the importance of these standing crosses:

At the age of three, [Williband] was suddenly attacked by a severe illness … when his parents in great anxiety of mind, were still uncertain of the fate of their son, they took him and offered him up before the Holy Cross of our Lord and Saviour. And this they did, not in the church but at the foot of the cross, for on the estates of the nobles and good men of the Saxon race it is a custom to have a cross, which is dedicated to our Lord and held in great reverence, erected on some prominent spot for the convenience of those who wish to pray daily before it. (Quoted by Janet Nelson in The Oxford History of Medieval England.)

  Stone cross in purpose-built glazed shelter with internal spot-lighting
  Sueno’s Stone on the outskirts of Forres in Moray, now protected by an environmentally controlled glass shelter. This monument, which is almost seven metres tall, is richly carved and dates from the 9th century. © Crown Copyright. Reproduced by courtesy of Historic Scotland

Cornwall was probably the first county in England to have stone crosses, as long ago as the 4th century. The most ancient examples were very primitive, crudely formed by early missionaries from Ireland who set up their oratories there. Granite, rugged and squat, such as the disc-headed cross at Madron. In other isolated locations, such as the Peak District and Dartmoor crosses were erected as way markers to show routes across the inhospitable landscape. The functions of the crosses varied. Some crosses acted as the markers of boundaries, but they are most commonly found by the roadside, in churchyards, or in market places. Several have survived for over 1,000 years, a celebration of beautiful Christian art based around the most potent symbol of Christianity.

Two of the most well known Saxon crosses in England can be found in the market place of the town of Sandbach in Cheshire. Standing side-by-side, these crosses date from the early 9th century. Decorated on all sides with animals, carved figures and foliage, the taller of the two crosses shows Biblical scenes with depictions of the Apostles. The crosses were smashed down by fanatical Puritans in the early 1600s as they were considered to be idolatrous, but, as was the case with many other destroyed Anglo Saxon relics, many of the fragments were collected up by the villagers. The middle section of the tallest cross was rescued and taken to a park at Utkinton.

In 1816 the crosses were reinstated, almost 1,000 years after they were first constructed. Although the crosses are still truncated, many of the scattered pieces were recovered. One piece of cross was being used as the doorstep of a cottage, another was found in a well and several fragments were being used as paving stones. Further fragments from these crosses can be seen in the churchyard of St Mary’s at Sandbach.

Apart from their elaborate carvings, a noticeable feature of the Sandbach crosses is their height. Other tall monuments survive in England and Scotland. Not far from Hadrian’s Wall, is the tall shaft of the cross at Bewcastle, Cumbria. It stands in its original churchyard location of St Cuthbert’s Church, at just under 4.5 metres in height, even with the top section of the cross missing. It is thought to date from the early or mid 8th century. The badly weathered inscription is written in runes and reads as follows: ‘This sign of victory Hwaetred Wothgar Olwfwolthu set up over Alefrith, once King and son of Oswy + Pray for the high sin of his soul.’ A related free-standing Anglian cross survives not far away at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. It is remarkably well preserved, being virtually extant standing 5.5 metres tall and richly carved with scenes from the New Testament. Like the Bewcastle Cross, it is inscribed in runic letters.

  Stone cross at Geddington with canopied statues and hexagonal pinnacle  
  The late 13th century Eleanor cross at Geddington (Photo: Elain Harwood)  
  Weather worn and lichen-encrusted stone cross at Bishops Lydeard  
  A 15th century market cross now in the church of St Mary, Bishops Lydeard, Somerset. Fine carvings which survive on the socket and shaft are typical. ‘Christ in Majesty’ is still discernable in the east facing panel above – the word of God represented by the ribbon-like scroll. The ascension is represented on the north side, with the two Marys on either side of a chest tomb with Christ standing behind it.  

Early medieval crosses in Scotland take many forms. Some of the earliest examples are stones incised or carved with a simple cross. In the north and east the Picts carved non-Christian symbols onto unworked stones. With the arrival of Christianity, from the eighth century these symbols were combined with a cross and other Christian imagery on beautifully worked cross-slabs. In later times the symbols became redundant, but the cross-slab continued as the most popular form (for example Sueno’s Stone, which stands 6.5m tall). While the Picts did create some free-standing crosses (such as Dupplin), the best known examples of these were created in the west, such as at Iona or Kildalton.

A tall cross shaft can be found much further south, at Rothley in Leicestershire. Standing approximately 2.75 metres in height it is elaborately carved on all four faces and dates from the mid-9th century. Another notable example is the cross at Long Wittenham, Berkshire, which is situated close to where a Saxon burial ground was discovered.

Several ancient stone crosses survived in the Peak District, the most noticeable of which are now in the churchyards at Bakewell and Eyam in Derbyshire. These two have similar shafts decorated with a heavy organic scrolling decoration on their faces and their carving is of the highest quality. The Celtic cross at Eyam (the village more usually associated with the plague of 1665) is largely complete and is believed to date from the 9th century. Its cross head is elaborately sculpted with angels and, on one side, the Madonna and Child in the centre. The cross at Bakewell, which has lost most of its head, shows the Annunciation and Crucifixion on one side of its shaft. Another Peak District cross, at the village of Hope, is decorated with figures, including that of a man carrying a cross.


The tradition of constructing crosses as memorials and to mark open air places of worship continued through the early medieval period, and a statute issued by Edward I in 1285 stated that the erection of a cross was a form of legal consecration of the spot.

A major transformation occurred in the later medieval period with the introduction of gothic styles of architecture. The structure of the crosses became more sophisticated, typically taking the form of a stepped base known as the ‘Calvary’ from which to preach, with the shaft of the cross itself set into a ‘socket’ on top. The faces of the socket provided another surface for decoration.

Market crosses became used as locations within a town where transactions took place. In many cases the crosses have outlived the town’s market. Throughout the Middle Ages, these developed into more than just a simple standing stone cross, but became prominent local landmarks, reflecting early civic pride. Such crosses were substantial polygonal structures with canopies and balconies.

Although many elaborate market crosses were destroyed by puritans, particularly during the Commonwealth period, typical examples can still be found at Salisbury, Chichester, Shepton Mallet and Leighton Buzzard. Bristol High Cross, dating from 1373, was given to Henry Hoare in 1780 and now stands at Stourhead, Wiltshire.


Over 700 years ago following the death of Queen Eleanor at Harby, Nottinghamshire in November 1290, King Edward I decided to commemorate his wife with the creation of several beautiful stone crosses, which became known as the Eleanor Crosses. After lying in Lincoln Minster, on 4th December the queen’s body was taken on the long journey to Westminster Abbey, where the procession arrived on the 11th. The route of the procession to London was far from direct, but deliberately chosen so that the queen’s body could rest at an abbey or great church at the end of each day.

The Eleanor Crosses were erected at or near to these places which had been chosen for the procession to rest each night. Each cross was elaborately carved and decorated, containing large sculptures of the late queen. It was hoped that passers-by and pilgrims would pray for the queen’s soul.

There were originally 12 Eleanor memorial crosses, located at Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Cheapside and Charing Cross. Of these, only the crosses at Geddington, Hardingstone (Northampton) and Waltham survive. The cross at Hardingstone closely resembles the one at Waltham, but the cross at Geddington is three-sided, its base constructed over a spring. A fourth, replacement cross was put up in the forecourt of Charing Cross Station in 1863. Commissioned by the railway company and designed by E M Barry it stands at over 20 metres in height.

In the medieval revivalism of the late 19th century, the Eleanor Crosses and other medieval crosses were extremely popular and were widely imitated for the construction of new memorials for a wide variety of events, particularly the golden and diamond jubilees of Queen Victoria, and later for the war memorials of the Great War. Many of the originals suffered from over-zealous restoration, and several of the most important examples were simply renewed, often with little regard for their original form.


  Photograph of the north and west faces of the upper section of the St Mary's Stringston cross 1877 illustration of the west face of the St Mary’s Stringston cross
  Above left: a weather-worn late 14th century churchyard cross at St Mary’s Stringston, Somerset. Above right: the extent of the detail that has been lost since it was illustrated in 1877 by Charles Pooley is clearly evident. Little now remains of the bishop in the gable on the west side.

The fact that any early crosses have survived is almost miraculous. Most of the Anglian and Saxon examples have been reconstructed using the salvaged remains recovered from the walls of later buildings in which they had been used as building stone. Those medieval crosses which the Puritans overlooked or considered not to be idolatrous have remained exposed to the elements throughout. Both are at risk.

These monuments are of great historical importance for the insight they provide into the lives of our ancestors. Many of them are of enormous religious importance, having been used as the focal point for religious worship for many centuries, the open air equivalent of the pulpit, chancel and altar in a single structure. Moreover, all the earliest Christian examples deserve to be recognised as national treasures, particularly those which are highly decorated, not least because we have so few examples of Anglian and Saxon art.

A key issue in the protection, conservation and presentation of stone crosses is the question of where they are best looked after. In other words, are they best preserved where they are or moved elsewhere. And, if elsewhere, to where? In Scotland, the Scottish Executive has developed a policy and associated guidance for how carved stones should be treated. The primary aim is to retain the cultural significance of a sculpture. As its association with its locality and its setting is an important element of this significance, the preferred option is to keep such monuments where they are, where this is feasible and where permissible under the provision of treasure trove. Practical solutions applied by Historic Scotland have included protecting the existing monuments on site, for example the environmentally controlled and monitored glass shelter around Sueno’s Stone at Forres.

Laser scanning can now be used to recreate exact replicas of carvings that can be placed on a site if it is decided that the original needs to be moved to a suitable building, such as a church or a museum. At Prestbury in Cheshire a small Anglo Saxon stone cross has been scanned in this way by the Conservation Centre of the National Museums, Liverpool to create an exact 3-D digital model. The condition of the original is being monitored, and if necessary it may be moved into the church in the future. In the meantime, the digital information provides some peace of mind for the parish. A similar strategy is perhaps now urgently required for all our surviving early standing stone crosses where they are exposed to the elements before it is too late.


Recommended Reading

  • SM Foster and M Cross, Able Minds and Practiced Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century, Many Publishing, 2005
  • W Harrison, Dartmoor Stone Crosses, Devon Books, 2001
  • C Pooley, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Old Stone Crosses of Somerset, Longmans, Green & Co, 1877
  • NT Sharpe, Crosses of the Peak District, Landmark Publishing, 2002
  • The Carved Stones of Scotland: A guide to helping in their protection, Historic Scotland




Historic Churches, 2005


EDWARD GREEN is a former assistant editor of Historic Churches and The Building Conservation Directory.

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