Volume I | Chapter 1 | Historical Background to the Sculpture Next Back to catalogue index
by Rosemary Cramp, University of Durham

The area covered by this volume, the pre-1974 counties of Durham and Northumberland (Fig. 1), bounded by the river systems of the Tweed and Tees, is only part of the great kingdom of Northumbria when it was at the height of its powers in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.1 It probably includes, however, the heartland of the original kingdom of Bernicia, and this region retained an English autonomy even after the mid ninth century, when the Scandinavian settlements in Cumbria and Deira fragmented the enlarged kingdom. Nevertheless, any discussion of Northumberland and Durham must refer to the wider kingdom of Northumbria, and to this region in British times.

The survival of a British church organization before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons has been postulated, not only in the Solway area, but also in the fertile valleys of the Till, Tweed and Glen, largely on the strength of place-names and inscribed grave-markers such as those at Yarrowkirk.2 However, the form of organization such a surviving church would take has never been clearly defined. Archaeological evidence for large cremation cemeteries of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, belonging to the fifth and early sixth centuries, such as are known in Deira, is so far lacking in Bernicia. Nevertheless, an increasing number of small inhumation cemeteries of the late sixth century onwards is being discovered in Bernicia.

Bede and Nennius seem to imply that the formal occupation of the area by Anglian peoples did not begin until the mid sixth century, with the arrival of Ida in 547; this could have been the assertion of a military hegemony. The pagan supremacy in Bernicia was confirmed by the time of the reign of Ida's grandson, Aethelfrith, whose activities were certainly not calculated to foster friendly relations with any surviving British church in the area.3 By the time that Edwin, of the Deiran line, first decisively united the southern and northern Northumbrians, it might have seemed natural to seek aid from the continental church for the Christianization of the kingdom, not least because of the kinship links of Edwin's wife with the Frankish royal house. In 627 Edwin was baptized in a hastily built wooden church at York, and Bede records that during his reign large numbers of people were baptized in the river Glen at Yeavering (Bede 1969, ii , 14, 188). No doubt these included both the Angles and Britons, whose settlements are now being distinguished by air photography and excavation.4

No Christian monuments survive from Edwin's reign, save the wooden structure, Building B, at Yeavering, identified by the excavator as a Christian church (Hope-Taylor 1977, 73–4).5 Wooden structures such as these and their associated cemeteries are difficult to identify without large-scale, careful excavation. Christian centres were rapidly founded during Oswald's reign, and that of his successor Oswiu (who died in 670), although the references in Bede are all to wooden structures and monuments in the reign of Oswald.6 Numerous land-grants enabled the foundation of monasteries, not only in the heartland of Northumbria, but also in the newly won lands of southern Scotland. In the north-east the English monastery of Tyningham owned land between the Lammermoors and the Esk; there was an Anglian abbot of Melrose in 651, and by 680 the bishopric of Abercorn was established.

In 663, during Oswiu's reign, the decisive Synod of Whitby laid the foundations for new contacts in the next generation, and in the last three decades of the seventh century, Northumbrians, such as Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop, travelled extensively on the continent and brought back to the north works of art, scholars and artists.7 The same period also saw the first stone churches with highly elaborate architectural decoration (see discussion of Hexham, Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, pp. 23–7).

Patronage by kings and the nobility of the monastic houses their kinsmen founded and inhabited is well attested, and several Northumbrian kings before the eighth century notably Aldfrith and Ceolwulf were obviously learned men. However, there is no evidence either literary or archaeological that there were court schools of stone carvers. When in 716 Nechtan, king of the Picts, sent to Northumbria for builders to construct for him a church in the Roman manner, it was to a monastery Monkwearmouth/Jarrow that he wrote. The period between c. 710 and c. 740 saw the political and ecclesiastical supremacy of the English church over its Celtic neighbours, but it was also a period during which the artistic traditions of the two races could interpenetrate. The relationship of stone crosses to the monastic centres in the pre-Viking period is clear from their distribution (Fig. 2). Although our knowledge of monasteries founded before Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History is obviously greater than of those of the less well-documented periods afterwards, it is clear that elaborate churches continued to be built during the eighth century: the poem De Abbatibus, for example, seems to refer to a monastery not far from Lindisfarne (Aethelwulf 1967).

The second half of the eighth century seems to have been one of particularly wide international contacts for the Northumbrians; contact was maintained with missionaries, such as Lul, on the continent, while in 782 Alcuin went from York to organize the court school of Charlemagne at Aachen. Despite the fact that there was some reaction against the excessive land-holdings of the monasteries, some possibly declined; others, such as Lindisfarne, continued to consolidate their holdings into the mid ninth century (Morris 1977).

The Mercians became the dominant political group in the late eighth century; this is reflected in the new iconography of crosses such as those at Rothbury, Auckland St Andrew and Norham, the last being erected by Ecgred in the mid ninth century (Symeon 1882a, 52). There seems to have been no break in the artistic tradition in this period, despite the sack of Lindisfarne in 793, of which the rebuilding of Norham was possibly a direct consequence, and despite the decline of stable government which afflicted Northumbria in the first half of the ninth century.

However there were greater troubles in the succeeding half century. In 866 the invading Danish army occupied York. In 867 the contending Northumbrian kings, Osberht and Aella, united in an attempt to dislodge the Danes from the city, but both they and eight of the Northumbrian ealdormen perished in the attempt. During this period the consolidated kingdom of Northumbria fell apart. After 878 English puppet kings were replaced in Deira by rulers with Scandinavian names. North of the Tyne, however, some continuity of English power was retained. King Egbert II succeeded in 876 and may still have been reigning in 883, and a noble, Eadulf, who called himself earl of Bamburgh, was ruling in Bernicia until 913 (Symeon 1882b, 209; Aethelweard 1962, 53).

The collapse and disappearance of the great Northumbrian religious houses, such as Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, is confirmed by archaeological evidence (Cramp 1969, 24–6), and from the literary account of their desolate state when, c. 1070, there was an attempted revival (Symeon 1882a, 109). The stages of decline are unrecorded save at Lindisfarne: the seven years' wandering by part of that community, and its lay attendants under the control of the abbot/bishop, has survived in semi-legendary accounts of the eleventh century (Symeon 1882b, 207; Craster 1925, 524). These accounts tell us incidentally that the community tried first to make use of its ancient properties and subsidiaries; for example they stayed for four months at Crayke in Yorkshire, a monastery said to have been given to St Cuthbert when he was first made bishop (Symeon 1882a, 68). Their long journey illustrates the unsettled state of the country both west and east of the Pennines. Finally, however, the survival of the Lindisfarne community as the only episcopal and monastic community in Bernicia was ensured by the land-grant made by a certain Guthred (in the name of St Cuthbert) to the community at Chester le Street (Symeon 1882b, 203).

After the establishment of Guthred at York, which resulted in the settlement of the community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street c. 882, the Danes consolidated their political power for only a brief time at York.8 For Bernicia it was possibly the subsequent invasion by the Norwegians during the reigns of their kings, Ragnald (914) to Eric (954), that had the greatest impact. Ragnald took over land which belonged to the Chester-le-Street/Lindisfarne community in the southern part of co. Durham along the Tees valley (for a recent discussion see Morris 1977). It is of some interest that the Gainford estate, which had been a holding of the Lindisfarne community in the ninth century, was given by Ragnald to a tenant with an Anglo-Saxon name (apparently the son of the previous tenant whom Ragnald had killed). Sculpture from Gainford reflects an early taste for Scandinavian art motifs (pp. 86–7).

Possibly some form of community continued to exist at various monastic centres until the mid tenth century. Norham was still connected, in some way, with Lindisfarne in the reign of Edward the Elder (899–924), when Tilred, abbot of Heversham, bought his way into the Chester-le-Street community with half an estate at South Eden, which he gave to St Cuthbert 'that he might become a brother in his monastery, the other half to Norham that he might become Abbot there' (Symeon 1882a, 74).

Nevertheless, as the Scandinavian settlers became Christianized, they no doubt became important patrons of stone carvers, some of whom could have been trained in the old monastic centres. The new types of monuments which were developed in this period include the hogback grave-marker and the ring-headed cross, and, by the mid tenth century, lively schools of secular, figural carving together with Scandinavian ornament existed along the Tees valley (at Sockburn, for example) as well as in the Danelaw proper (pp. 28–31). Whilst at Chester-le-Street the community of St Cuthbert fought a desperate battle to retain their old land-holdings in the north, where they were threatened by the Scottish kings, and in the south, where strong Viking overlords encroached on their territory. Possibly the struggle to retain these land-holdings and to maintain an English identity were not unconnected.

Certainly, the Lindisfarne/Chester-le-Street community was highly conscious of their Hiberno-Northumbrian origins, as is reflected in the treasures they carried with them: the body of St Cuthbert in its coffins; the manuscripts; and the stone cross of Bishop Aethelwold (died 740), possibly the earliest surviving stone cross on the island.9 This strongly conservative tradition is reflected in the late crosses of the community which can be associated with centres at Chester-le-Street and Durham as well as their possessions in the Tyne and Wear valleys.

The Bernician region seems to have lapsed into a state of poverty and disarray without strong protectors or an effective political force within it. Possibly it was not until the community of St Cuthbert was moved to Durham in 995, with the aid of Earl Uhtred, that there were sufficient resources available to employ architects and masons to rebuild ruined churches and promote a higher level of sculpture than is demonstrated by the poor monuments from Chester-le-Street. Yet even in the crosses which belong to the new era in Durham (nos. 5 to 8) there is a conservative harking back to old models and a strikingly provincial indifference to, or an ignorance of, a new world of refined art in the south of England.


1. Hunter Blair 1947; id., 1948; id., 1976. The kingdom at its greatest extent embraced the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire-North-of-the-Sands, Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham, Northumberland and the lowlands of Scotland.

2. Jackson 1953, chap. VI, esp. 238; Thomas 1971, chap. 4 (see Hope-Taylor 1977, fig. 111, and note 4 below).

3. In the year of his death, 616–17, he attacked the Britons as far south as Chester, and slaughtered a large number of monks from the monastery of Bangor Iscoed (Bede 1969, ii , 2, 140). He is known as the king 'qui plus omnibus Anglorum primatibus gentem vastavit Brettonum' (ibid., i , 34, 116).

4. See Clack and Gosling 1977, figs. 3–4. Roger Miket's excavation of the Saxon settlement at Thirlings is still in progress (Webster and Cherry 1977, 211). The recent publication of Brian Hope-Taylor's excavations of the royal site of Yeavering (Hope-Taylor 1977) has contributed much to the understanding of the relationships between these peoples, in particular the differences in burial rites between what he sees as the fully Christianized Britons and those who lived in the heartland of Bernicia.

5. Literary references are, however, important here. When Oswald returned from exile among the Dalriadic Scots, he raised at Heavenfield the first cross to be set up among the Northumbrians: 'quia nullum, ut conperimus, fidei Christianae signum, nulla ecclesia, nullum altare in tota Berniciorum gente erectum est, priusquam hoc sacrae crucis uexillum nouus militiae ductor, dictante fidei deuotione, contra hostem inmanissimum pugnaturus statueret'.

 The cross was of wood, and chips were cut from it for medicinal purposes, but it stood for some time afterwards as a moss-covered monument, and could perhaps have served as an inspiration for the later stone crosses (Bede 1969, iii , 2, 214–16). It became a focus for annual commemoration services and by Bede's time a church was also built there (see Catalogue entry under St Oswald-in-Lee) (ibid., 216). Bede mentions, however (ibid., ii , 20, 205), a 'great golden cross ... consecrated to the service of the altar' which Paulinus took with him when he fled the kingdom in 631, and which in Bede's day was preserved in the church at Rochester. Such metal crosses could have served as models for stone crosses, as is suggested for Hexham and Jarrow (p. 27).

6. The church at Lindisfarne was built of wood 'after the Irish method' and thatched with reeds. Bishop Eadberht removed the reed thatch and covered the walls and roof with lead (Bede 1699, iii , 25, 294). Aidan died leaning against the wooden buttress which supported (on the outside) a church near Bamburgh (ibid., 17, 264). The faithful chipped splinters from this buttress too, after it was miraculously preserved when the church burned down.

7. See, for example, Eddius Stephanus 1927, chaps. XXIV–CV, and Bede 1896b, 365–73.

8. They seem early to have accepted a nominal Christianity and Bernicia was left in peace for a time.

9. Aethelwold's cross: 'Fecerat iste de lapide crucem artifici opere expoliri, et in sui memoriam suum in eo nomen exarari. Cujus summitatem multo post tempore, dum ipsam ecclesiam Lindisfarnensem pagani devastarent, fregerunt, sed post artificis ingenio reliquae parti infuso plumbo, ipsa fractura est adjuncta; semperque deinceps cum corpore sancti Cuthberti crux ipsa circumferri solebat, et a populo Northanhymbrorum propter utrumque sanctum in honore haberi: quae etiam usque hodie in hujus, id est, Dunelmensis ecclesiae coemiterio stans sublimis, utrorumque pontificum intuentibus exhibet monumentum' (Symeon 1882a, 39).

'He it was who caused a stone cross of curious workmanship to be made, and directed that his own name should be engraven upon it, as a memorial of himself, the top of which was broken off by the pagans when they devastated the church of Lindisfarne at a later period; but it was afterwards reunited to the body of the cross by being run together with lead, and subsequently to this it was constantly carried about along with the body of St Cuthbert, and honourably regarded by the people of Northumbria out of regard to these two holy men. And at the present day it stands erect in the cemetery of this church (that is, the church of Durham) and exhibits to all who look upon it a memorial of these two bishops' (Stevenson 1855, 642–3).


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