Volume II | Chapter 7 | The Bewcastle Cross and its ContextNext Back to catalogue index
by R.J.Cramp

The Bewcastle cross has been so extensively discussed, usually in relation to the Ruthwell cross, Dumfriesshire, that it is difficult to survey previous discussions in a manner that can do them justice. Detailed analysis and comparisons are provided in the text of the Catalogue entry, and here it is pertinent only to consider some of the broader problems that the monument poses.

First, although it is sited in Cumbria and must have been an imposing and remarkable monument from the time that it was erected, its position in the general Cumbrian series is isolated (see Fig. 2), and there are no surviving crosses in this region that may be closely compared with its overall layout, its motifs, or the quality of its carving. In order to provide comparisons for Bewcastle, one has to look elsewhere in Northumbria. This is not surprising when one considers the sophistication and outstanding quality of its carving, but it is then important to consider why work like this should occur at Bewcastle and at Ruthwell – the cross which in its figure carvings and inhabited scrolls is most like Bewcastle.

The location of the Bewcastle cross – within a Roman fort, on a highway east to west – has already been considered (p. 10) but, although one can make a case for Bewcastle as an important centre, whether royal or religious assembly place or later monastery (as the sundial might imply), one can only be uneasily aware that, had one been able to read the inscription, the reason for its location might have been readily apparent. There is no doubt that it is a commemorative inscription, but whether of a person or of an event is not clear from what survives. The fact that it now stands in a churchyard should not cause one to assume that it always did so, but the position of the cross to the south of a later church and the association of other pre-Conquest funerary monuments with the site seem to suggest that, whether it provided the first focus for a cemetery or enhanced an existing burial ground, it may more reasonably be seen in a funerary context than a commemoration of a public event like the cross which Bede tells us commemorated the battle of Heavenfield (Bede 1969, iii, 2). Moreover, the sundial, which is a primary element in the composition of the southern face, implies the presence of a community around which could use it. Presumably also, as with all public inscriptions, the panel of commemorative text also implies that a community capable of reading it existed in the vicinity.

The schemes of ornament on the cross, which comprise figural scenes on one broad face, an inhabited scroll on the other, and small panels of plant scroll and interlace on the narrow sides, is exactly paralleled only on the Easby cross in Yorkshire, although the style of the carving is different. Other Northumbrian crosses, such as Aberlady, Midlothian, also have figure carvings on one face only and small panels of abstract ornament and plant scrolls on the others. The composition of Ruthwell, with figure carvings on both broad faces and plant scrolls on the narrow, is paralleled at Auckland St Andrew, co. Durham, and Otley, Yorkshire. On the other Cumbrian crosses which carry this motif, Dacre 1 and Urswick 1, it occurs on the broad faces.

The style of figure carving on Bewcastle, however, in which each figure is carved in high relief, almost free of the background, is shared not only with Ruthwell, but also with other high quality carvings in Northumbria, such as Rothbury, Northumberland, and Otley or Easby, Yorkshire. Nevertheless, the scheme of single figures without architectural backgrounds or other supporting figures could be an earlier type than those where figures occur in pairs, groups, or narrative scenes (Cramp 1978, 7–8). Each figure on Bewcastle is an individual icon and depicted on a grander scale than the smaller figures at Hoddom, Dumfriesshire, or the busts and half figures at Otley. Some of the figures on the Ruthwell cross are identical in type with Bewcastle's, but there are also others at Ruthwell which are more animated and carved with different drapery styles. It is possible to see the larger programme of figural scenes on Ruthwell as the source of the smaller group at Bewcastle, but there is a consistency in the treatment of the Bewcastle figures which is not found at Ruthwell, and which could mean that on Ruthwell the repertoire had been more fully developed. The iconography of both Ruthwell and Bewcastle is more akin to early Christian than to Carolingian types, although this 'Roman' style of figure carving continues to exist in Northumbria even with a more developed iconography, as at Rothbury (Cramp 1984, 221, pl. 213).

The interlace types on Bewcastle are formed on the same careful geometric principles as seventh- or eighth-century Insular manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels or Durham B.II.30, or the earliest Bernician sculpture, as found at Lindisfarne, Aberlady, or Monkwearmouth. There are no examples of the changing interlace patterns with long diagonals and median-incised strands which seem to be a later (possibly eighth- to ninth-century) fashion. The lush plant scrolls on face A at Bewcastle can be paralleled in late Antique ivories and in sixth-century near eastern art (Torp 1968, 18–21), and although they can be paralleled in organization with Hexham 2, the exotic leaf-flowers of Bewcastle are unique in Northumbria.

The plant forms stand apart from the numerous other Cumbrian types such as those found in the Carlisle cross-heads, which are reminiscent of manuscripts such as the Leningrad Bede, fol. 3v (Alexander 1978, ill. 83), and from those linked with eighth- to ninth-century late Italian sculptures such as the Lowther 1 shaft. The exotic plant compositions, which include lotus-like flowers, and leaves which sprout florets, stamens or seeds, occur in near eastern wood carvings such as the wooden panels from Aqsa (Creswell 1969, ii, fig. 136), or on textiles such as the famous seventh- to eighth-century Capella from the Sancta Sanctorum now housed in the Vatican Museo Cristiano (Volbach 1961, pl. 257), although it is possible, as Kitzinger has suggested, that the art preserved in Syria or Coptic Egypt is only a provincial reflection of the less well preserved metropolitan art styles of Constantinople (Kitzinger 1976, 184, 195). There is plenty of evidence for the importation of foreign textiles into Anglo-Saxon England (Dodwell 1982, 128–69), and some influences could have been acquired through an intermediary art form in Italy or southern Gaul (Fevrier 1962 and fig. 2). The motif of the sheathed bud or berries is to be found in manuscripts such as the Leningrad Bede, fol. 3v (Alexander 1978, ill. 83) and Jarrow friezes, as well as being widely dispersed in Yorkshire, for example at Northallerton, Crayke, Otley, and Masham. We cannot assume all of these motifs derive from a single source, but they are characteristic of Jarrow carvings and a western Yorkshire group, and they are quite distinct from scrolls in the Hexham area or indeed from York eastwards.

For dating purposes, the crosses of Bewcastle and Ruthwell have usually been considered together and indeed it is reasonable, in the light of the identity of figural and inhabited scroll types, to see these as the work of one generation of craftsmen. I would also maintain that these craftsmen were trained east of the Pennines, probably in the Jarrow workshops, since only there can one parallel the deeply cut style and the individual details of plants and animals in the inhabited scrolls (Cramp 1965b, 8–12). Arguments that a tradition of stone carving may have survived in the kingdom of Rheged into the eighth century (Mercer 1964, 275–6) are not supported by the survival of any relief sculpture, unless one is disposed to see the Dalston and Falstead 'lintels' as of this date. Otherwise all of the material quoted by Mercer is of simple incised work which anyone trained in epigraphy could have produced. No-one denies that literate communities could have survived in the Solway Firth area in the sixth and seventh centuries (Chadwick 1958, 70–3) but there are no parallels in relief sculpture from sites such as Whithorn which could convincingly suggest a source of expertise for the construction of Ruthwell and Bewcastle. However, when one attempts a closer dating, the linguistic evidence for Bewcastle is neither full nor unambiguous enough to provide a corrective to the vague art-historical parallels; and it is interesting that those who base their dating on linguistic criteria have never wished to give precise dates.3 Page summed up the general problem in saying: 'In the present state of our knowledge, then, the dating of inscribed stones by either art-historian or linguist is seldom more than tentative, and there should not be any clear conflict of opinion between the two types of expert' (Page 1959b, 403). Nevertheless, historians and art-historians have sometimes been prepared to provide very precise dates for the two monuments. Collingwood, for example, tried to produce a coherent scheme to comprehend all the Northumbrian schools of carving, beginning with c. 740 for the Hexham schools, and then Hoddom, Ruthwell and Bewcastle in the same late eighth-century group; while the carvers of the great crosses at Easby and Otley were '. . . perhaps a little later . . .' (Collingwood 1927a, 119).

Certainly the monument can reasonably be assigned to a period after the importation of stone carvers to Monkwearmouth in 674 and the construction of stone churches in east Northumbria in the period c. 670–5. Indeed one might feel that the nearer the production of the monuments to that time, the better the context for such humane and Classical figures. To carry conviction, however, and to add substance to Bede's account of the use of Wearmouth and Jarrow workmen as far away as the land of the Picts (Bede 1969, v, 21), one could wish that something other than a fragmentary Crucifixion panel had survived from Wilfrid's famous church at Hexham, or that the monumental figure from the western fac\AC\ade of Monkwearmouth porch had survived as more than a shadow (Cramp 1984, pls. 179, 958–9; 116, 618). Despite the similarities between the inhabited scrolls at Ruthwell and Bewcastle and those from the architectural and cross sculpture at Jarrow, the small hunter figure from Jarrow (Cramp 1984, pl. 198, 525) is an inadequate parallel for the figures on these crosses. Nothing comparable survives in the west, and Nechtan's desire for new fashionable Roman monuments in Pictland could have been more widespread. The crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell possibly survived because their initial importance as propaganda monuments for the 'Roman' church in Northumbria diminished as other centres developed near to them and they were bypassed by the major changes of the Viking settlement. In the later eighth and early ninth centuries, the Anglian traditions established in the area around the Solway and its hinterland developed new relationships with the areas further south, as the crosses from Hoddom or Closeburn, Dumfriesshire, demonstrate. Indeed, this common cultural zone remains identifiable into the tenth century (see below, pp. 36–8).

In the last resort, the dating of Bewcastle depends as much on providing an appropriate historical context as on art-historical parallels. Its location within the Roman fort is not surprising in any period after the Angles had gained control of the Tyne gap and Wall area – that is, any time after perhaps the reign of Oswald (633–41), who raised the first cross in Northumbria. If, however, one sees Ruthwell as so closely linked that it must belong to the same generation of carvers, then the crosses must be assigned to a period when Bernicia was effectively in control of the northern shores of the Solway basin and southern Strathclyde. Baldwin Brown makes a strong case for the reign of Oswiu (641–70), who was overlord of Mercia for some time, and who had close contacts with the southern courts and their traditions. The latter part of his reign was spent in establishing his power in the northern areas of his kingdom. One of his sons, Alcfrith, married a Mercian princess, Cyniburgh, who is linked by many with the name inscribed on the north face of the Bewcastle cross. The son who succeeded him, Ecgfrith, confirmed the Northumbrian control of the western seas by despatching a naval force against Ireland – the first and last Northumbrian king who is recorded to have done so. (Ecgfrith was called rex religiosus by Eddius, and his name is associated with the foundation of Jarrow not only on the dedication stone, but in later tradition (Eddius 1927, 40; Cramp 1984, 113–14).)

If we assume that the memorial bearing the names of the royal family was put up in Ecgfrith's reign, then a reasonable context can be constructed. Afterwards Ecgfrith overreached himself in his warfare against the Picts, culminating in the disastrous battle of Nechtansmere in 685. From that point, Northumbria's fortunes declined '. . . for the Picts recovered their own land which the English formerly held, while the Irish who lived in Britain, and some parts of the British nation recovered their independence, which they have now enjoyed for about forty-six years' (Bede 1969, iv, 26). What exactly the phrase Brettonum quoque pars nonulla libertatem receperunt means is not clear, but whatever this limitation of Northumbrian power was over the Britons, it still existed c. 730. One might therefore say that we can see an equally acceptable historical context for the Ruthwell cross to be erected in the Nith valley in c. 684, or after the re-establishment of English power in the west after 730. Ecgfrith encouraged the development of Wearmouth and Jarrow and the importation not only of papal privileges but also of foreign teachers, such as John the arch-cantor from Rome. It was a period when stone building developed in the north and when foreign influence was paramount. When the historical evidence is combined with those names which can be read on the cross, the period c. 684 can be seen as an attractive milieu. The 'propaganda' nature of the Ruthwell cross, already noted, would fit well with the generation after the Synod of Whitby. The disadvantage of this date is the relative insecurity of Northumbria's hold in the region of Galloway and Strathclyde, and some of the stylistic arguments already advanced. Moreover, the area around Ruthwell should have been at that date subject to the see of Whithorn, and there are no apparent links between the style of carving at Ruthwell and those at Whithorn or anywhere else in the British west.

If one puts the case for a later date, one may note that Whithorn passed into English control c. 730, and remained in this state until the end of the eighth century (Bede 1969, v, 23). This contact no doubt produced an interest in the area and its Christian traditions. Bede tells us this in a chapter in which he describes the background to the Ionan church, but turns aside for an excursus on Bishop Ninian (Bede 1969, iii, 4). Interest in the newly regained territory of the Ninianic church is clear in Bede's writing here. We might therefore consider the reign of Eadberht who, between 750 and 756, conquered Kyle and other regions of Strathclyde, and forced the surrender of the British capital of Alcluith. His reign, in which his brother Ecgbert (Bede's pupil and Alcuin's mentor) presided as archbishop of York was considered by Alcuin a golden age and, as Stenton pointed out, when Eadberht retired from the throne in 758, '. . . the Northumbrian kingdom was stronger and its boundaries were wider than at any time since the disaster of Nechtanesmere' (Stenton 1947, 92). This provides a convincing context for an English monument at Ruthwell, and we may see Bewcastle as the work of the same generation of carvers. Art-historical parallels have indicated a close relationship between the inhabited scrolls of both crosses and Jarrow, which would favour the date c. 685. On the other hand, that style may have continued for some time relatively unchanged, as the cross from Rothbury indicates, although the figural iconography of Rothbury is clearly later than Bewcastle. The close relationship between interlace types on Bewcastle and the Durham manuscript B.II.30 favours the later date. On the whole, the case for one context rather than another remains impossible to prove.

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