Volume VI | Chapter 2 | Historical Background to the SculptureNext Back to catalogue index
by James Lang, with contributions by Louise Henderson


This volume deals with the sculpture of those parts of the historic North Riding of Yorkshire not already considered in Volume III (Lang 1991): that is the Riding excluding Ryedale and the city of York. The area's northern boundary is the river Tees, which in the pre-Conquest period not only seems to have marked the border between the two provinces of Northumbria, Deira and Bernicia (Blair, P. H. 1949), but in the tenth century that between the Viking colonies south of the river and the lands of the Community of St Cuthbert to the north (Morris, C. 1977, 81–103). Its eastern edge is the coastline of the North Sea from Robin Hood's Bay northwards to Teesmouth, which includes the important monastic site of Whitby and the Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery at Lythe. To the west it embraces the northern Yorkshire Dales: much of Wensleydale, Swaledale and the southern side of Teesdale, with their tributaries. The central section consists of the northern end of the Vale of York, once the Forest of Galtres, the rich farmlands of the open ends of the Dales, and the Vale of Mowbray, bounded on the east by the Hambleton Hills. This central lowland with its rivers draining to the Ouse has always provided an important corridor for communications between England and Scotland, and has consequently attracted quite dense settlement on its good soils. Conversely, the high fells of the Dales and the arid North York Moors have discouraged settlement in both the Roman and early medieval periods, though the river valleys and sheltered escarpments in those regions did attract habitation.


The Roman occupation is a continuing factor in the landscape and the settlement pattern. York was the political and military focus for the area (Price et al. 1988; Ottaway 1993). The major roads northwards were Dere Street (Margary 1967, nos. 8a, b and c), through Aldborough (Isurium) near Boroughbridge, and Catterick (Cataractonium) on the river Swale, and crossing the river Tees at Piercebridge; and secondly, a parallel road some few miles to the east (Margary 1967, no. 80a), which crossed the Tees near Sockburn (see Fig. 3). Westwards, from what is now Scotch Corner, a road crossed the Pennines over Stainmore (Margary 1967, no. 82) to Brougham near Penrith, with the camp at Rey Cross being the first of a series of fortlets linking the western sector of Hadrian's Wall with York (ibid., 427–30, 433–6; Richmond and McIntyre 1934). Crossing the North York Moors from north to south are the foundations of 'Wade's Causeway' (Margary 1967, no. 81b), though its Roman credentials have been challenged (ibid., 425–6). It is also likely that the river valleys of the western Dales offered routes at this period, especially in Wensleydale where the fort at Bainbridge (Frere and St Joseph 1983, 113-15) was no doubt linked eastwards to Dere Street and York. Early Anglian sculpture in Wensleydale suggests that, as in Wharfedale, the river valley routes prevailed in the pre-Conquest period.

Recent rescue excavation at Catterick has revealed a major Roman civil settlement; one of some sophistication (Wilson, P. 1999), and this seems to have functioned as a centre of some importance in the post-Roman period (Bede 1969, 188, ii .14; see below). There is certainly a symbolic significance in the early church using this Roman centre as its base, but also practical advantage in the proximity of the roads in the area. Other than Catterick, Roman civil settlements are thin on the ground between Boroughbridge and the river Tees, though one near Middleham (Topham 1882) is close to Wensley which has both early Anglian sculpture and burials with grave-goods (see below). The Anglian take-over of Roman civil sites is largely speculative, but the Romano-British sarcophagus at Masham (Tucker 1849) may be an indication of such a practice.

The major Brigantine enclosures at Stanwick must have been at least as impressive in the pre-Conquest period as they are today. They enclose within ditch and bank a large swathe of the present parish (Welfare et al. 1990) and it is believed that they represent the last phase of Brigantine opposition to the Roman Conquest (Wheeler 1954). Whilst there is so far no evidence of Anglian reuse of the site, the church has produced Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture (see the catalogue), and neighbouring parishes have produced similar clusters, suggesting renewed activity on the site in the Viking Age. Stanwick sits at the centre of a parcel of land bounded by the Tees, Dere Street and the Stainmore road: in Roman terms it is a strategic site. The place-names of Stanwick and Aldbrough St John suggest Romano-British survival of some structures in the pre-Conquest era (Smith, A. 1928, 296–7).

The Roman roads were part of the military infrastructure and were related to forts and camps en route. The Rey Cross was erected on the crest of Stainmore, possibly as a boundary marker like the Legs Cross, co. Durham (Cramp 1984, 122), not only beside the road but within the Roman fortlet (see the catalogue entry). More significantly, it was the chain of late Roman signal stations along the Yorkshire coast which not only attracted some of the earliest Germanic settlement in the area (Faull 1974, 18–20) but may have still served as beacons or foci for Anglo-Saxon sea travel to and from Yorkshire. From Filey northwards they were placed on the cliff edge; many have therefore been lost through erosion, either totally or in part (Hartley 1989, 53–4; Bell 1998). Bede's etymology of Streanæshalch suggests that he associated the Anglian monastery at Whitby with a beacon (Bede 1969, 298, iii .25), although recent articles have questioned this attribution (Styles 1998), and a Roman signal station may have provided the focus for the establishment of one of the most important ecclesiastical foundations of the seventh century.


Unlike the East Riding of Yorkshire there is little evidence for early Germanic settlement inland from the coastal strip in the area of this volume, apart from a scatter of burials at Barnby, Hob Hill, Maltby, Pudding Pie Hill, Robin Hood's Bay, and Yarm (Lucy 1999, 30–3). Even the cemeteries associated with the Roman signal stations, like Huntcliff, seem not to have survived beyond the sixth century (Faull 1974, 19), and penetration westwards across the Vale of York was not undertaken until the early seventh century (ibid., 7). The inhospitable Moors, contrasted with the fertile Wolds, and the paucity of early inland routes in the northern part of Yorkshire may account for this absence. Only at Catterick, which later became a regal vill, has archaeological evidence of Anglian settlement emerged (Wilson, P. et al. 1996), and it was near there, in c. 627, that Paulinus baptised the Deirans in the river Swale, probably in the presence of King Edwin (Bede 1969, 188, ii .14). The site of the former Roman town was beginning to develop as a royal and ecclesiastical centre for the region when Edwin's death in 653 led to Paulinus's retreat to Kent, leaving James the Deacon to preach nearby (ibid., 204–6, ii .20). But there is no surviving sculpture from this early period at Catterick.

Some twenty years later King Oswiu endowed six monasteries in the Irish tradition within Deira, and Hild was established at Whitby (Streanæshalch) as abbess of a double house. Bede records its royal connections, living and dead. Here Oswiu's daughter ælfflæd was dedicated to the monastic life from birth, and within the church of St Peter there was a mausoleum for Oswiu, his wife Eanflæd and her father King Edwin, as well as other nobles (Bede 1969, 292, iii .24). The inscribed panels and crosses from Whitby, whilst broken, are unweathered and this would suggest that they were erected indoors, probably in a porticus (see Chap. 6). Hild's monastery was a notable centre of literacy, as the early Life of Gregory the Great (Colgrave 1968) and the story of the poet Cædmon testify (Bede 1969, 414, iv .24), and Hild herself earned a reputation for training future bishops (ibid., 408, iv .23). Whitby was not isolated, although its principal access was by sea, and, together with Hild's personal reputation and its royal connections, the monastic site was a natural choice for the synod convened by Oswiu in 664 (ibid., 298, iii .25), where Wilfrid triumphed for the Roman faction against the Irish tradition. In this context, it should be remembered that although Hild herself supported the Irish party, she had been baptised by Paulinus and had contacts with the Continent: indeed she once intended joining the Gaulish monastery at Chelles (ibid., 406, iv .23). Despite its northern monastic origins Whitby may always have looked to the Continent, and to some degree that is reflected in its sculpture.

Wilfrid's other great achievement in the region was the building of the prodigious church at Ripon, the crypt of which still survives. Ripon itself lies in the West Riding, just beyond the limits of this volume. However, in northern Yorkshire a number of sites with sculpture either have parallels with pieces at Ripon (for example Northallerton, Catterick and Kirby Hill) or boast elaborate monuments with subtle iconography (such as Easby) that may have enjoyed patronage from Ripon. Indeed, in Mashamshire the sculpture could be an indication of extensive Ripon estates for which there is no specific documentary evidence (Colgrave 1927, 36–7; Jones 1995, 26). Ripon was a comparatively short-lived diocesan centre, and Lindisfarne enjoyed possessions in the area such as Crayke, but the region seems to have been increasingly influenced by the monumental traditions of York.

At the end of the eighth and in the early ninth centuries the growth in influence of the church at York, which was intent on consolidating its metropolitan status, perhaps coincided with a decline in monasticism and an expansion of secular minsters. The iconography of some of the most impressive sculptures, such as Easby 1 and Masham 1, asserts apostolic authority rather than any other Christian message, reflecting the preoccupations of the York hierarchy. To judge from the sculpture, Mashamshire and Richmondshire certainly looked southwards, rather than northwards across the river Tees towards Wearmouth/Jarrow, Hexham or Lindisfarne.

Combined with documentary evidence the sculpture has become a criterion for identifying early minsters in the Riding (Morris, R. 1989, 133–9, figs. 27, 29). Crayke was an important possession of the Lindisfarne community as a staging point for their journeys to York (Cambridge 1989, 380–5; Adams 1990, 29–35), and has produced a piece of high quality carving, although not in the Lindisfarne tradition. Gilling West has been identified with Ingetlingum, a monastery founded in the seventh century (Bede 1896, H.A.A. §2; Bede 1969, H.E. iii .14, 24), but the site has so far produced no evidence from this period (O'Sullivan and Young 1980, 13–14), and the surviving sculpture dates from the ninth century. Wycliffe may also have been a monasterium, and was associated with Bishop Ecgred (Symeon 1882b, 201; Johnson-South 1990, 139); there are two pieces of architectural sculpture from the site.

There is little evidence for the location and nature of stone churches in the area, although other sites such as Whitby, Lythe and Kirby Hill have surviving fragments which suggest that there were highly decorated church buildings nearby. Undoubtedly there are important undocumented sites within the region, such as Cundall, Easby, Masham, Northallerton, and West Tanfield, with carvings of such quality that the ample resources of a well-endowed patron church must be implied. But it remains debatable whether such ecclesiastical foundations were minsters or satellite estates (Morris, R. 1989, 137). Nevertheless stone churches must have been few and far between, and on many sites stone crosses could have co-existed with a timber church, and if settlement was organised on the basis of estates the one church may have served the estate centre and a group of isolated farmsteads.

The place-name evidence appears to support the view that the land of the North Riding was divided into estates. Fellows-Jensen has argued that the small number of personal names (only 12 per cent) linked to the element tun, usually translated as meaning 'settlement', indicates that personal ownership of land was rare (Fellows-Jensen 1978, 32). Most land was divided into big estates, whose tenants would be unlikely to have the power to change a place-name to incorporate their own. Fellows-Jensen now believes (1995, 172-5) that it is more likely that tun refers to the unit of an estate, with many tun names linked to an adjective that refers to a position or direction within an estate and others with appellative specifics dealing with production or occupation. Names containing animal names and agricultural products such as swin, colt, appel and flax may well refer to places where such animals were kept or crops grown within the estate. Similarly, names containing elements such as smid, smith, or preost, priest, denoting people with a special status or occupation, may refer to their location within an estate. Such a dividing of the land into site-specific areas shows a level of specialisation that could only be found on a large estate, not in small settlements. This is not to suggest that all settlements consisted of or existed on estates: many names contain topographical elements which must refer to marginal sites, such as 'Thornton', of which there are fourteen in the North Riding (Smith, A. 1928). Marginal sites may have been ignored by estates as unsuitable for specialised production, making them areas where peasants could farm.2

In the later eighth century and beginning of the ninth the region responded to the links forged between York and the Continent. This is expressed though sculpture in both iconography and classical style, though usually only on major monuments with their implied influential patronage. The European connection was two-fold. First, Alcuin became deeply involved in establishing the schools at Tours and Aachen for Charlemagne, joining his court in 782. York, however, was rarely out of his thoughts, as his letters and gifts testify (Allott 1974; Alcuin 1982). His respect for the York library and its scholars propagated an infusion of Northumbrian culture into the Carolingian court (Loyn 1991, 284), no doubt reciprocated in royal gifts such as tin, wine and probably more decorative items for the church at York (Allott 1974, 27, 52–3). Alcuin also advised on the choice of bishops (Loyn 1991, 249), which suggests that he may have been quite closely involved in determining the direction of the Northumbrian church. This two-way traffic was not only in materials and counsel: York was characterised at this period by its cosmopolitan population (ibid., 145). York's close intellectual connections with the Continent reflect its economic and political relationship, but the squabbles over the kingship of Northumbria at this period contrast with the single-minded development of the church. Prestigious monuments such as Cundall/Aldborough 1, Easby 1 and Masham 1 might even suggest the extent of land-holdings by the church in the most fertile areas of York's hinterland. As has been demonstrated for Wharfedale in the West Riding (Wood 1987), such sophisticated sculpture may well be markers for large ecclesiastical estates at a time when the northern church was flourishing.

The second continental link was between York and Rome itself. Metropolitan status required frequent journeys to Rome, especially for conferral of the pallium. Probably as a result of that status a taste for portraiture of the Apostles, as for example at Easby and Masham, became apparent in the region. Apart from affirming the apostolic authority of the York see, it also asserted the Roman origins of the early church. Many features of the major crosses in the North Riding are close copies of Late Antique models to be found in Rome, and others reflect the current fashions of papal patrons like Pascal I who were embellishing their churches with images seen again on north Yorkshire sculpture (Lang 2000). Coupled with the Carolingian associations through Alcuin, the classicism of both Late Antique and early ninth-century Rome informed the region's major monuments in motif and technique.


Once the Danish conquest of York had been accomplished in 866/7, the Scandinavian settlement of north Yorkshire was intense yet peaceful. Some ten years later the Chronicle records extensive settlement of the hinterland: 'Hálfdan shared out the lands of Northumbria and they were engaged in ploughing and in making a living for themselves' (Earle and Plummer 1892, 74, s.a. 876; Whitelock 1979, 195). It is not clear how far this phase of settlement extended into northern Yorkshire. There are not as many old East Scandinavian (i.e. Danish) place-names in this area as in the East Riding, and the colonial hinterland may have been limited to the region between York and the coast. Nor can one determine how dependent the Danish settlement was, politically and commercially, upon the city of York.

At the beginning of the tenth century a second wave of settlers, of West Scandinavian (Norwegian) origin, appeared from the west (Smith, A. 1928, xxvi–xxix), very probably second-generation colonists from Ireland where some fusion of cultures had taken place. Irish personal names are used along with Scandinavian elements: Melmerby in Wensleydale and Commondale in Cleveland, for example, preserving Maelmuire and Colmán (ibid., 148, 255). Whilst the significance of the place-name evidence has been debated (Sawyer 1971; Fellows-Jensen 1972), the sculpture certainly manifests stylistic connections with Cumbrian carvings of the same period and even iconographic echoes of Irish monuments (see Kirklevington, and Chap. 5). The proximity of these carvings to the Stainmore road across the Pennines from the Cumbrian colonies perhaps explains why they do not relate so closely to Anglo-Scandinavian pieces in York and Ryedale: the carvers or patrons may have seen themselves as a branch of the north-western settlement. Indeed it was on the Stainmore road that Eric Bloodaxe was ambushed in 954 (Luard 1890, 503), an event which led to the English take-over of Yorkshire's Anglo-Scandinavian settlements.

The density and nature of settlement may well have varied across the Danelaw, but the absence of place-names in certain areas has been interpreted as an indication of the form that settlement took, rather than its presence or absence (Sawyer 1982). Sawyer has identified those areas without Scandinavian place-names within the Danelaw as those that were reclaimed by the English by the early decades of the tenth century (ibid., 104). He further sees the density of Anglo-Scandinavian place-names in areas that remained under Norse control, including the North Riding, as a direct result of the political and military defeats suffered by the Anglo-Scandinavian government in the tenth century. The political fragmentation of the period is reflected in a fragmentation of the land-holding system. The majority of Viking settlers did not own the land that had been conquered, but held it as tenants, owing tribute to the overlords. During the period of Anglian control the land was divided on the basis of estates, with a similar system of tenant holdings. The political problems of the tenth century shook the control that the elite had over these estates and their tenants, giving them an opportunity to gain fuller control over their land with rights of ownership, thus leading to the fragmentation of the estates. Both Fellows-Jensen and Sawyer see the remarkable number of Scandinavian place-names that include a personal name element as consistent with such a process (Fellows-Jensen 1972, 80–1; Sawyer 1982, 107). It may also be significant that those areas with many settlements including Scandinavian personal names developed into a system of small medieval parishes, reflecting the fragmentation of previously large estates (Sawyer 1982, 107). The naming of settlements by their new Scandinavian owners thus reflects a change in the system of land-holding rather than new colonisation by an invading people. On the other hand, the archaeological evidence for the presence of the Scandinavian settlers is very sparse, although the difference between an Anglo-Saxon and an Anglo-Scandinavian settlement may have been exhibited in the social organisation of the inhabitants of the site, rather than the morphology of housing.3

The evidence for pagan Viking burials is also ambiguous and scanty. There are only twenty-five burials from England which can be confidently identified as Scandinavian, largely through the inclusion of grave goods, but also through the form of deposition (Wilson, D. 1967). Within the area under study such burials occur at Kildale, Wensley, Camphill and Leeming Lane (Smith 1912, 96–8; Wilson, D. 1965, 41–2; Morris, C. 1981, 234). Many of the burials are located within the established Christian burial grounds, and their identification as pagan rests on the inclusion of grave goods (Graham-Campbell 1980c). Yet this ritual was not prohibited by the Christian church, as is shown by Merovingian burials of the seventh century, where Christians were buried with jewellery, weapons, vessels and food (James 1980). We may thus be dealing with converted settlers who were still reluctant to give up their grave goods. The apparently swift conversion of the Scandinavian settlers to Christianity, or at least their outward conformity with Anglo-Saxon burial custom makes the majority of Viking burials invisible to the archaeological eye. Assessment of the density and location of Scandinavian settlement based on burials is therefore impossible. But the funerary nature of at least some of the sculpture produced during the Anglo-Scandinavian period was demonstrated by the excavations at York Minster, when sculpture was found in situ marking burials (Lang 1991, 3). The sculpture can thus be seen as an indication of the presence of Scandinavian settlers, but settlers of a certain status only, those who could afford to erect lasting memorials to the deceased.

The paucity of Viking-age pagan graves, and the frequency of wheel-head crosses with the Crucifixion in the Irish position (see Chap. 5) in the region, may be significant. The church seems to have continued and even flourished in the early tenth century, helped by periods of English supremacy (Binns 1963, 20), and there is no doubt that Anglo-Scandinavian crosses appeared in Christian cemeteries alongside Anglian survivals. It is at this period that the monasteries declined and, owing to division into new land-holdings, parishes began to emerge under the control of secular patrons who commissioned their own monuments. This region, unlike Ryedale, boasts few if any late pre-Conquest churches, though Kirby Hill may represent the rebuilding of an earlier edifice. Nor are eleventh-century sundials such as Skelton as common as they are in eastern Yorkshire (Lang 1991, 43), perhaps because the region was so much further from York and its political and economic influence.


2. This paragraph was written by Louise Henderson.

3. This paragraph and the next were written by Louise Henderson.

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