Volume VI | Chapter 7 | The InscriptionsNext Back to catalogue index
by John Higgitt

Some twenty-three of the monuments and fragments surveyed in this volume are inscribed, or have at some time been reported as bearing inscriptions.9 A number of these are, however, problematic. Whitby 11 (Ill. 936) seems never to have been inscribed, whilst the possible remains of an inscription on Whitby 26 (Ill. 993) may be no more than accidental marks. The nineteenth-century readings of a Latin inscription at Hauxwell and the slightly later reports of runes at Thornaby are both highly questionable. Neither can now be verified, since nothing is now legible on the cross at Hauxwell (Ills. 311, 316) and the one or more possible inscriptions at Thornaby (Ills. 1184–5) seem to have disappeared around the time of the restoration of the church there in 1908. One of the two very weathered sundials at Leake (no. 4), although clearly once inscribed (Ill. 1187), was almost certainly made well after the Conquest. The other sundial at Leake (no. 3) could date from the eleventh century but it only preserves very slight indications of an inscription (Ill. 1188). These apart, there remain sixteen monuments with inscriptions that are likely to date from before the Conquest. The inscriptions are interestingly varied in type, although almost all are fragmentary and one or two are almost entirely obliterated. Nevertheless, and despite the diversity of the lettering styles of the Whitby inscriptions, we can perhaps glimpse two broad phases. The first would be that represented by the admittedly slender evidence of Whitby 20 and 21 (Ills. 964, 970), the uncials and 'Roman' capitals of which suggest an early phase of Romanizing lettering at Whitby comparable to that seen in most of the inscriptions from Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (Higgitt 1979; Cramp 1984). This would not be totally surprising at Whitby, the monastery that saw the victory of the Roman party at the Synod of 664. The Insular characteristics of the other Whitby inscriptions suggest that a possible early phase of Romanizing script may have given way some time in the eighth century to an accommodation with Insular types of lettering.

The eleven, or perhaps twelve, inscribed stones found on the site of the medieval abbey at Whitby have a special significance as the products of a single centre.10 Although the identification has been questioned, there is, as Cramp has pointed out, no very good reason for doubting that this centre was the monastery that Bede called Streanæshalch (Cramp 1993, 64; Rahtz 1995, 1–2; Bede 1969, 406, iv.23). The identification seemed to be confirmed by the text of Whitby 47 (Ill. 1061), which Peers and Radford (1943, 41–2) read as commemorating ælfflæd, daughter of King Oswiu and abbess of Streanæshalch. Unfortunately, this reading must be rejected, since it is not compatible with the letters that remain on the stone. Although a number of pre-Conquest inscribed monuments have been found at Whitby, the poor preservation of most of the inscriptions makes it harder to identify common characteristics that might represent Whitby/Streanæshalch 'house styles' in lettering than is the case with groups of inscriptions from the early Anglo-Saxon monasteries of Lindisfarne, Hartlepool, Monkwearmouth and Jarrow (Okasha 1971, pls. 44–50, 61–3, 75–84, 91–92; id. 1983, pl. VIIa–d; id. 1992, pl. IVa; Higgitt 1979; id. 1990b).

The preferred type of inscribed monument at Whitby seems to have been a plain stone cross with an inscription placed on its head, to judge from the five, or perhaps six, fragments of inscribed cross-heads that have been found there (Whitby 20–24, and perhaps 26: Ills. 964, 970, 973, 978, 982 and 993). Anglo-Saxon parallels for the placing of an inscription on the head of a cross are known from Bewcastle, Carlisle, Dewsbury, York and probably also Lancaster (Higgitt 1986b, 130). Whitby 34 (Ill. 1021) is a fragment of another type of inscribed stone cross. In this case the cross carried sculpted ornament and, as at Hexham, Hornby, Lancaster, Ripon and Wycliffe (loc. cit.), an inscription appeared in a panel at the top of a broad face of the stem of the cross. Whitby 37 (Ills. 1031–6), on the other hand, is perhaps best understood as a small inscribed 'stele' similar to those found in York Minster (Lang 1991, 18). The casually inscribed Whitby 49 (Ill. 1068) seems not to have belonged to any formal monument type. Whitby 47 (Ill. 1061) is an inscribed panel that may been set into the wall of a building. This may also have been true of Whitby 48 (Ill. 1066) but this small fragment could equally well have come from some other type of monument.

There is a considerable variety in the lettering of the Whitby inscriptions, both in forms and in styles of cutting. All are in Roman lettering, although it is possible that some runic forms were used amongst the Roman letters on Whitby 34 (Ill. 1021). The styles of lettering are sufficiently diverse to suggest, in the context of a single centre, that they represent a number of chronological phases over a considerable period of time. None of the inscriptions can be dated on the basis of its contents but broad date ranges can be suggested for the lettering styles of individual inscriptions. The two earliest inscriptions were probably Whitby 20 (Ill. 964) with its worn uncials and 'Roman' capitals and Whitby 21 (Ill. 970) with its calligraphic uncial lettering. They are probably more or less contemporary with inscriptions in comparable lettering at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, a comparison that might suggest a broad dating to between the later seventh and mid eighth centuries (Higgitt 1979, 359–64). Varieties of Insular decorative capitals were used on Whitby 47 and 48, and probably also on Whitby 22, 23, and 37 (Ills. 1061, 1066, 973, 978, 1036). Insular decorative capitals made use of a range of decorative variations on capitals and forms derived from other scripts, and were employed both in inscriptions and in the display script on many Insular manuscripts (Higgitt 1994). At Whitby, they are likely to represent later phases than the plain capitals and uncials on Whitby 20 and 21 and can be assigned to a broad period during the eighth and first half of the ninth century. The deeply incised guidelines used on one of these (Whitby 47: Ill. 1061) would have been more probable in the ninth than the eighth century. The informal half-uncial-derived lettering of Whitby 49 (Ill. 1068) is typologically distinct from the inscriptions in Insular decorative capitals and dates perhaps from the ninth century. If runes appeared amongst the capitals on Whitby 34 (Ill. 1021), as they did in inscriptions at Chester-le-Street and Alnmouth, that would be an argument for dating this inscription well into the ninth century. It is frustrating that these indications of literate activity at Whitby over the best part of two centuries are so fragmentary.

Lang (cited in Hawkes 1999, 417; see also Chap. 6) took the view that the plain stone crosses at Whitby were all more or less contemporary, whereas the datings suggested here for their inscriptions range from the later seventh century, at the earliest, to the ninth century. It is indeed possible that, as he suggested (see Chap. 6), some of the inscriptions on the cross-heads were added at a later date. The bold and apparently symmetrically designed inscriptions on the Whitby 20 and 21 cross-heads are, however, likely to be contemporary with the crosses on which they stand (Ills. 964, 970).

The texts at Whitby, as far as they can be made out, consist either of a single personal name or, in the case of Whitby 20, 47 and 48, of a longer text in Latin which also included a name. The names on Whitby 47, 48 and 49 seem to have been those of women, that on Whitby 21 probably so. The inscription on the 'stele' (Whitby 37) was probably a man's name and the three letters on Whitby 24 imply another masculine name. All of these inscriptions are likely to have been memorial. The significance of the other, less legible inscriptions is now irrecoverable, although it is likely that most, if not all, of these also commemorated the dead. Whitby could boast of at least four royal burials: those of Oswiu, Eanflæd and ælfflæd, and, following the translation of his remains to Whitby some time between 680 and c. 704, of Edwin (Bede 1969, 292–3, ii.24). The AHHAE inscribed on Whitby 21 (Ill. 970) may perhaps reflect the cult of Edwin as a martyr and the developing royal mausoleum, if this name can be taken as equivalent to Acha, which is given by Bede as the name of Edwin's sister, who was also mother of Oswald (1969, 230–1, iii.6; cf. Karkov 1999, 133–4).

The inscriptions on the two cross-decorated slabs at Wensley (nos. 8 and 9) show sophistication of design and technique in a place where there is no record of an early ecclesiastical centre. Both stones carry a single Old English masculine name set out in elegant Insular decorative capitals of a sort that would not look out of place in the display script of a manuscript of the eighth or early ninth century (Ills. 883–6). The most surprising and unusual feature of the lettering at Wensley is that it was cut in relief. There are two other approximately contemporary examples of this technique in Insular inscriptions on stone, at Tarbat in Pictish Scotland and at Bealin in Ireland (Higgitt 1982). These four Insular inscriptions may derive from the relief inscriptions of early eighth-century Rome, which in turn have antecedents in Constantinople. Alternatively, the technique may have been devised independently, somewhere in the British Isles, in order to recreate the effect of the repoussť lettering to be seen on some Insular metalwork. In either case, the bookish lettering and the use of this rare technique suggest both contact with traditions of book-production and an awareness of innovations in sculpture.

Fragments of two free-standing stone crosses with memorial texts in Old English have been found in the area covered by this volume. These are the crosses from Wycliffe (no. 1: Ill. 1099) and Yarm (Ills. 1127, 1129) and are probably datable to the eighth to early ninth century and ninth century respectively. Memorial texts are the commonest type of text on Anglo-Saxon stone crosses and the majority of these are in Old English (Higgitt 1986b, 133). As has already been noted, the fragment of an inscribed cross found at Whitby (no. 34: Ill. 1021) resembles that from Wycliffe in setting its inscription at the top of the shaft and beneath a cross-head decorated with interlace. Whitby 34 may also have been a funerary monument but its inscription is now indecipherable. On both the Wycliffe and Yarm crosses the inscription seems to have used variations of the X sette æfter Y ('X raised in memory of Y') formula to display the names both of the person who commissioned the memorial and that of the deceased. The cross itself is referred to as a signum at Wycliffe and as a bēcun at Yarm: Latin and Old English words with similar ranges of meaning that included 'sign', 'token', 'standard', 'cross' and 'monument'. The Wycliffe epitaph seems, like one or two other memorial inscriptions in Old English, to have been composed as alliterative verse (Cowen and Barty 1966, 68; Page, R. 1999, 149–50).

The styles of lettering on the Wycliffe and Yarm crosses are strikingly different. The Wycliffe inscription is in neatly set out capitals that include forms drawn from Insular half-uncial (Ill. 1099). The more decorative forms in the opening line seem to have resembled inscriptions and display script in Insular decorative capitals (Higgitt 1994). The lettering at Yarm, on the other hand, consists of meandering lines of informal half-uncials (Ill. 1127). The capitals of Wycliffe, the half-uncials of Yarm, the elegant decorative capitals at Wensley and the very various scripts used at Whitby exemplify the great variety of lettering used for inscriptions in Northumbria between the later seventh and ninth centuries (Higgitt 1990b, 155–8; id. 1995).

The cross at Hauxwell (no. 1) seems to have carried an inscription within a very small panel near the top of one of the broader faces of the shaft (Ills. 311, 316). There is now no clear trace of an inscription but, if the cross was formerly inscribed, its diminutive inscription panel would have contrasted with the much more prominent inscriptions in panels occupying the whole breadth of the face on the more or less contemporary cross fragments from Whitby (no. 34), Wycliffe and Yarm. It would also be a further illustration of variety in the inscribed monuments of early Northumbria.

The sundial fragment at Skelton (Ill. 744) is one of a group of inscribed sundials that can be dated to around the eleventh century. Most of these are in Yorkshire (Aldbrough, Great Edstone, Kirkdale, Old Byland, Weaverthorpe and perhaps also Leake 3). The particular interest of the Skelton dial is the strikingly Scandinavian character of its two fragmentary inscriptions, one in Roman script and the other in Norse runes. It is the only English stone to combine inscriptions in these two scripts. The one clear word in the runic inscription is in Old Norse, whilst the Roman-letter text was either in Old Norse or in an Old English heavily influenced by Old Norse. The capitals of the Roman script and the deeply incised framing lines are comparable to those of the inscriptions on the Kirkdale sundial of c. 1060 (Lang 1991, ills. 568–73) and are likely to be broadly contemporary. The meaning of the Roman-letter text is now irrecoverable but it seems to have included a verb of commissioning and perhaps also a verb of making. If so, it would have resembled texts recording patronage or production on the sundials at Aldbrough, Great Edstone, Kirkdale, Old Byland and Weaverthorpe.

The very weathered semicircular sundial at Leake (no. 3) may formerly, like those at Great Edstone, Kirkdale and Old Byland, have had an inscription across the top of the dial (Ill. 1187). It too may have dated from the eleventh century.

A number of runic inscriptions have been reported in the area covered by this volume. Of these only the Norse runes on the Skelton sundial can be confirmed on a surviving monument. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of one or perhaps two stones with runic inscriptions at Thornaby (Ills. 1184–5) do not inspire confidence. Runic inscriptions have also been claimed for Whitby 22, 26, and 34. No runes can now be seen on Whitby 26 (Ill. 993) and it is not certain that it was ever inscribed. The characters on Whitby 22 (Ill. 973) are mixed capitals rather than runes. It is possible, however, that runes were used amongst capitals in the one remaining and very damaged line of lettering on Whitby 34 (Ill. 1021). Runes are used in a similar way around the late ninth or early tenth century at Chester-le-Street and Alnmouth.11

The inscriptions discussed in this volume are a small sample but they reflect a number of broader patterns. The important group of fragments from Whitby afford glimpses of several phases of the epigraphic culture and perhaps, indirectly, of the book-script of an important monastic centre. Some of the early religious houses in Northumbria developed a surprising degree of autonomy in their traditions of script and inscribed monuments. Whitby, with its particular preference for inscribed stone crosses, seems to have been amongst them, although the fragmentary and damaged state of its inscriptions obscures most of the details. The lettering and technique of the cross-decorated slabs at Wensley may reflect the distinctive visual traditions of another, unidentified early Northumbrian monastery. The free-standing memorial crosses from Wycliffe and Yarm, with their inscriptions in the Old English vernacular, are perhaps symptomatic of a shift away from monastic to individual patronage in the decades around 800. Even in its fragmentary state, the sundial at Skelton is an important witness to the Norse-influenced culture of eleventh-century Yorkshire. Skelton is the rough contemporary of the other inscribed sundials of late Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire and, like them, it uses the plain capitals of the period. Finally, there are hints in what is left of the text of Skelton that it too may have been concerned to record and display the activities of secular patrons and craftsmen.


9. Unfortunately Whitby 64, which brings the total to twenty-four, was found too late to be considered in this chapter. See the catalogue entry (Ills. 1201–4).

10. But see note 10. The total number of inscribed pieces from Whitby should therefore be amended.

11. I would like to thank David N. Parsons for his expert advice on the runes and alleged runes and on the linguistic features of the vernacular inscriptions and of the Old English names.

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