The church of St Wilfrid, Halton, Lancashire, on the River Lune just upstream from Lancaster, possesses a striking cross in its churchyard surrounded by yew trees. This is a composite monument of 4 sculpted stone fragments, composing in 1890/91. These are numbered Halton St Wilfrid 1, 2, 9 and 10 by the Corpus for Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture.
Indeed, Halton possesses 10 verified pre-Conquest stone fragments. Halton 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 are located within the church tower. They are all regarded as parts of pre-Viking ‘Anglian’ monuments of the late 8th/9th centuries.
Together, the 10 fragments reveal the importance of Halton as an early medieval ecclesiastical centre, part of a group of sites around the Lune valley showing evidence of early medieval settlement with influences across the Pennines, including Heysham, Lancaster and Halton Green in the immediate vicinity, plus further north-east at Capernwray, Gressingham and Hornby. Bailey (2010: 19) states that ‘no other area of Northumbria has such a heavy concentration of sites producing Anglian carvings’.
To my knowledge, no archaeological work has been able to shed light on its early medieval origins of the church and environs at Halton due to modern development. It would be interesting to learn what, if any, archaeological remains have been found ahead of the new road developments near the village… I need to look further into this in future.
I visited this cross in 2014 with my son. On Friday, I went back to acquire what I hoped would be better photographs, particularly of the scene on face C of Halton St Wilfrid 1. This is split into 2 scenes defined by arches. The top arched scene has three elements:
- At the top, boughs that curve and intersect. There are two birds perched on them, facing inwards towards each other;
- Bottom left. Here is a figure in profile, dressed in a short kirtle. He is standing, although Bailey regards his stance as ‘stepping forward’ for reasons that are unclear. His left hand is extended to hold a structure and his right hand is raised so that his thumb being sucked by his mouth. Notably, the figure’s ear, eye and nose are all discernible. This is commonly regarded as Sigurd, sucking the juice from the dragon’s heart (see below);
- The structure to the bottom-right. I don’t recognise Bailey’s description of a structure defined by ‘three vertical stems’. Instead, I would regard this as a spit supported by two verticals. Between and below are plaitwork with two upward extending trails which represent the fire. Upon the spit is a large chunk of meat. This is interpreted as the roasting of the dragon’s heart on a spit beneath which are the flames.
The lower scene is longer and has a series of elements to it, some clear, others less so. Here’s an attempt at describing it:
- Bottom left: Unmentioned by Bailey, a square object is beneath the chair, with a trapezoidal extension from its base. I have ideas for what this might be;
- Bottom right: A hammer-like object is depicted, between two differently sized bellows, the larger to the right. Below the left one is another object, seemingly unnoticed and not described by previous commentators;
- Middle left: a profile figure is seated upon a high-backed chair, his legs are draped over its front (right) but they do not reaching the ground. One arm is shown, raised and holding a large out-sized hammer;
- Middle right: a table with two legs shown, upon which are pincers facing the figure, a plane above it and a second hammer above the plane;
- Top left: two vertically arranged/suspended artefacts are depicted, a sword or seax to the far-left, its pommel below and its blade pointing upwards. This might be the sword of Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, repaired by Reginn and used to kill both Fafnir and Reginn himself. Next to it is a second pair of pincers, pliers or clippers.
- Top right: Bailey describes this area as depicting a ‘headless clothed figure with a simple ring-encircled twist above him’. I would revise this to propose that instead we are looking at a decapitated body, with the head clearly depicted resting beside the figure’s left foot, looking upwards.
I won’t develop a full interpretation here on this blog. However, I think we remain safe in assuming that this scene is linked to an early version of the story of Sigurd the dragonslayer known from a range of 11th-13th century written and visual sources. ‘Sigurd scenes’ have been identified on a range of Manx and northern English stone monuments dated to the 10th/11th centuries and are often taken as evidence of ‘Viking influence’.
Key elements of the story appear depicted in an abbreviated fashion. Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir using a sword made by his foster-father Reginn. He then gains understanding of bird-speech by sucking his thumb whilst roasting the dragon’s heart. In this fashion, Sigurd learns of the plan of his foster-father, the dwarf-smith and brother of Fafnir, to kill him for the dragon’s treasure. As a result Sigurd slays Reginn before the fratercidal (by proxy) dwarf can enact his scheme to kill his own foster-son.
Lilla Kopar has presented about how the artefacts might be seen as ways of conflating and juxtaposing into a single plane many different settings and scenes in this story. At Halton, this is an important perspective, especially regarding the interplay operating between thumb-sucking and bird-squawking above, and smithy below (do not quote me: this is a crude simplification of her arguments). This is a play on time and memory through the medium of myth, of that there is no doubt. It would have required sophisticated and knowledgable readers in the Viking Age able to unravel stories from juxtaposed scenes but also from artefacts that connect together many different phases of a story. It shows the complex narratives that can be distilled into, and heavily abbreviated, within figural art on early medieval stone sculpture. I would emphasise that the biographies and utility of the artefacts depicted are key to the story, allowing the viewer to tackle the temporal complexities presented.
In addition, I think that there are not only new observations to be made about the selection of artefacts, their relative scale, figures and structures shown, but also the detail of their arrangement in relation each other. A key relationship is between figures and artefacts, and fire. The making, deployment, and transformation of things forged by fire is key to all stages of the narrative, and the space of the smithy is key, as is the ‘cyborgian’ nature of the smith as maker of things and maker of himself. This artisanal and elemental perspective helps us to decode the connections made between transformation by slaying – dragon and dwarf – and transformation by fire. These scenes are all about slaying and fire as mechanisms for creation and recreation.
Having presented preliminary versions of these ideas at conferences, I’m hoping to write up my ideas in a journal article and/or a book chapter, one of the outputs of the Past in its Place project. It certainly leads us in different directions in suggesting the significance of this scene and the audiences it might have been engaging with in appreciating the power of stories mediated by sculpted stone in Viking Age Britain.