Back in 1987, Lawrence Butler wrote a fascinating and succinct paper in the Archaeological Journal on the symbols to be found on cross slab grave covers from northern Britain. Called ‘Symbols on medieval memorials‘, his inference was largely nonsense at one level: that somehow the symbols on later medieval memorials represent a survival from ‘pagan’ grave-goods from the Viking Age, and this explains their prevalence in northern England where Scandinavian settlement was greatest in the late 9th century. Still, the interpretation that the symbols were mortuary commemorative expressions of the social identity of the laity remains a significant idea:
… in the majority of the slabs examined… the overwhelming impression is that the symbols are initially those of rank and by the thirteenth century those of trade and profession… [They] declared the deceased’s rank enjoyed during the life on earth. Additionally it expressed the hope that that rank woudl continue to be enjoyed, while the symbol of the cross carved on the lid indicated a pious hope for an after-life in, through and with Christ.
Butler 1987: 253-54
A Heritage Task
I’ve been asked to write some notes on three fragments of late medieval grave-slab from Bolton le Sands church where I recently visited to look at their two early medieval stone fragments. Rather than just write them up and send them to the church, I thought I’d compose a short blog entry.
Cross slab grave covers
Cross slab grave covers are recumbent stone slabs upon which the cross is the central motif. They are widespread across northern England and constitute the most common type of surviving medieval monument. Yet very few of them are found in situ, although they are sometimes found in archaeological excavations covering graves, as at Norton Priory (Butler 2008). Instead most are found ex situ, many floating around loose within churches, in porches, or reintegrated within walls inside or outside for visitors to see (Ryder 1991).
The number of monuments known from individual church sites varies considerably. This is affected by both the original number there might have been, depending on the availability of freestone suitable for carving, access to masons, and other patterns in local patronage, wealth and identity expression. There are also numerous factors that affect their survival or (far more commonly) rediscovery. The complex rebuilding programmes and insertion of new graves within medieval and post-medieval church buildings will lead to the dislocation, replacement, and then often reuse and incorporation of grave slabs into new phases of building. Survival/rediscovery also varies depending on the vagaries in the 19th-century renovation of churches when different numbers of these monuments were recovered and treated differentially depending on the church in question: destroyed/reburied or curated and displayed.
Ryder (1991: 5) has estimated we have anywhere from 2-10% of the original number surviving ‘depending on fortuitous circumstances’. It is speculated that wealthy and urban sites could have once had hundreds of such monuments commemorating not only nobility, but also merchants, farmers and tradespeople. The clergy would have also been commemorated through this medium.
In the late 11th/12th centuries, these were the principal form of intramural funerary monument, but from the 13th century they ‘competed’ with other media: effigies, brasses and box/altar tombs. Over time, styles change. Early geometric patterns are attributed by Ryder (1991: 50-52) to the 11th/12th centuries, with four circles or four segments dated to the late 12th to mid-13th centuries. More elaborate and varied cross-types develop in the late 13th and into the 14th century. The flowing forms give way to more regular and geometrical patterns and 14th/15th-century cross-types are difficult to precisely date. In the 15th and early 16th centuries there are ‘floor stones’: defined as rectangular rather than tapered, and usually with inscriptions (Ryder 1991: 58).
Cross slabs bear a range of ‘secondary emblems’ (Ryder 1991: 61-66) that might embody a range of Christian symbolic messages, but in many cases they are thought to denote an aspect of the social identity of the person(s) commemorated. In this regard, swords (the most common, in West Yorkshire at least: Butler 1987: 250-52; Ryder 1991: 61-2) are associated with masculine attributes or identities, or perhaps more specifically with a rank of squire or knight.
Shears are the secondmost common emblem and are variously interpreted as evidence of a cloth worker, wool-merchant or wool-stapler, or metaphorically as the severence of life with death (cutting the thread of life), or perhaps for being a form that combines the Greek letters alpha and omega (Ryder 1991: 63). Shears have also been suggested as possible symbols of a female-gendered identity linked to a ‘housewife’, perhaps of wealthy individuals.
There are two later medieval cross slab grave covers on display in the church at Bolton le Sands. They are therefore rare survivals of graves from within the church, or immediately around it, dating broadly to the late 11th-15th centuries AD. They are so simple in design, it is difficult to assign a more secure date.
The larger stone survives in two parts and is a straight-armed cross carved on the face of a tapering stone. I only have photographs of these stones provided by the church. To the bottom-right of the cross is a late medieval long sword with a round pommel and straight quillions. This position is the more common situation for a sword on grave slabs (Ryder 1991: 61). A 12th-century date would be possible for this memorial, but we cannot be too precise with such a simple design. Similar arrangements of crosses and swords, if more elaborate, are dated through from the 13th-14th centuries in North Wales, for example (Gresham 1968).
The second stone has a plain equal-armed cross set within a circle with a shaft below leading to a base. Bottom-left are a downward suspended pair of shears. The small size of this stone might be taken to imply it covered a child’s grave and the shears might denote a female-gendered association. This type of grave slab is a common late 12th-century type (Ryder 1991: 50-52; Aleks McClain pers. comm.).
Cross slabs can be seen as a fashion of displaying and constituting social standing for landed families, craftspeople and merchants within the setting of the local church. As such, they were an enduring commemorative tradition in the northern counties, enforcing a patron’s legacy and family’s standing. They spoke not only to elites, but to the entire community using the local church (McClain 2010).
It is important to remember that they once covered horizontally the bodies of the dead, individually communicating the identity of the dead to the living worshippers, marking their burial place, and fostering/prompting prayers for the souls of the deceased.
Yet also, individually and collectively, they communicated down the generations for as long as they remained in situ – allowing particular families to constitute and perpetuate their identities and claims to land and power in the parish church. Indeed, as McClain argues for North Yorkshire (McClain 2010, 58), these slabs show how elite mortuary media could be adoptied by non-knightly classes as ‘aspiration, emulation, and social mobility complicated the ranks of the high middle classses and lesser eliete in the later Middle Ages’.
As yet, however, the cross slabs of Lancashire and Cheshire haven’t featured in these studies (Butler 1987; McClain 2010), so it is about time that seemingly humble monuments, like those at Bolton le Sands, should be a focus of future research and factored in to the debates regarding the origins and persistence of this mode of commemoration in northern England (McClain 2010: 59-62). As well as incorporating them into academic research, churches need to be aware of their significance as part of an unfolding story of mortuary commemoration at these locales, as well as recognise their importance for future generations. Often displayed vertically and pinned against walls, they once were stone surfaces which, no matter how humble and rustic in execution,mediated relations between the living and the dead in the Middle Ages.
Butler, L. 1987. Symbols on medieval memorials, Archaeological Journal 144: 246-55.
Butler, L. 2008. The Gravestones and Coffins, in F. Brown and C. Howard-Davis Norton Priory: Monastery to Museum. Excavations 1970-87. Lancasater Imprints. Oxford: Oxbow.
Gresham, C.A. 1968. Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
McClain, A. 2010. Cross slab monuments in the Later Middle Ages: patronage, production, and locality in northern England, in S. Badham and S. Oosterwijk (eds) Monumental Industry: The Production of Tomb MOnuments in England and Wales in the Long Fourteenth Century, Donington: Shuan Tyas, pp. 37-65.
Ryder, P. 1991. Medieval Cross Slab Grave Covers in West Yorkshire, Bradford: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service.