A good test of TV historical dramas is how they portray early medieval stone sculpture.
Let’s briefly compare and contrast two prominent and popular TV shows and their contrasting portrayals of crosses in the early medieval landscape.
In Season 1, Ragnar, Lagertha, Rollo, Floki and their fellow pirates raid the Anglo-Saxon settlement (‘town’) of Hexham. In so doing, as they walk through the settlement on their way to slaughter people in the church, they encounter a carved stone cross. The cross is shown in a settlement context, faintly coloured. The ornament shows the Four Evangelists in the cross-arms framing the Virgin Mary and child, with Adam and Eve below, and then a series of haloed figures – presumably saints – in arches – running down the broad face in pairs. In another shop, tight interlace is shown running down another face of the cross-shaft, again faintly painted as if worn.
In Season 4 part 1 we encounter a Mercian royal mausoleum, but I will return to that as a separate point of discussion.
In Season 4 part 2, Aethelwulf rides past another early medieval cross, this time seemingly unpainted. It is evidently the same cross recycled and placed in a landscape location – on a rugged hillside with extensive views over the surrounding countryside. The two stepped base of the cross is oddly chamfered in a fashion I’m unaware has any surviving early medieval inspiration.
So, at the very least, these two representations afford a sense of free-standing crosses – carved, ornamented and painted with figural and abstract ornamentation – were dimensions of 9th-century ecclesiastical centres and the broader landscape.
The Last Kingdom
In the second season of The Last Kingdom, free-standing stone crosses are found in three discrete contexts:
- Two crosses, one tall, one shorter, in the context of an ecclesiastical settlement in Cumberland;
- One free-standing cross in York in a public space in front of a hall;
- One marking a Christian cemetery in the Danelaw;
We see a dark-stone circle-headed cross on an unmarked, light-stone shaft, with a modest little base. This is supposedly ‘Carlisle’, so the cross is clearly selected to afford an Irish Sea zone feel to it. It isn’t painting or ornamented below the head, and the contrasting colours of head and shaft are incongruous. Still, we see it on multiple occasions as simply a feature of the settlement, seemingly ignored by the quotidian activities of living and house-building. A potential ceremonial role is hinted at in the nightime depiction of it in relation to the inauguration of the king and the procession of St Cuthbert’s remains, but no over ritual activities are performed at and around the monument.
We are then shown a second, shorter, circle-headed cross situated again in a settlement context, seemingly without ecclesiastical or cemetery context.
When St Cuthbert’s body arrives in York, at the centre of the settlement, in front of the hall, we find a free-standing stone cross with a wide, dramatic (and perhaps implausible) cross-head, with an unornamented cross-shaft, set on an truly massive five-stepped base. Clearly some recognition is given that we are in a Northumbrian context, not an Irish Sea one, perhaps explaining the choice of cross-head to look more Ruthwell-esque.
Lastly, the fourth cross appears in a third location: as marking the ‘Christian cemetery’ where the pagan Viking Bjorn’s grave is situated. Setting aside the appearance of the ‘pagan’ grave: with a crazy pairing of horned skulls on a post, we have a series of seemingly low stone gravestones and wooden crosses clustering around a wheel-headed cross beside a fence. We don’t see it up close.
Looking positively at these portrayals, they are a visual shorthand for 9th-century England was a ‘Christian’ nation, but also a broader awareness that ecclesiastical settlements and the wider landscape would be peppered with prestigious free-standing carved stone crosses. This is all good.
The detail might be less impressive, with key elements without parallel. Also, the devotional and commemorative association of these crosses is left to the imagination. Still, if I were to call it, Vikings wins over TLK in at least attempting to depict faint colouration to the otherwise stark bare stone, while TLK wins in showing regional variation and funerary contexts as one dimension to the deployment of early medieval stone crosses.