After a day exploring medieval sites in North Yorkshire, I was driving back to my hotel when I encountered Tadcaster’s war memorial for the first time. It is situated upon a triangular island at a key road junction in the town, on the west-east A659, Westgate, Tadcaster.
I immediately pulled up, and rushed out of the car to take this pictures in failing light. What a find! What a monument! Why hadn’t I heard about it before. If you don’t know why I was so excited, you know very little about Viking-period stone sculpture. I say this because, never before have I seen a First World war memorial that is not simply inspired by early medieval stone sculpture in general terms, but takes a single unique 10th/early 11th-century monument is its precise inspiration – the tall wheel-headed cross from Gosforth, Cumbria, now known as Gosforth 1. Now as identified in a series of recent tweets by Katy Whitaker – the Lakeland antiquiry W.G. Collingwood created a series of war memorials inspired by early medieval stone sculpture in Cumbria and in Yorkshire. Indeed, Whitaker mentions how Hawkeshead and Coniston war memorials are supposedly inspired by the Gosforth monument, but they are very different from the original in form and ornamentation. Only the replica by Rev. William Slater Calverley on the east side of St Kentigern’s, Aspatria, seems to be a close likeness in form and ornament. Whoever designed this monument produced something of far greater exactitude to the early medieval original.
Shockingly, there appears to be no commentary about this monument written thus far online or in publications I can identify. Hence, it seems there is no prior recognition that this monument draws its immediate inspiration from the famous Viking cross from Gosforth, Cumbria, or alternatively from the cast of this monument created in the late 19th century and on display in the V&A. In this regard, we need not see this as a regional reference to Northumbria (although it might be), or to the Vikings per se, but certainly represents a prime example of memorials to the Great War drawing explicit allusions to the romantic, patriotic and martial medieval past. From publicly available sources, it seems the Tadcaster war memorial isn’t currently even judged to be worthy of joining the Historic England list. It equally doesn’t seem to be regarded of particular merit in its stark description on the IWM register, where it is called a ‘tall slender Celtic style cross on octagonal plinth with inset name plaques’. Further details are recorded on the webpage ‘Tadcaster WW1 Memorials‘, where it is recorded that it was unveiled in July 1921 by Lord Brooksbank of Healaugh Manor who privately funded the memorial, having lost two sons in the First World War. Further photographs of the monument and the unveiling ceremony can be found on the town council’s website. However, nowhere is there are detailed account of the monument and currently its sculptor isn’t known.
This Portland Stone monument with bronze plaques bears the names of 107 who died in the First World War and a further 32 who perished in the Second World War. The monument is likewise called a ‘slender celtic cross’ by War Memorials Online, where the additional detail is recorded that it is a striking 7m tall. Photographs of the monument here focus on the plaques and a general view. The principal text states: IN HONOUR/ OF THE MEN OF/ TADCASTER/ WHO GAVE THEIR LIVES/ THAT OTHERS MIGHT LIVE/ IN FREEDOM./ 1914 – 1919/ SEE YE TO IT/ THAT THEIR NAMES/ ARE NOT FORGOTTEN The three-stepped base and octagonal plinth are distinctive in their own right, and reminiscent to me of the Tarvin (Cheshire) memorial.
Relationships to Gosforth
The shaft and head of the cross are taken directly from the Gosforth 1 monument, full details of which are available on the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture website. The principal similarities are the form and decoration of the cross, with its plait and triquetras.
The shaft is divided in two by an upper set of panels from a lower set. On the broad (west and east) faces, each is filled with Borre ring-chain motifs on two of its sides.
Meanwhile, on the north and south there are lower panels of very different, slender and complex interlace pattern that lacks a precise early medieval inspiration (to my knowledge). The upper panels are perhaps reminiscent of the wings of the 8-winged creature on the north (side D) of the Gosforth cross.
Below this, the columnar section is covered with multiple ring-chain just like the Gosforth Cross.
The differences are also striking, for the supposed Ragnarok-related scenes from Norse mythology showing the doom of the gods – Heimdall, Viðar, and Loki and Sigyn – alongside descending monsters (dragon and wolf) are replaced with a striking set of modest-sized images at the base of three of the faces.
On the north face is an injured soldier – denoted by his arm in a sling. He looks up to a chalice held by a descending angel.
On the west face, is a soldier en face, his right hand holding the muzzle of his rifle.
On the south side is a naked-bar-loincloth male figure with hands raised upwards to Heaven, presumably representing a dead soul, and simultaneously the souls of all those named. At the base of the interlace here are three rectangular forms: are they bells?
In each of these cases, the figures stand on a circle contained interlace, perhaps denoting the earth. On the fourth face – the eastern – are an odd and distinctive pairing of a biplane and a warship face on, denoting the other armed forces involvement in the conflict alongside the army.
The monument is striking and distinctive in its own right, linking sacrifice to angelic intervention and spiritual ascension. It is a monument that deliberately evokes the form and ornamentation of the Viking-period Gosforth 1 monument, and/or its replica in the Victoria and Albert Museum. As such, whoever sculpted it, it stands as an important example of First World War medievalism. It adapts a unique Viking-period cross from northern England to commemorate the early and mid-20th-century war dead.
Thanks to Katy Whitaker and Dr Simon Trafford for support and guidance in writing this piece.