The church of St Mary and St Helen, Neston, Wirral, has a fabulous collection of early medieval carved stone monuments on display in the nave. All were found during the 1874 restoration of the (largely) Norman church. These stones are of considerable archaeological interest for the light they shed of the Early Middle Ages, and as a case study in the public display of early medieval monuments within a church setting.
I last had the opportunity to visit with students on my final-year undergraduate ‘Vikings’ module in April 2019 and I have been meaning to write a blog-post about the stones ever since. Ahead of the Corona-Christmas, you folks might find it educational and cheering to learn more about them and explore what I consider (in many, not all) terms, a ‘best practice’ scenario for church displays of early medieval stones.
None of the stones demonstrably pre-date the 10th century and so they are often collectively called ‘Viking Age’ or ‘Viking-period’ stones. They represent part of a cluster of Viking-period sculpture from the Chester region, found on either side of the Dee Estuary. They have variable ornamentation and figural scenes, but share in their form in being ring-headed cross fragments comparable to those from West Kirby and Chester.
Introducing the stones
There are 5 stone fragments recorded as demonstrably early medieval by Professor Richard Bailey (2010: 85-90) plus Bailey records a possible sixth piece that is now lost and there is no visual information or sufficient details for with which to ascribe an early medieval date to.
Neston 1 is the fragment of a cross shaft.
1A – Cable-mouldering with a bearded priest in mass vestments (we see an alb and chasuble with decorative details around the neck, lower edges and central down the front). He is standing in prayer (orans position). This is one of only a handful of representations of a priest on Viking-period stone sculpture from England (Bailey 2010: 85).
1B – Ring-encircled twists;
1C – Irregular interlace;
1D – Step pattern.
The upper part of a cross-shaft and the lower part of the cross-head with wide cable mouldering edges;
2A – Beneath cable moulding, a haloed winged figure in a pleated short kirtle set horizontally;
2B – Ring-encircled twist;
2C – Below a step pattern, two figures in short kirtles fighting. The left figure has a sharp object raised, the other has his left hand raised behind, holding an object. There is no easy parallel for the figures but Bailey (2010: 87) suggests Cain grasping Abel by the hair, or Peter cutting off the ear of Malchus, but if so there is no precedent for both figures carrying weapons in early medieval art. Instead, he opts for David slaying Goliath;
2D – step pattern.
Part of a shaft.
3A – Incomplete figural scene of a male (short kirtle) and female (long pleated dress and knotted pigtail) facing each other. A horned stag confronts a hound, with a human figure in a kirtle holding a spear and stabbing the stag;
3B – Ring-encircled twist within cable mouldings;
3C – Above an undecorated section, two horsemen confronting with spears crossing, the right-hand figure with reins in this left hand. Two quadrupeds above, one looking over its back at the other.
3D – Step pattern
Part of a cross-shaft with step pattern and traces of cabling and unidentifiable knotwork.
Cross-head fragment: cable mouldings with triquetra sand traces of interlace on both wide faces, and step pattern and openwork two-strand interlace on the narrow faces.
These monuments together are clearly fragments from a broader lost corpus of early medieval grave stones associated with a pre-Norman ecclesiastical site situated at or close to the later medieval church. They reveal a striking range of Christian and secular figural motifs as well as sharing the same cable mouldings found in West Kirby and St John’s Chester, thus reflecting a local ‘school’ or ‘workshop’.
Their heritage interpretation is also noteworthy as so many other early medieval stone monuments in churches are poorly lit and inadequately installed with little up-to-date heritage interpretation. The Neston stones are well-lit, relatively well accessible from all sides and perspectives, and prominently placed beside the south door to the nave. There is up-to-date information available on portable print-outs. Originally designed for the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, there is a replica inspired by Neston 3 and painted in vibrant colours to afford an impression of how these stones might have looked when freshly raised and decorated.
Moreover, a generous and kind local guide – church warden Terry Abel – told us all about the stones.
There is also a later medieval grave-slab presented adjacent to them, with an extensive (and somewhat speculative in places) interpretation sheet.
In summary, for what they tell us about the Early Middle Ages, and as an example of good practice in their contemporary display, the Neston stones are a great resource for learning about the Early Middle Ages in the English North West.
Of course, these are now augmented by a digital footprint for these monuments on the CASSS website. So, whether the church is open or closed, whether the COVID-19 pandemic or other factors prevent you from travelling to Neston or not, you can view these monuments digitally at any time.
Bailey, R. 2010 Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume IX: Cheshire and Lancashire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.