The ‘primary’ crosses of the Peak District represent a distinct group, dated by Jane Hawkes to the late 8th or early 9th century, although Phil Sidebottam has argued for a later, early 10th century, date for them.
Unlike other ‘secondary’ crosses which show Manx, Wirral and Cumbrian influences of Hiberno-Norse styles, these ‘primary’ monuments show greater links with Northumbrian sculpture. Therefore, their distinctive figural scenes and lack of Hiberno-Norse influence might reflect their earlier date. Alternatively, as Sidebottam argues, the lack of Scandinavian settlement and influence shouldn’t preclude a later date and evidence of the maintenance of a strong non-Viking identity in this upland region into the 10th century and beyond.
Despite the challenges in dating these monuments, Sidebottam argues that their location at ecclesiastical centes might also relate to their patrons: elites and their estates. Whether middle Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian/later Anglo-Saxon in date, they were certainly prominent landmarks by the 10th century. Moreover, their discrete clustering in the Peak might relate, according to Sidebottam, to the expression of a local identity of the Pecsaetna. This identity, set apart from the peoples of lower-lying valleys on all sides, may have endured up to the Norman Conquest (Sidebottam 2020: 62).
One of these fabulous Anglo-Saxon crosses is still largely extant: a sandstone fragment of the shaft and the cross-head in the churchyard of St Lawrence’s, Eyam, Derbyshire. First recorded in the 18th century, the cross fragments are presumably but not assuredly originally associated with each other. However, the top of the shaft and the bottom of the cross are both lost and we do not know for sure whether they are positioned the right way around in relation to each other. Hawkes and Sidebottam (2018: 183) suggest a 9th-century date for this monument (but see the discussion above).
Interlace fills the narrow sides (north and south faces) of the shaft. Plant scroll populates the broad face to the east (face C). On the broad face to the west (face A) there is four-strand encircled pattern interlace below two figural scenes (Hawkes and Sidebottam 2018: 180-181).
The upper scene is partially lost by the recut to mount the broken cross upon it. The forward-facing figure does survive with a body of a child – this is interpreted as Mary and the Christ Child.
Below, there is a forward-facing figure with short hair in a full-length undergarment with a band at the neck and an overgarment covering the shoulders. He is holding a curved wedge-shape which Hawkes and Sidebottam (2018: 180, 182) interpret as an unfurled scroll. However, I cannot but resist venturing an alternative suggestion, as per the much worn 10th-century Bedale hogback, that the individual is carrying a drinking horn. This must surely be considered a possibility given that it seems the figure’s right hand is grasping the middle of the object, rather than its lower end. In which case, it is possible that we have a secular individual, whether Biblical, legendary or a commemorative portrait?
The cross-head is packed with figural ornament, almost all seemingly angels, although one carved on the outside of the southern arm could be a prophet.
While ornament and form display close parallels with Bakewell and Bradbourne, the iconographic significance is distinct. With the uppermost panel on face A showing the Virgin and Child, there is a figure below who might be a prophet foretelling the Incarnation (Hawkes and Sidebottam 2018: 181).
The focus on angels with floriated staffs and blowing trumpets around the Virgin and Child suggests a focus on the humanity of Christ Child at the Incarnation while the pose of the figures implies Christ’s divinity. The iconographic programme is one focused on acts of contemplation on both Christ’s human and divine natures (Hawkes and Sidebottam 2018: 182). A firm view is impossible since, as stated above, we do not know for sure whether the cross is set in its original position over the shaft, or back-to-front!
Of course, as usual, the biography of the monument merits attention too. While situated close to or at its original location, the base and the protective iron spiked railings are a distinctive addition, presumably in the late 19th century. Together with the historic sign stating it is a ‘Celtic Cross’, the railings mark it very much of our contemporary world. The antiquated label is a piece of confused, inaccurate heritage itself: demonstrably and laughably wrong but part of the historical durability of this early Christian monument within the contemporary churchyard.
The ancient cross also has inspired at least one other Victorian cross in the churchyard, and of course the form of the First and Second World War memorial.
I didn’t stay long in Eyam, and there is far more to see in this Derbyshire village. Still, I was delighted to get a chance to catch up with the famous Eyam cross.
This post is also apposite, since I learn within hours of posting this that I must self-isolate with multiple family members testing positive for COVID-19…
Hawkes, J. and Sidebottam, P. 2018. Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume XIII: Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Oxford: The British Academy.
Sidebottam, P. 2020. Pecsaetna: People of the Anglo-Saxon Peak District. Oxford: Windgather.