High cross in St Mary's churchyard


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


Ordnance survey map of High cross in St Mary's churchyard
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Copeland (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
NY 07230 03570

Reasons for Designation

High crosses, frequently heavily decorated, were erected in a variety of locations in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries AD. They are found throughout northern England with a few examples further south. Surviving examples are of carved stone but it is known that decorated timber crosses were also used for similar purposes and some stone crosses display evidence of carpentry techniques in their creation and adornment, attesting to this tradition. High crosses have shafts supporting carved cross heads which may be either free-armed or infilled with a 'wheel' or disc. They may be set within dressed or rough stone bases called socles. The cross heads were frequently small, the broad cross shaft being the main feature of the cross. High crosses served a variety of functions, some being associated with established churches and monasteries and playing a role in religious services, some acting as cenotaphs or marking burial places, and others marking routes or boundaries and acting as meeting places for local communities. Decoration of high crosses divides into four main types: plant scrolls, plaiting and interlace, birds and animals and, lastly, figural representation which is the rarest category and often takes the form of religious iconography. The carved ornamentation was often painted in a variety of colours though traces of these pigments now survive only rarely. The earliest high crosses were created and erected by the native population, probably under the direction of the Church, but later examples were often commissioned by secular patrons and reflect the art styles and mythology of Viking settlers. Several distinct regional groupings and types of high cross have been identified, some being the product of single schools of craftsmen. There are fewer than 50 high crosses surviving in England and this is likely to represent only a small proportion of those originally erected. Some were defaced or destroyed during bouts of iconoclasm during the 16th and 17th centuries. Others fell out of use and were taken down and reused in new building works. They provide important insights into art traditions and changing art styles during the early medieval period, into religious beliefs during the same era and into the impact of the Scandinavian settlement of the north of England. All well-preserved examples are identified as nationally important.

The high cross in St Mary's churchyard, Gosforth, is a unique monument standing alone amongst English Viking age crosses, not only in its size and complete survival, but also in the quality of its carving and its artistic inventiveness. Its decoration includes scenes from Scandinavian mythology unparalleled in surviving contemporary art.


The monument includes an early tenth century Anglo-Scandinavian high cross located in the churchyard to the south of St Mary's Church, Gosforth. It is constructed of red sandstone with a shaft cylindrical in cross section in its lower part but changing to tapering rectangular in its upper part. The cross measures 4.42m high and is set into a three-stepped sandstone socle or base. The shaft measures 1.02m in circumference at its base and is elaborately and inventively decorated on all sides of its upper part. The west face has a single panel bordered by roll moulding within which are animal heads, and below which is a human figure holding a horizontal staff and a horn. Beneath this human figure there is a horseman shown upside down and holding a spear. At the bottom of the panel there is a human figure with arms and legs manacled. Around his neck is a cord which is knotted by a snake and above there is the kneeling figure of a woman holding out a bowl. The scene is associated with Scandinavian mythology; the human figure with staff and horn is the watchman god Heimdall with his Gjallarhorn, the bound human and adjacent woman at the foot of the panel are Loki and Sigyn, characters from medieval Scandinavian literary sources. The east face depicts beasts heads, one of which has a human figure holding a spear at its jaw. The scene below is framed by cable moulding and contains the figure of the crucified Christ. A stream of blood runs from Christ's right side and nearby is the head and shaft of a spear gripped by a human figure. Adjacent is a female figure with trailing dress and knotted pigtail carrying a horn-like object. At the base of the frame are two beasts. This depiction of the crucifixion is the only clear Christian scene on the cross. Elsewhere on the east face the scenes are associated with Scandinavian mythology; the figure at the beast's jaw is identified as Vidar avenging the death of his father, Odin. The south face has a single panel depicting interlace carving terminating in animal heads. Beneath is a horned deer and below this is a wolf or dog. Below this is a horseman grasping a spear and at the foot of the panel, beneath a strip of interlace, is an open-jawed creature. This scene also is associated with Scandinavian mythology; the horseman is Odin with Mimir below and the wolf Garm above. The north face likewise has a single panel. At its top there is a vertical rod which terminates below in a beast's head. Eight wing-like features are attached to this rod by rings. Below the beast are two horsemen each gripping a spear, one set above the other with the lower one depicted upside down. The remainder of the panel is filled with interlace carving. As with the other faces, the north face depicts a scene from Scandinavian mythology; the winged beast being interpreted as Surt. The cross head, like the shaft, is heavily decorated. The east and west faces have a central boss, interlace carving and roll moulding. The north and south faces of the cross head are identical; each with cabled border moulding on the ring of the head and a panel of interlace carving on the end of the arm. The whole patterning of the cross shows an original mind at work exploiting links and contrasts between Scandinavian mythology and Christianity, and reflects a radical theological approach which would otherwise never have been suspected in Viking-age Cumbria. Several other fragments of sculptured stone of similar date are now housed within St Mary's Church. The collection as a whole indicates that a major ecclesiastical site existed here in the tenth century. All graves, headstones and part of the churchyard path within the area of the scheduling are excluded, but the ground beneath these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
Bailey, R N, Cramp, R, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, (1988), 100-4


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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