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
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.
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.