Hill figure on Whiteleaf Hill, known as the Whiteleaf Cross
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Buckinghamshire (Unitary Authority)
- Princes Risborough
- National Grid Reference:
- SP 82145 03969
Reasons for Designation
The Whiteleaf Cross survives well and is a particularly intriguing example of a hill figure: a class of monument which includes large scale depictions of symbols, designs and motifs usually intended to be seen from a distance and created by cutting away turf and subsoil to form a visual contrast between the underlying chalk and the surrounding grassland. As with many such figures, the origins of the Whiteleaf Cross are obscure. In general, the practice of hill figure construction is believed to have originated in the Iron Age (c.500-50 BC), representing (in human or animal form) deities or totemic symbols which may indicate sites of ritual activity, territorial division or significant calendar events. However, in most cases, the dates of construction have yet to be clearly defined, and are often further obscured by later alterations resulting from repetitive cleaning or more deliberate changes to the designs. The earliest documentary evidence for the majority of hill figures (with the exception of those clearly created in more recent times as follies or to commemorate particular events) rarely date before the 17th century, and tend to record episodes of cleaning. Whiteleaf Cross is no exception. Its form and dimensions are clearly documented from the 18th century onwards, the records including details of the practice of `scouring' which, as elsewhere, provides insights into the longevity of the tradition. The question of the origin of the Whiteleaf Cross may never be completely resolved, and theories suggesting prehistoric, medieval and post-medieval construction (or adaptation) all have some support. Its importance as a distinctive feature of the Chiltern landscape is, however, undisputed. The proximity of the Whiteleaf Cross to a second cross at Bledlow Great Wood, some 6km to the west, is of considerable significance for the study of the development of this class of monument.
The monument includes a hill figure in the shape of a triangle surmounted by a
cross cut into the chalk on the west facing slope of Whiteleaf Hill near Monks
Risborough. The figure is clearly visible across the Vale of Aylesbury and can
be seen from as far away as Headington Hill in Oxfordshire, some 25km to the
The figure is cut into a gradient of between 25 and 45 degrees, extending for
approximately 75m up the hillside from the eastern side of Peters Lane. The
triangular area of bare chalk which forms the lower part of the figure, known
locally as `the globe', measures about 120m across and 40m from base to apex.
The cross which emerges from the top of the triangle is almost equal sided:
the shaft approximately 8m wide, and the arms 5m wide and c.8m in length. The
depth of the cut varies between 1m towards the top of the monument and 0.4m
further down the slope.
The origins of the figure are unknown and have caused much speculation. It was
first recorded in 1742 by Francis Wise, who thought that it was constructed
around AD 910 to commemorate Edward the Elder's victory over a Danish raiding
party at nearby Bledlow. Later authors have contended that the cross was
created by the ancestors of Algar Stalre, the standard bearer of Christ
Church, Canterbury, who held Risborough at the time of the Norman Conquest; or
that the figure was pagan or prehistoric in origin, and later modified by the
monks of Risborough or Missenden.
None of these theories, however, adequately explain the absence of any mention
of the figure prior to 1742. If prehistoric in origin, then it is curiously
omitted from a Saxon charter dated AD 903 which makes a clear reference to the
hill itself. Similarly there are no records of the cross from the medieval or
early post-medieval period. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the cross was
created during the Puritan interregnum of the mid 17th century by local
people under the direction of a local cleric as a substitute for other social
activities then abolished.
The cross was recut and cleaned by the Earl of Buckinghamshire under the terms
of the Enclosure Act of 1826. By the mid 19th century such cleaning (or
scouring) had become the focus for annual festivities, with participation from
the Oxford colleges. Erosion, both from repeated cleaning and rainwater
washing down the slope has gradually altered the shape of the figure,
broadening the base from 189ft (57.6m) in 1742, to 400ft (121.9m) in 1936; and
increasing the overall height from 200ft (61m) to 246ft (75m) over the same
period. It has also resulted in the gradual accumulation of a bank of chalky
soil along the base of the cross. This material is included in the scheduling
as it is likely to contain lost or discarded artefacts reflecting the age of
cleaning tradition, and perhaps the age of the monument itself.
Reinforcing planks were added to the edges of the monument when it was last
cleaned in 1991. These are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground
beneath 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
Knowles, D , Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales, (1971), 478
Lipscomb, G, History and Antiquities of Buckinghamshire, (1847), 110
Marples, M, White Horses and other Hill Figures, (1949), 137
Newman, P, Gods and Graven Images: The Chalk Hill Figures of England, (1987), 163-71
Sheahan, J, History and Topography of Buckinghamshire, (1862), 184
Wise, F, Further Observations upon the White Horse and other Antiquities, (1742), 34
Baker, A, 'Records of Bucks' in On the Ancient Crosses Incised on the Chiltern Hills, , Vol. 1, (1857), 219-224
Downs, R S, 'Records of Bucks' in The Danes in Buckinghamshire, , Vol. 5, (1882), 261
Payne, E J, 'Records of Bucks' in Whiteleaf Cross, , Vol. 7, (1896), 559-67
Scott, W L, 'Antiquity' in The Chiltern White Crosses, , Vol. XI, (1937), 100-104
AM107 Fiel Monument Warden's report, Paterson, H, Whiteleaf Cross, (1993)
reference to purpose of Bucks crosses, Lethbridge, T C, Letter to J Head (copy in Bucks SMR 0641), (1956)
Schedule entry citing Arthur Evans, DoE, Whiteleaf Cross near Princes Risborough,
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