Angles, Danes and Norse in the District of Huddersfield (1929) - Chapter 5

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Angles, Danes and Norse in the District of Huddersfield (1929) by W.G. Collingwood (2nd edition)

  • Preface (page 3)
  • Chapter 1 : The Anglian Occupation of Yorkshire (page 7)
  • Chapter 2 : British Loidis and Elmet (page 9)
  • Chapter 3 : The Anglian and British Map of the Huddersfield District (page 13)
  • Chapter 4 : The Anglian Abbeys (page 17)
  • Chapter 5 : Anglian Monuments (page 19)
  • Chapter 6 : Dewsbury (page 24)
  • Chapter 7 : Thornhill (page 33)
  • Chapter 8 : Walton and Rastrick Cross-bases (page 37)
  • Chapter 9 : Kirkburton and Kirkheaton — the Danish Settlers (page 40)
  • Chapter 10 : High Hoyland and the Norse Settlers (page 46)
  • Chapter 11 : Domesday Book an the Norman Conquest (page 50)
  • Chapter 12 : Mirfield, Cawthrone, Penistone and Skelmanthorpe (page 55)
  • Summary (page 60)
  • Bibliography (page 61)


At the minsters or abbey-churches mentioned in records, we should expect to find – and we do find – the grave-monuments of the period. The only complete exception is Beverley, where, no doubt, they lie in or under the foundations of the later buildings. In most places, however, the monuments are much later than the first mention of the churches. This is to be expected, partly because we do not know how many stones are lost; we known nearly a thousand monumental fragments which can be dated to Anglian and Danish periods, but fresh finds are often made and there must be many more to discover. Another reason for the lateness of the monuments is that the fashion of erecting carved crosses did not become general until some time after the foundation of monasteries. How we date this fashion needs a few words of explanation, for it has been too little studied in a methodical way, by comparison of all the known relics. The result is that even modern writers, taking only well-known examples such as the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses, date them variously from the middle of the seventh to the middle of the twelfth century. But as we must make use of the local monuments in our attempt to reconstruct the history of this district, it is important to state the grounds on which dates are assigned to them. To do this fully would require many chapters; here we can only sketch the outline of the argument and refer to the present writer’s book on Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age (London 1927).

When St. Oswald set up his wooden standard at the battle of Heavenfield on the Tyne, in 635, it was a cross such as he had seen at Iona. In his time there was none of the great crosses we see there now, but only the kind which Adamnan (abbot of Iona 679-704) describes as stuck in a millstone, that is a hand-quern for base. Nor were there any stonemasons in Northumbria ; the Angles lived in wooden houses and had no use for masonry until St. Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop began to build their abbeys in the Roman style, forty years after Oswald’s Cross; and these abbeys were built by masons brought from a distance. Now at Hexham, Wilfrid’s abbey, a peculiar style of leaf-and-fruit scroll ornament was adopted (not in Wilfrid’s time but in the eighth century), and this style spread far and wide. At the abbeys in County Durham a parallel style seems to have developed, also with widespread influence. Both these styles, and the plaited patterns and the figures in relief, can be traced to Continental work; they were adaptations of the ornaments then in vogue throughout Christendom, and were probably brought from Italy, to which Wilfrid and Benedict and many others made frequent visits. But the freestanding cross, carved in stone and decorated with these patterns, seems to be an original idea, perhaps invented at Hexham, and only possible where there were masons at hand who could execute it.

From the neighbourhood of the Tyne this new idea traveled in all directions, from one minster to another, as it found acceptance. It traveled through Northumberland to the Anglian abbeys in what is now south-eastern Scotland, as far as Abercorn, the northern limit of the Anglian kingdom. It traveled westward, to Bewcastle and Carlisle, Hoddam and Ruthwell, Dacre and Heversham, and out to the Cumberland coast at Irton and Waberthwaite. And it traveled to south to the abbeys of Yorkshire, so that examples of the art are found in all parts of the Anglian kingdom, which extended from the Humber to the Forth, and from sea to sea.

But it did not travel without changing form in details; as time went on new motives were introduced and old motives were treated in different ways. This must always be the case in any art movement.

The normal trend of development is from severe design, naturalistic intention, and careful execution to more florid effects and a greater show of clever handling. When this has reached its climax, decadence sets in with carelessness in touch and cheapness (that is to say, want of fresh feeling and lively intention) in design. Boldness takes place of refinement, and labour-saving devices are employed – in this case, the use of easy repeats instead of original and varied details. And when the worst has come, some new impulse from without transforms the whole art and sets it going again upon new lines. This is the history of the Anglian monuments, parallel to the history of the Anglian people. They reached their climax in the eighth century, declined in the ninth, and fell before the Danes, who took up and remodeled their life and art in the tenth century.

At all periods the sculpture appears to have been painted. This is shown by the remains of paint still existing on some of the stones. The style of colouring was no doubt like that of the similar patterns in the book-illustration of the time, and without colour our reproductions of ancient crosses are incomplete. Those in the museum to which colour has been added are shown as suggestions of the effect intended by the makers of pre-Norman monuments, although we have no further warrant for any individual example than the general fact that paint was used, and that these colours are such as the decorators of the period were accustomed to employ.

The cross reasonably believed to be that of Bishop Acca, of Hexham, who died in 740 (it has been removed from Hexham to Durham Cathedral Library), is the work of the earliest class, though by that time ornament was well understood. Further progress is seen in the fine crosses of which fragments remain at Easby and Otley, with bird-scrolls beautifully carved, plaits symmetrically designed, and figures of saints, sometimes very fairly drawn and recalling Roman sculpture; this group includes the crosses of Bewcastle and Ruthwell. There is more tendency to florid style in stones at Cundall, Ripon and Northallerton; the last shows patterns which are associated with late design. Decadence sets in with the “Apostles” shaft at Collingham, in which the figure drawing is like that of ninth century book-illustration, not from Roman models; and the tallest cross at Ilkley shows figures which are rather grotesque, and scrolls which have lost their naturalistic character. Included in this group, of the middle of the ninth century, are the finest of the carved stones at Dewsbury, and this brings to an end the best period of Anglian art.

Berhtsuith CrossThen followed (867) the Danish invasion, which swept away the abbeys of central and eastern Yorkshire, and put an end to the craft, for a time, wherever the Danes invaded. After they had settled down and adopted the religion and culture they found in England, they accepted the fashion of setting up grave-monuments, though they had not themselves carved in stone. But the better artists were gone; the tradition was partly lost, and the work done by the surviving Anglian masons was poor in style, though evidently an attempt to reproduce earlier models. Several instances could be given; one is at Halton, near Lancaster, where a design of this period is obviously copied, but badly copied, from an earlier monument still to be seen there. In places where – as near Huddersfield – the Danes did not at once devastate and settle, the Angles were left to carry on their old style, and instead of keeping up the early standard, contented themselves with elaborating repeats of simple knot-work. An illustration of this can be seen in the “Berhtsuith” cross as restored in the Tolson Museum and figured here compared with the restoration of the Otley cross, a work of the best period, now in the churchyard at Otley. Further decadence is shown in the “Eoh” stone at Kirkheaton, and many other unskillful carvings which illustrate the last efforts of the Anglian style.

Meanwhile the Danes had a taste of their own, in matters of ornament. During the tenth century this taste made itself felt in such works as the great cross in Leeds Parish Church. In this there are debased Anglian scrolls and plaits, together with figures that might have been copied from an Irish Book; for the Danes in York were closely connected with the Danes in Ireland, and borrowed from the Irish culture, not only in design, but in style of poetry, in language and in matters of religion. About the middle of the tenth century the Yorkshire Dales finally impressed their own taste on monumental art. They never could draw the human figures or animals, but were content with grotesque, conventional forms. They simplified the plaits still further, in the direction already taken by designers, and adopted some easy new plaits from abroad. They preferred irregular “snake-slings” to symmetrical leaf-scrolls, and dragons to doves. They converted the debased foliage into wild tangles of fierce monsters tied up in their own tails – not without a fine and picturesque character, much more interesting than the dregs of Anglian ornament, though growing out of it by gradual development. We have no examples of this style in our district; the nearest is the Kirkheaton cross; but on these lines they created a new type, and about the year 1000, Anglo-Scandinavian art was able to produce the cross at Gosforth, Cumberland, which, in spite of the crudity of its details, it most beautiful on account of its elegant proportions and rich effect. And then, in the eleventh century, Yorkshire grew tired of crosses in this style. The art had been taken up in other countries, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and was there developed in new directions.

In this way we have a kind of rough, general scale to which we can apply examples found in our district at the sites marked with crosses on our map, and say with some approach to certainty what is their place in history. We cannot fix definite dates, but we can name a period, treating these carved stones exactly as fossils and the rocks they lie in are treated by the palaeontologist or as Roman potsherds, and the floors of the buildings in which they are found, are classified by the modern explorer. The general history is clear, but in dealing with our district one exceptional point ought to be bourne in mind; the Danes did not at first settle here nor destroy the churches of our neighbourhood in their ravages. This is shown by many lines of evidence, and it explains the persistence of Anglian traditions in south-west Yorkshire beyond the time when they failed elsewhere.