AN INTRODUCTION TO THE OTLEY PRE-CONQUEST STONE FRAGMENTS
In 1886 Mr C J Newstead of the local Archaeological Society gave a lecture about the history of Otley Parish Church. In his lecture he observed that Otley was one of the great Saxon parishes and cited the Domesday description of Otley having ‘a church and a priest’ in 1085. The first structure erected in Otley would probably have been made of wood possibly with a thatched roof and may well have been subsequently destroyed by fire. The existence, date and foundation of such a building cannot be firmly established but it is not unlikely that the first church in Otley was built during the eighth or ninth centuries.
Following a chequered history, most of England was nominally Christian by the end of the seventh century. In Yorkshire the three minsters of York, Beverley and Ripon sent missionaries to remote and outlying villages where they taught, preached to and baptized people. They were taught in the open air. When the village became Christian large stone crosses were put in a convenient place where the villagers could continue to meet the missionaries until such times as a church was built.
Our cross fragments are witnesses of the early Christian community in Otley. In 1931 Otley Parish Church held celebrations to mark its 1300th anniversary. Charles Walker, who wrote the souvenir booklet to accompany the celebrations, did acknowledge that ‘the origin of Otley Church is almost lost in the annals of antiquity’ and that maybe a foundation date of 631 was a little too precise given the limited evidence available but he also emphasised that our Anglian cross fragments are clear evidence of a very long history of religious observance on the site where the Parish Church now stands. The fragments are of a much greater age than any part of the current church building.
The fragments of pre-Conquest crosses and grave covers have lived through turbulent times and received some rough treatment. Some pieces of the crosses were scattered around the churchyard whilst others had been used as filling in the walls and chancel arch and were recovered during the nineteenth century restorations of Otley Parish Church.
The Otley fragments date from the late eighth century to the eleventh century and show the transition between the Anglian and Danish styles. Professor R W Collingwood has described the Evangelist Cross (fragments 1a, 1b and 1c) as one of the finest and most artistic works of its kind in Britain. Its design, drawing and carving are of the highest quality and point to a time when Anglo-Saxon carvers learnt from the beautiful decorative work of Italy where this kind of art work flourished.
The cross and grave cover fragments, once discovered and identified, have been put on display in various locations in the church including what is now the Parish Room and the area near the Fairfax tomb. Sadly it was not possible to leave the crosses on display during the recent reordering of the church and they had to be moved into storage on the mezzanine. With the completion of the reordering it has now been possible to put the crosses back on public display.
Otley Parish Church is and will remain a place of Christian worship and not a museum. The stone fragments on display, as well as being beautiful works of art, remind us of the many people who have worshipped here over the centuries.
THE FUNCTIONS OF PRE-CONQUEST STONE CROSSES
Freestanding crosses, frequently heavily decorated, were erected in a variety of locations in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries AD. They are found throughout western and northern England, although they are particularly concentrated in the north.
Surviving examples are all of carved stone but it is known that decorated timber crosses were also used for similar purposes. Such crosses comprise shafts supporting carved cross-heads. They might be set within a carved stone base. The cross-heads were frequently small, the broad cross-shafts being the main feature of the cross.
They were erected in a variety of locations and appear to have served a variety of functions. Some are associated with established churches and monasteries and may mark burial places, focal points used in religious services, or the boundaries of ecclesiastical land-holdings. Others may have marked route-ways or other gathering points for local communities.
All examples tend to be heavily decorated, the patterns and ornament used drawing on wider artistic traditions of the time. Patterns of interlace are common, some depicted as ‘vine- scrolls’, tendrils of growth of the grape vine, sometimes complete with leaves. On the most developed examples this ‘vine-scroll’ is shown to be inhabited by a variety of birds and animals. Panels depicting figures and animals are also commonly found; on occasion these depict Biblical scenes or personages. This carved ornamentation was often painted in a variety of colours, although traces of these colourings now survive only rarely.
The earliest examples were created and erected by native communities; later examples were heavily influenced by Viking art styles and mythology and their creation can be related to the Viking infiltration and settlement of the north of England. Several distinct regional groupings and types have been identified, some being the product of single ‘schools’ of craftsmen.
Around 200 examples of such crosses have been identified. This is likely to represent only a small portion of those originally erected. Some were defaced or destroyed during bouts of iconoclasm in the late medieval period. Others fell out of use and were taken down and re-used in new building works.
They provide an important insight into art-traditions and changing art-styles. The figured panels provide information on religious beliefs. The Viking period stones contribute to studies of the impact of the Scandinavian newcomers into the north of England. All well preserved examples are identified as nationally important.
DISPLAYING OUR PRE CONQUEST STONE FRAGMENTS
It is now over four years since we began moves to put our stone crosses and grave covers on display having been put in storage on the mezzanine following the reordering of the church. In February 2017 a project enquiry form was submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund asking for about £70,000 to allow us to put the fragments on display and fund the related activities that were needed in order to get a grant.
In the end we didn’t pursue the application for a grant because it became clear as the process unfolded that the ‘related activities’ would have required a massive commitment of time and effort from a large number of members of the congregation and we felt it was unfair to expect this.
At the Heritage Open Days Weekend in 2018 we were informed by one of the visitors to the church of a firm in Liverpool called Museum Exhibition Services that specialised in the sort of project we wanted to undertake and we began a correspondence with Peter Edge and David Whitty from that organisation. Eventually, in early 2019, they came over to talk to us and to look at the fragments with a view to making suggestions about how they could be displayed and what it might cost.
By November 2019 we felt we had everything we needed to submit an application for a faculty and this was put together and sent off. It took a while for the faculty to be approved but eventually permission was granted on November 12th 2020 a year after it had been submitted
Why was it important to put these fragments back on display? The place where Otley Parish Church now stands has been a site of Christian worship for over 1,300 years and our cross fragments which date from the 8th to the 11th centuries link us with past worshippers in the town
Our fragments have lived through turbulent times and received some rough treatment but now they are on display for present and future generations to enjoy. The magnificent Evangelists’ Cross and Dragon Cross were installed in internally lit display cases before Christmas 2020 and the remaining four fragments were put on the wall of the south aisle on Thursday March 11th 2021. We hope that our fragments will now be kept safe and that they will inspire present and future generations of worshippers and visitors.
THE EVANGELISTS’ CROSS
In the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculptures these fragments are described as ‘one of the finest monuments surviving from pre-Viking Northumbria’.
These fragments of an incomplete cross-shaft date from the late 8th century. The stone is sandstone, possibly sandstone available on the Chevin.
On one of the faces of the main fragment, there are two main sections and in each section there is the depiction of the head and shoulders of figures each holding a book. The carving is clear and very detailed in every aspect of the figures and the clothing. They are depicted with cropped hair and cowl-like garments which may be representations of two of the four evangelists.
On the other face, there are panels with each panel taking the form of one element of a medallion plant-scroll as a frame for a figure. Below the top panel is a broad plain area large enough for a painted inscription. At the bottom of this fragment you can just see the top of a head.
On one of the sides of the main fragment the whole face had a continuous inhabited plant scroll with a strong sinuous stem. The inhabitants are birds facing left and pecking at fruit. At the bottom there is a left facing quadruped also eating fruit.
On the other side of the fragment there is a continuous interlaced medallion plant scroll cut with rounded fleshy stems.
If you look carefully at the two smaller fragments you might be able to find a headless quadruped leaping upwards; the wings of an angel with a figure kneeling at the angel’s feet and a left facing bird whose wing feathers are especially clear.
THE DRAGON CROSS
In the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture it is said that ‘it is impossible to parallel the rampant creatures on the two faces elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon sculpture. There are fantastic beasts in plenty but rarely rendered so solidly, in such relief and on so large a scale.’
This fragment of an incomplete cross-shaft dates from the early 9th century and the stone is millstone grit, possibly Guiseley grit.
One of the faces shows a creature facing to the right. It has the head and body of a large bird though it’s feet are more like an animal’s than a bird’s. It has a dragon like tail ending in a tip like a large pointed veined leaf. The bottom part of this face shows a nimbed figure framed on the right by a plant stem. The figure wears an undergarment.
On the other face the left facing creature is more dragon like than that on the first face. The hatching on the back of its head and neck indicates a main. Its wing is feathered and it has toes on its foot. The head at the bottom has a dished nimbus and you can see traces of hair and ears on both sides.
One expert has described these creatures as wyverns or at least wyvern-like.
On the left side of the fragment you can see an animal interlace in which two creatures – one with its head on the top left hand corner and the other with its head in the bottom right – are linked by the twining of their tails and lower limbs.
On the right hand side there is a continuous double stranded interlace very finely cut. At the bottom there is part of the head of a figure.
The cross fragment numbered 3 in the illustration dates back to the 10th century. The stone is millstone grit possibly mined in the Guiseley area.
The carving is an example of an animal interlocked in bands developed from its own limbs.
If you look carefully at the fragment you can spot a dog like head in the upper left hand corner. It has a nick in its upper jaw and an incised oval eye. Its head and long neck and its body form two strong diagonals from one side of the face to the other. Its foreleg lies along the right hand side of the shaft and its hind quarters are at the bottom of the panel on the left. The animal is tangled in the kind of interlace you see on the sides of the fragment.
The design would appeal to the Scandinavian taste in the 10th century. This is the only certain example of the interlocked animal / beast chain in the West Riding.
The cross fragment numbered 4 in the illustration dates back to the 10thcentury and, like many of our stone fragments, the stone is millstone grit possibly mined in the Guiseley area.
On the face of the fragment you can see the remains of two panels. The upper is incomplete at the top and has irregular interlace or twist inside a broad inner border which survives on two sides and below. This border is not quite horizontal at the bottom but curves down to a point at the left, and the left side also curves inwards quite markedly near the top. It may be the element of a pattern rather than a frame. The lower panel has interlace with a bar terminal at the top.
The panelled layout and the controlled if simplified plant scroll suggest a deliberate attempt to recreate an earlier Anglian style and look back to earlier Otley works
The cross fragment numbered 5 in the illustration also dates from the 10thcentury but, in this case, the stone is sandstone, possibly sandstone available on Otley Chevin.
The face of the fragment is covered with close packed irregular carvings.
The carving is shallow and crudely incised and encroaches on the uncarved square edges so it can’t properly be said to have edge mouldings.
The fragment numbered 12 in the illustration is an incomplete grave marker rather than part of a cross. It is the youngest of our stone fragments and dates from the 11th century.
Like some of the older fragments the stone is the type of sandstone available on Otley Chevin.
The fragment is one end of a slab. The end is rounded in a shallow curve and the carved area has an incised border which follows the outline of the slab so that the end has a shallow curve. The decoration is all incised. Only one face is carved and the edges are plain.
The main part of the slab has two pairs of curling tendrils. The inner tendrils are joined by three parallel incised lines while three double incised lines connect the outer tendrils to the frame.
The decoration is a debased form of a style of decoration called Ringerike which originated in the Ringerike district of Norway. Pieces in this style are rare in England outside the London area and experts comment that the existence of this fragment in Otley ‘speaks volumes for the widespread connections of 11thcentury York.’
The texts in this booklet are based on descriptions and analyses in ‘The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture Volume VIII Western Yorkshire’ edited by Elizabeth Coatsworth. They are used with permission of the British Academy.
Otley Parish Church would like to thank the following people for their contribution in putting our pre-Conquest stone fragments on display.
- Allan Boddy for leading the project to display our pre-Conquest stone fragments.
- Barry Milner for negotiating with the Diocese for approval for the project.
- David and Whitty and Museum Exhibition Services of Liverpool for creating the display cabinets for the Evangelist’ and Dragon crosses and for creating the supports for the fragments on the wall of the south aisle.
- Martyn Smith for designing the information panels and the roller banner and for taking the photographs on the information panels.
- Digital Plus for creating the information panels and roller banner.