Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Bewcastle Cross - a Vaux/Vance Legend

In a little churchyard in Bewcastle in Cumberland, England, there stands one of the largest Anglo-Saxon high crosses in the British Isles.  Its connection to Vaux/Vance history has been debated for centuries, but the story of the debate still merits a place in the legends of our family surname.

The Bewcastle Cross
(picture source:  Wikimedia)

High crosses are Christian crosses intricately carved out of stone in the early medieval period as the Anglo-Saxon and Norse communities across England, Scotland and Ireland were being converted to Christianity.   Some crosses were erected at churches and monasteries, others at major cross-roads or meeting-places.  Many still stand, but Bewcastle has one of the largest and best studied.

The Bewcastle Cross is missing its head (often high crosses were topped by a Celtic cross) so only the shaft remains, standing 14 ½ feet tall in its original location.  While the rich detail of the carvings remain clear, the inscriptions are worn by time and weather and the age and origins of the Cross have been fiercely debated for centuries.

The earliest mention of the Bewcastle Cross in print is in 1607 by a man named Nicholas Roscarrock who was writing to the British historian William Camden.  Earlier editions of Camden’s works had not mentioned the Cross, and Roscarrock said (in updated English)  “If you have any occasion to speak of the Cross of Bewcastle, I have assured myself that the inscription on one side is Hubert de Vaux; [and] that the chequy coat of arms is above that on the same side.”

Arms of the de Vaux
barons of Gilsland
Hubert de Vaux had been granted the Barony of Gilsland (in northern Cumberland) by King Henry II in 1158.  This de Vaux family (see A Short History of the Vance Surname) is thought to be one origin of the Irish Vances.   And the original coat of arms of the de Vaux was a check pattern (“chequy”, in heraldic terms) of either gold and red or silver and red (see What is the Vance Coat of Arms?).

Camden may have investigated further, for his next editions include the passage “In the church-yard is a cross…neatly wrought, and having an inscription, but the letters too much consumed by time to be legible.  But the cross itself being chequered like the arms of the family of Vaux makes it probable that it was their work”.

So for the next century or two the de Vaux barons of Gilsland were given credit for erecting the Bewcastle Cross.

Much of the Cross’s carvings are clear – there is a figure of John the Baptist, holding the Lamb of God and walking on the desert hills.  Below him is Christ himself as King and law-giver, and a third figure is thought to be St. John the Evangelist.   There is a sundial on its surface that has been called “by far the earliest English sundial to survive”, divided into the four “tides” which governed the working day in medieval times.  But with their faded lettering, the inscriptions have been reinterpreted many times.

Four Sides of the Cross
(note check pattern on far left)
(picture source:  Gentleman's Magazine
ca. 1790)
Later examinations of the Cross from 1685 through 1794 concluded the inscriptions were Saxon runes which suggested that the Cross was much older than the 12th century.    Those scholars also noted the possible connection between the checkered Cross and the de Vaux coat of arms, but they stopped short of drawing any definite conclusions.  Then in the early 1800s an antiquary named Henry Howard reversed the theory and suggested that the de Vaux had themselves adopted the chequy pattern for their arms in honor of the Bewcastle Cross.   But no other evidence was found to support this.

The de Vaux association was further weakened in studies in the 1850s by John Maughan, the rector of Bewcastle, who noted that checkered patterns were common in medieval illuminated texts and artwork as far back as Egyptian, Gallic, and Roman cultures.

Maughan also had a fierce academic rivalry with a scholar named Daniel Henry Haigh over the Bewcastle Cross and through the 1850s they both published several conflicting interpretations of the cross’s inscriptions and origins.  By this time the de Vaux connection with the cross was dismissed by both as unlikely.  Maughan in particular became somewhat obsessed with his subject and apparently around 1856 even painted his interpretation of the runic letters directly on the Cross!   When he was censured by the Society of Antiquaries for this act of graffiti, Maughan indignantly fired back that he was only trying to make the letters clearer, not deface them, and that he could not even “conceive how such a puerile idea can have found a lodgment in the cranium of the antiquated patriarchs of such a renowned Society.”

The current prevailing theory is that the Cross is from the late 7th or early 8th century and possibly commemorates King Alchfrith of Deira, who around 664 made an unsuccessful bid for control of the entire area, and his wife Cyneburh.  It is speculated that Alchfrith lived in exile after 664, died in Bewcastle (his mother was a local princess) and that the memorial was organized by his half-sister Abbess Aelfflaed of Witby (d. 714).  Others though look to a slightly later date in the reign of King Eadberht (737-758).

Could the shaft’s design be the origin of the de Vaux coat of arms, as Henry Howard proposed?  Possible, but doubtful.   Firstly, there is no reason that a Saxon cross would be important to the Normans or any evidence that it was.  Hubert de Vaux’s seat of power in Gilsland was over 10 miles away at  Castlesteads near Irthington, and there is no sign that he paid much attention to Bewcastle.  Secondly, in 1158 there were already other English de Vaux knights as far away as Norfolk and while heraldry was only just being formalized, all the de Vaux nobility adopted some variation of the chequy pattern.  That certainly argues that they were a common family and while Hubert as baron of Gilsland was an important de Vaux family member, the idea that he convinced them all to adopt a pattern from a remote part of his barony suggests an unlikely level of coordination for the Middle Ages.   It is still possible, but the more likely conclusion is that the de Vaux family had already settled on a common pattern before Hubert moved to Gilsland.

The Cross still stands in its churchyard today, drawing tourists and scholars alike.  The controversy over its origins has settled down but is by no means settled.  Its association with the Norman de Vaux may be in doubt, but if you get a chance to visit Bewcastle, you can stand as people have done for hundreds of years and draw your own conclusions.  Just don’t draw them with paint.  


Bewcastle Cross, Wikipedia (website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bewcastle_Cross

Cook, Albert Stanburrough.  Some Accounts of the Bewcastle Cross between the years 1607 and 1861.   New York, Henry Holt & Co, 1914.    Google eBook at http://books.google.com/books?id=7KhAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

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