On 23rd July 2015, fifteen early medievalists from the University of Nottingham set off to tour the “old stones” of Derbyshire. “Old stones” may seem like a strikingly unspecific term, but we needed a title that covered a Neolithic stone-circle, a great number of stone crosses and cross-shafts, and other examples of medieval stone carving. The majority of what we visited consisted of Anglo-Saxon stone work, and it was with such a piece that we began our trip.
The cross-shaft in the churchyard of All Saints at Brailsford features a carving of a seated warrior with a sword across his lap and a shield in his hand – much comment was made on the endearingly benign expression on this warrior’s face. Paul Cavill reminded us of the scene in Beowulf in which the feud between the Frisians and the Danes is reignited by the placing of a sword in Hengest’s lap.
Our next stop was St Bartholomew’s Church in the village of Hognaston. Above the entrance to the church is an early medieval carving of what appears to be a shepherd holding a crook amongst miscellaneous animals – some more easily identifiable than others. We discussed whether it was more likely that the figure actually represented the “metaphorical” shepherd; that is, a bishop with his crozier and congregation.
There was much to see at All Saints Church, Bradbourne. Perhaps most impressive was a cross-shaft in the grave-yard, which featured on one side the crucifixion and on the other a group of less easily identifiable figures. The crucifixion scene includes very recognisable iconography. There is a figure either side of Christ, one piercing his side with a spear, the other collecting the blood. The sun and the moon on either side of the cross will be familiar to any students of crucifixion paintings in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, in which the celestial bodies can frequently be seen hiding their faces. There was also a mausoleum or crypt in the graveyard, which we were unable to date, but could potentially have been Anglo-Saxon, and the church itself featured a Norman frieze of beasts around one of the doorways.
Arbor Low proved to be quite a different stop. After trekking through a farmyard and over a short stretch of moorland, we came upon the Neolithic stone-circle (header image). All the stones are lying down, with an outer circle surrounding a number of stones in the centre. The views across Derbyshire from the monument were impressive, as were those from the nearby Gib Hill, an earlier burial mound. Though we were all very grateful that Eleni Ponirakis arranged the trip so splendidly, we were perhaps less appreciative of the painfully sour sherbet lemons she insisted we eat while our group photo was taken at Arbor Low…Click here to see the photo!
Lunch was the much awaited next stop on our journey. We had a hearty meal at the Royal Oak, Hurdlow; perhaps it was something in the Derbyshire air, but nearly everyone seemed tempted by the fantastically large pies. We set off towards Wheston, each vehicle a little heavier than before. In Wheston we saw a stone cross, probably fourteenth century, which depicted the crucifixion on one side, and on the other what seemed to be a virgin and child. Gathered around the cross, we ate the waffles that Eleni had also kindly provided.
From Wheston we went on to Eyam, the village known for quarantining itself during the plague in the seventeenth century. In the churchyard of St Lawrence’s we discovered the slightly mistitled ‘Celtic cross’, which is an eighth to ninth-century cross, carved with what appears to be Mary and the baby Jesus, among other images. We also spent some time inside the church looking at its wall paintings and learning about Eyam during the plague.
Our last stop was St Mary’s Church in Wirksworth. Though essentially a thirteenth-century structure, remains of Anglo-Saxon stone carvings stud the interior walls. To the side of the entrance is a carving of what seems to be a king and queen, the queen with her body in the shape of a heart, surrounded by separate carvings of animals.
Elsewhere, the upper part of a male figure stands beside a snake’s head whose jaws are closing around an apple; it is very tempting to see this as Adam. Similarly impressive is the carving of a miner, in keeping with Wirksworth’s history as a centre for lead mining. Perhaps most striking, however, is the Wirksworth Stone, a fabulously preserved coffin lid found in the churchyard in the nineteenth century, which depicts scenes from the Bible.
Amy Faulkner is just finishing her master’s degree in Viking and Anglo-Saxon Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her MA dissertation examines the depiction of scribes in Insular manuscripts, and questions the extent to which this reflects actual scribal transmission.