26 April 2014


St Leonard's Church. Thrybergh
Before satnav, before road atlases, before tarmac and before signposts - travel around England must have been very difficult. To alleviate some of this navigational difficulty, our forebears were in the habit of erecting stone columns at key points - at crossroads or on hills where they could be spotted by travellers. Some of these stone columns served other purposes too. They defined parishes or the ownership of land. They warded off evil spirits.

When Christianity arrived in England, our existing ancient stone edifices or guide stoops were cunningly re-christened as "crosses" but mostly they had nothing to do with Christianity. More "crosses" were erected through Saxon times and the middle ages - right through to the nineteenth century for as the years passed there was increasing trade between communities, more private land possession and more movement across the landscape.

On my countryside rambles, I have photographed many of these ancient stones. I know that lots of them have been destroyed or removed by thoughtless men or new road developers - insensitive to the breath of history. Thankfully, others endure giving a tantalizing glimpse of the way things were, arousing imagination.

Yesterday, I wandered into the churchyard of St Leonard's in Thrybergh near Rotherham. The church - currently enjoying some much needed restoration - can trace its origins back to 900AD and possibly earlier than that - long, long before Thrybergh was turned into a godforsaken pit village with cheap rows of cottages and coaldust everywhere.

As I left the churchyard, I noticed a very old cross in the lee of the boundary wall. It was "fenced off" with some red and white tape - presumably indicating restorative work in progress. There were various carvings on it - including Celtic or Saxon patterning on the edges and what seemed to be a man holding a book on the front. I knew it wasn't a gravestone.

Back home, research revealed that that cross used to stand on East Hill, Thrybergh and was removed to the graveyard in 1947. Indeed, there seem to be two phases of carving upon it - the edges probably carved in Saxon times and the front section - including the man with the book - carved in the twelfth century. Furthermore, there were once local legends about this stone - surrounding an early crusader and nobleman  from the district - called Leonard. That story was captured in a narrative poem in 1817, published in an early Victorian anthology called "Wild Warblings":-

The Poem

Where dawn first harbinger of day,
Sheds her pale light of sober gray,
And sol's resplendent majesty,
Shines forth o'er mountain tow'r, and tree;
Then up the lark with ardour springs,
And shakes the dewdrop from his wings,
And all the woodland choirs unite,
In grateful songs to hail the light,
Till rocks, and woods, and hills around,
Re-echo with the rural sound,
But stop my music to whither run?
Tis time the story was begun.
This admonitation did prevail,
So what next follows is the tale.

On rising eminence there stands,
A stone long plae'd by unknown hands,
Of rude design and form antique,
Sculptured o'er with hieroglyphie,
Which cannot now with ease be traced,
Being by some rude Goths defaced.
Tradition says there was a knight,
Sir Leonard call'd of valorous might,
That would in foreign climes go roam,
And leave his rib to sigh at home,
Full many a weary step had he,
Full many a sleepless night had she,
He many a cross adventure met, 
She nothing did but sob and fret,
This irksome life for years she led,
Til she believed her lord was dead,
But he was groaning all the while,
[ Poor hapless wretch] in durance vile.

The sorrowing Dame now dries her tears,
For lo! a suitor gay appears,
With winning aspect graceful air,
Quite degagee, and debonair,
Who laid close siege to her in form,
To win her heart though not by storm,
But sap'd the mine by craving pity,
And sighing forth his love-lorn ditty,
Which soon the fortress strong subdued,
And full surrender quick ensued.
The ring was bought, the day was set,
And friends and priest at alter met,
To solomnize the nuptial rite,
And tie this loving couple tight.
When Priest was joining both their hands,
In hymens soft and silky bands,
Sir Leonards voice smote every ear,
With thund'ring sound:" Oh priest forbear,
"The sacred rite!- to end all strife,
"The lady is MY LAWFUL WIFE.

Aghast all stood, and sore amazed,
And on each other gaped and gazed,
In wild dismay, until the knight,
March'd off with madam from their sight.
The wondering party were perplexed,
And greatly puzzled and much vexed,
At being dup'd, as none could tell,
Whether from Heaven or dreadful hell,
He sprang to light;-to them he seemed,
Not mortal, being dead long deemed.
To end the story now in hand,
He came into his native land,
By fairy's spell or wizard's wand,
Tradition says; and does declare,
Like witch on broomstick through the air,
And safe upon the spot he alighted,
Where stands the stone before recited.

James Ross 1817
St. Leonards Cross
How magnificent that this old cross has survived the centuries but how frustrating that it cannot speak nor reveal memories of  all that it witnessed as years melted into years and  far more than a thousand summers passed by. Empires rose and fell, wars were lost or won, kings and queens succeeded each other, the corners of the world were explored...and still the stone endures.


  1. YP, this is a fascinating post - thank you so much.I want to visit this place now.

    If you ever get the opportunity, take a trip over to Lythe church, near Whitby. It too has stones that pre-date Christianity and one of the very first 'green man' representations. I know that you would enjoy seeing it.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. You are right. All things pagan thrill me and The Green Man is woven into English culture like a golden thread. Lythe - I will remember that next time I am up there.

  2. I too love and admire these.
    There is a good example in Bakewell churchyard; it's to the left of the door and a few yards towards town.
    I suspect not all the carving was Saxon, some of these look Norse to me but there again what do I know.

    1. Next time I'm in Bakewell I'll make a point of visiting the churchyard. Thanks for the tip sir.

  3. This is so much like something out of the book I read and reviewed the other day, "Vanishing England" (in case you missed it, the post is here: http://librarianwithsecrets.blogspot.de/2014/04/read-in-2014-12-vanishing-england.html ) !
    The author of that book has dedicated an entire chapter to crosses, and has quite a few fascinating and interesting stories to tell about the ones that still existed in his day, as well as the ones that had already vanished then.

    1. Thank you Arian. I read your post and I understand why you connected the book with my post. In modern house building so many regional differences are being erased but in "Vanishing England" the writer reflects on "the wondrous variety caused by the different nature of the materials used, the peculiar stone indigenous in various districts and the individuality stamped upon them by traditional modes of building." You can still see those differences in older buildings but modern house construction seems to be the same the whole country over.

  4. Crosses are/were all well and good but my (alcoholic) uncle used to give out directions by way of pubs. He could direct you from Elsecar to Cleethorpes this way; turn left at the Dirty Duck, go straight on to the Four Flying Pigs, etc - and, unsurprisingly, he could also name most of the landlords. Times have changed.

    1. Is "The Four Flying Pigs" next to the police station?

    2. ...I thought it was called "The Four Lying Pigs"!

    3. ... *thinks "Hillsborough disaster"*

    4. "A pint of pig swill my good man!"

  5. When I saw the title I wondered what on earth you were irate about this time. Good to know that you aren't.

    1. "Peace and love man!" - that's my motto.

  6. Interesting post, YP, although, seeing the title of your post on my sidebar, I thought it was going to be a rant. ;)

    1. I am full of the joys of spring Jenny. Why would I be ranting?

  7. We we have a similar prayer cross in our churchyard
    It predates the church by a three hundred years...

    1. I wonder if it has always stood there or was it moved from elsewhere like the cross at Thrybergh?

  8. Guess people take these treasures for granted when they pass by them every day. They don't know how lucky they are to live amidst such ancient treasures.

    1. The aboriginal treasures of Australia are mostly invisible - concealed in the trees and the hills, whispering through the undergrowth, written in the dust, shimmering in the heat haze.


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