Monday, 29 April 2013

In the Footsteps of Forkbeard. Part 1.

I began writing this blog after a visit to Holy Trinity Church in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, at the beginning of the year. I had been prompted to visit by the advent of the 1000-year anniversary of Sweyn's accession to the English throne, and by my recollection of a link between Sweyn and Eccleshall. I was unable to remember the source that established this link in my mind: ten years had passed since my last visit, and I could find amongst my papers no copy of a church guide or any other text that might have set up this connection in my mind. My copy of A Guide to some Staffordshire Churches, ed. by D. J. Simkin (1983), in its entry for Eccleshall refers to a time 'after the Danish raids of 1010', when 'the ancient church lay in ruins', but this is the most explicit reference to Eccleshall in connection with Forkbeard's raids that I have been able to find within my own book collection. My intention in visiting the church again was to find out if anything had changed in the intervening decade: was the alleged raid of 1010 commemorated in the church in any way?

The current church was built long after Sweyn's time, but preserves within its fabric three fragments of Anglo-Saxon stonework, re-used as building material by later masons. All three carved stones were probably once part of cross-shaped monuments. Two of these are very worn, but the third retains enough detail for us to make out three separate subjects: from top to bottom, we see part of an interlace design, a mounted figure with upturned face carrying a spear, and another human figure holding a cross, also looking upwards. These pieces probably predate the year of the raid, and it is tempting to see them as the shattered remains of a church plundered by Vikings. If Sweyn was indeed here in 1010, these monuments (which belong to a type variously identified as grave markers or preaching crosses, and which originally would have been brightly painted) might have greeted him on his approach to the churchyard. Perhaps their Christian message so offended his pagan eye that he ordered them pulled down as he departed.

Fragment of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, Holy Trinity, Eccleshall

The presence of fragmentary Anglo-Saxon sculpture in a church, however, does not necessarily corroborate a narrative of Viking destruction. Although guidebooks and other sources often make passing reference to Viking attacks when discussing Anglo-Saxon sculptural treasures to be found embedded in the church walls (presumably salvaged from the ashes of an earlier building demolished by heathen raiders), the recycling of earlier monumental stonework by the builders of medieval churches was not at all uncommon, and the practice seems to have taken place even at those locations where pre-existing structures and their sculptural fittings almost certainly did not come to a violent end, in the course of a Viking raid or some other catastrophe. Sometimes this reuse was casual, with the stone used because it happened to be the right size and shape to plug a gap; sometimes the stone was set into its new context in such a way as to draw attention to the designs on the side left exposed. Either way, the stone had outlived its original function, and found itself called into service as a building block.

Holy Trinity, as it turns out, does not currently celebrate or commemorate the events of 1010, and I am beginning to form the opinion that the basis for doing so would be very slight indeed. Although the Eccleshall / Sweyn connection remains tenuous, the opportunity to see and photograph the Anglo-Saxon sculpture at Holy Trinity set me thinking about the other visible, material remains of Sweyn's time in the British Isles. Of all the things that Sweyn would have seen around him in his travels through Britain, the stonework of the period has proved the most durable. It is also the most accessible for anyone wanting to get close-up to a relic of the Viking era. I decided to review the various photographs of Viking-era (and earlier) stonework that I had snapped on my iphone over the preceding twelve months, in an attempt to evoke the material culture of Sweyn's time, and to give a flavour of the sorts of images and iconography that he would have seen all about him. 

Hogback stone, Govan Old Parish Church

There can be few places in Britain better suited to evoking the visual riches of a Viking capital than Govan Old Parish Church in the suburbs of Glasgow. I have been lucky enough to visit on a couple of occasions in the last 18 months, as York Archaeological Trust staff contribute to an ongoing effort to reinterpret and redisplay the church's fabulous collection of Viking-era sculpture for the benefit of a wider audience. For anyone with an interest in the Viking period, the Govan stones are a must-see. The thirty individual pieces, thought to have been carved in the tenth and eleventh centuries, adorned the churchyard of the principal religious house of the kingdom of Strathclyde; many were probably grave markers, designed to cover the graves of the rulers of the kingdom. The former capital of the kingdom, the fortress at Dumbarton Rock, had fallen to a Viking army in 870; re-established at Govan, the capital seems to have had a distinctly Viking flavour, as is best exemplified by the stones, including five massive 'hogbacks'. These longhouse-shaped grave markers, gripped at either end by a ferocious beast of some kind (in other examples these animals are clearly bears), only use conventional Christian iconography in that they may have been inspired by building-shaped reliquaries (shrines for holding saints' relics): they are otherwise found almost exclusively in those places where Viking settlement took place, in all probability at a time when full conversion to Christianity was still a work in progress.

Barbara E. Crawford of the University of St Andrews had the following to say in a conference paper delivered at Perth in 2002 (the full text is available here: 

Very few raids against Scotland are recorded from the Second Viking Age. Maybe there was enough to occupy the raiders in England. Maybe there was not enough wealth in the form of silver coin to attract them to Scotland! Maybe Swein had some convenient mutual arrangement with one of the kings in the north, for the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, records in the later eleventh century that Swein had taken refuge with a ‘king of Scots’ after his father died in 986. Whatever the reason, Scotland/Alba appears to have been immune from the threat of Danish attack in the second Viking Age. 

This account of Sweyn's sojourn(s) with a friendly king in Scotland may be reason enough for us to imagine him at the royal court of Strathclyde, in the surroundings suggested by the Govan stones. More on the collection of stonework at Govan can be found here: . Tim Clarkson's excellent blogs are also worth a look, here: ; and here: .

I am fortunate enough to have more of this stonework on my doorstep in York, including pieces that share obvious stylistic similarities with grave slabs at Govan. I've been able to snap many of these pieces in the course of my everyday business in the city, and have reproduced below a couple of examples from my iphone's picture gallery.

Grave slab from St Mary Bishophill Senior, now at St Clement's, York

This grave slab from the demolished church of St Mary Bishophill Senior is now found in St Clement's church. It shares obvious parallels with the grave slabs from Govan, all of which conform to a particular design, with a central cross dividing the upper face into four panels, each filled with interlace. St Mary Bishophill Senior stood on the south bank of the River Ouse, at a site which may have once been the seat of the earliest bishops of York. The presence of a grave slab of this kind suggests the burial there of high-ranking individuals, either churchmen or noblemen or women.

Another example from York is found in the church of All Saints, Pavement, and is pictured below. Small enough to have once covered the grave of a child, here the interlace designs are formed by the sinuous and knotted bodies of the dragon-like creatures so favoured by Viking-era carvers in stone, instead of the more abstract patterns seen at Govan and St Mary Bishophill Senior. Look closely and you'll be able to see several of the creatures; they have gaping mouths, and some have wings and projecting tongues. The Christian content of the imagery on display here is not obvious: the central 'cross' (now damaged) lacks arms, and may never have had any.

Grave slab, All Saints Pavement, York

Although not necessarily datable to Sweyn's lifetime, these pieces of stonework remind us of the richness of the visual culture of Sweyn's Britain, and express something of the beliefs of his contemporaries and immediate ancestors. They hint at a degree of ambiguity in attitudes towards conversion and Christianity in the years following Viking settlement in northern Britain. More obviously, however, they remind us that although once the despoilers of churches and their treasures, the Vikings and their descendants in time became the patrons of churches and creators of religious artwork. The process of conversion from 'practising pagan' to 'fully Christian' can be traced across three generations of Sweyn's own family, and will be the focus of a future blog post.