Churchyard crosses, especially in Herefordshire25th February 2019
Guest blog by Judith Leigh – Trustee, Caring for God’s Acre and member of Diocesan Advisory Committees
Historic churchyard crosses are often overlooked by visitors to churches, but they are likely to be the largest structures in a churchyard. There are important, rare, examples from the early Christian period but the more familiar ones date from post Conquest, proliferating through the medieval period until the Reformation. Together with town crosses, wayside and boundary crosses they were a very familiar site in the medieval landscape Churchyard crosses seem to have served a variety of functions, defining a sacred space, including for burial prior to the eventually widespread use of individual gravestones, and providing a focus for outdoor liturgical services and processions, particularly on Palm Sunday, and for occasional preaching.
In Herefordshire the most common form, though there are variations, comprises a roughly rectangular base of several steps, supporting a roughly square socket stone usually chamfered on top into an octagon into which is fixed a tapering stone shaft usually ending in a form of capital supporting a cross head. Surviving medieval cross heads have a variety of shapes, from the simple cross to the richly carved sculptural head, sometimes called a tabernacle. These may depict scenes of Christian iconography such as the Crucifixion, the Virgin and Child, saints and bishops. They are rare and precious, and may be the only surviving medieval figurative sculpture associated with the church. Occasionally the socket stones themselves have sculptured niches. Generally, the Herefordshire churchyard crosses are modest structures, the steps not steep and tall as they are in some areas, the shafts not towering. Most are in sight of a porch entrance and most are on the south side though there are exceptions to all these.
Many crosses lost their heads at the Reformation in the later waves of iconoclasm, but some were afterwards given a new use by the addition of a sundial; some may, even later, have been turned into War Memorials, many have since been given new cross heads. Others are fragmentary with only stone steps and/or sockets surviving. Some sockets may be empty because they are thought to have held wooden crosses. Some shafts have been renewed. The overall result may be an amalgam of different periods. It is very difficult to judge without investigation whether a cross has been moved. Most are judged to be in their original position, though some are known to have been re-sited and. parts of dismantled crosses may have been re-used.
Alfred Watkins published his seminal book The Old Standing Crosses of Herefordshire in 1930. This was an invaluable and comprehensive survey and schedule with photographs and description of each cross. Churchyard crosses (as opposed to market, wayside or village crosses) accounted for just over a hundred, a majority, of the total. Of these 43 are scheduled ancient monuments, as retaining a substantial amount of medieval fabric.
Churchyard crosses often count as a fairly low priority for repair especially when hard-pressed parishes are struggling to keep the fabric of the main building intact and indeed those that survive are generally pretty robust structures. Nevertheless, it is important to maintain them by carefully removing invasive vegetation and an experienced conservation contractor can overcome problems of structural instability or misalignment, meticulously recording what is revealed as an insight into the original construction and thus help retain this important element of surviving medieval fabric.