‘The Doom of the gods’ is not something you expect when you visit a village church. St. Mary’s in Gosforth has many of the normal requisites: church bells, stained glass, tombstones, and more.
It also has some very unusual and rather special things.
Chief among these is a fourteen and a half foot tall ancient cross. This slender sandstone wonder has been standing here since between 920 and 950 AD. That makes it the oldest and tallest Viking cross in England.
Amazing, isn’t it? That it is still standing in this small churchyard, that you can still see the carvings on the weathered stone, that it isn’t in a museum somewhere.
You can touch it, feel the grains of blushing sand and wonder who carved it, and what stories it could tell.
Nearby is the base of what was, presumably, another similar cross. Remnants within the church, and old records, tell that there may have been as many as four such crosses of a similar style and size.
The cross starts off with a cylindrical stylized tree base thought to represent Yggdrasil, ancient Scandinavia’s mythical ‘Tree of Life’. It is carved with dragons, Loki, Thor, beasts and monsters. Oh my.
Yet it is undeniably a cross, and it also carries carvings of Christ’s crucifixion.
We can only wonder and surmise what this and the other bits and pieces mean. The Vikings quickly converted to Christianity as they settled the west coast of Cumbria.
Could the cross(es) have been used to explain the story of Christ in terms that the new inhabitants understood?
There has been some sort of Christian place of worship on this site since the 8th century. That’s near enough to 1,300 years!
The current church building is late Victorian, 1897 AD, if the front edifice is correct.
The Victorians are known for preserving ancient sites or buildings; they destroyed quite a bit with their ‘improvements’ up and down the country. They did preserve some of the ancient stonework from the previous Norman (12th century) church, most notably the sandstone arches throughout.
You might think it unremarkable, and not explore further.
Don’t make that mistake. There are other treasures.
There are two splendid ‘hogback’ stones. Unique to northern Britain and thought to be shaped like Viking boat-shaped houses. Historians and archaeologists generally agree that hogback stones served as grave markers.
There are further smaller treasures dotted throughout St. Mary’s. You’ll have to visit yourself to see them.
There’s so much to see, learn, enjoy in Cumbria. Hope you enjoyed this Viking history teasel, I mean teaser. (I’m a silly Herdy Girl, sometimes.)