Churchyard Cross


Friends of St Mary's Church, Cricklade, Wiltshire, U.K.


Chairman: Hugh Dudley, 4 Pleydells, Cricklade, SWINDON, SN6 6NG

Secretary: Gerry Dudley, 4 Pleydells, Cricklade, SWINDON, SN6 6NG

Treasurer: Tony Barratt, 13 Boundary Close, Stratton, SWINDON, SN2 7TF


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The following is an article written by Edmund Lee for the Cricklade Historical Society Bulletin - Bulletin No. 3, Volume IV, February 2002. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Cricklade Historical Society. The same article, without the drawings, appears in Newsletter No. 3.


The Churchyard Cross at St. Mary's

The cross in the churchyard at St Mary's is the most elaborate example of medieval sculpture in the town. Certainly it stands in contrast to the interior of St Mary's church which, apart from the Norman chancel arch has very little ornamentation. Its importance in terms of the national heritage is recognised by its status as both a 'scheduled ancient monument' and a 'listed building'. What does the cross tell us about the medieval history of the church?

Well, for a start, it isn't a cross in the conventional sense at all. A small iron cross surmounts the sculpture, but this is certainly a later addition, possibly Victorian. The sculpture is technically a 'lantern', consisting of a square stone column about twice as high as it is wide set on top of a tapering shaft, giving the sculptor four panels to carve, each separated by a stone 'frame' supported on the backs of four angels. The sculpture stands on an octagonal base of three steps.

No references are made to the lantern-cross in early documents. The first representation of the cross is as late as 1810, when it appears in the watercolour of the church by Buckler, now in the Wiltshire County Archives. At that time the churchyard wall did not exist, and the lantern formed the centrepiece of a small public space, open to the street to the East, bounded to the North by the church, to the West by the church porch, and to the South by the buildings of the High Street. The first antiquarian description of the sculpture was made in the late nineteenth century by Ponting who identified the West facing carving as depicting the Crucifixion, and the South being the Assumption of the Virgin. Ponting did not identify the East and North facing panels, describing them only as a 'Queen and Knight' and a 'Bishop with crozier'. Later accounts have for the most part followed Ponting's description.

The fact that the Crucifixion faces away from the street has led some commentators to suggest that the carved lantern has at some date been reset the 'wrong' way round, and that this scene would have originally faced the street. Certainly the cross has been repaired at various dates.

The shaft is probably not original, but itself shows signs of patching. In the early part of this century it was blown down in a storm. Parish records include a book recording donations from the local parishioners for its repair.

However, a little further research into the two unidentified panels suggests that we are in fact seeing the lantern as originally intended. The 'Queen and Knight' facing the street was suggested to be a depiction of the Annunciation in the 1940s, and an inspection of the Bishop with crozier shows there is a second figure or group of figures to the West of the bishop, though much damaged. If this is also a Biblical scene, it may in fact be the presentation of Christ at the Temple, with the 'Bishop' being St Simeon. If this is the case, then what we have here are not scenes from the life of Christ but from the life of the Virgin Mary, starting at the Annunciation facing the street, and proceeding anti-clockwise around the sculpture in chronological sequence, ending with the Assumption.

Though damaged now, the style of what remains of the carvings suggests a date for the lantern in the 14th century. The presence of the lantern here at that date supports the assumption that the church itself was dedicated to St Mary during the medieval period, further strengthening the possible connection of the church with Abingdon Abbey (also dedicated to St Mary) mentioned in an earlier article. Abingdon Abbey was in fact a major centre of medieval ecclesiastical sculpture. The famous 'Eleanor crosses' erected to commemorate the death of Queen Eleanor, wife to Edward I, in the early 14th century (most famously at King's Cross in London) are attributed to a monk from this abbey. It is tempting to think that our lantern is perhaps also the gift of a major benefactor, perhaps commissioned from the abbey that had such a strong connection with the town.

Edmund Lee


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