Passing On The Saxon Past: Some Mystifying Fragments

Wirksworth Saxon carvings

Here’s a fine thing: Saxon carvings some 1,300 years old, but recycled in the 13th century when Wirksworth’s ancient church was being rebuilt. The curious fragments have been popped into one of the main inside walls, a cobbled assemblage of ram’s head, a wolf (or boar?), a leopard-like creature, a horse, and in their midst, a royal couple (?).

It is thought the carvings came from an early Christian building or Saxon cross. Wirksworth, in Derbyshire’s Peak District (England’s East Midlands) was once part of the great Saxon kingdom of Mercia, whose kings and sub-kings held sway over much of England from CE 600 to 900.

Christianity was established there in the mid 7th century as a condition of a peace treaty between pagan Mercia and neighbouring Christian Northumbria. Northumbrian Princess Elchfrida travelled south into Mercia to marry Peada, son of Penda, the last great pagan king of Mercia. She brought with her an entourage of missionary priests, one of whom, Betti, founded the church at Wirksworth in CE 653.

So could the couple be Elchfrida and Peada? We’ll never know. Though we do know from Bede that the real-life Elchfrida later betrayed Paeda, which led to his death and the reassertion of Mercian supremacy under his brother, King Wulfhere.


Wirksworth coffin lid


The church has another mysterious Saxon treasure, known as The Wirksworth Stone. It is a coffin lid dating to around CE 800, found a thousand years later during building work. The lid covered a large skeleton whose burial position under the floor close to the altar suggests a person of high religious status, an abbot perhaps.

Wirksworth Saxon coffin lid

But looking now at these curious works, and pondering, too, on my likely Anglo-Saxon origins, I can’t help but think of the opening line from L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Wirksworth St Mary's

St. Mary’s, Wirksworth

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: statues, sculptures and carvings

35 thoughts on “Passing On The Saxon Past: Some Mystifying Fragments

    1. It makes me wonder if there are still fragments of documentary evidence lurking somewhere. A 13th century account of what was going on with the church building would shed a bit of light perhaps – hearsay history even so.

    1. It was a very fascinating era, and especially the Saxon king habit of sending out their daughters and even wives to control vast landed estates where they otherwise acted as abbesses in charge of convents. The abbess at Wirksworth in 835 was handling all the revenue from local lead mining, and sending Canterbury its cut.

      1. It is interesting isn’t it. In 7th century Wenlock we had Milburga (who after a suitable education in France) was managing a large estate that stretched from Corve Dale towards Ludlow to Madeley beyond Ironbridge. Likewise her two sisters were abbesses elsewhere in Mercia. And then their mother, queen to King Merewald (probably son of Penda) went off to Thanet to head a convent: – wives and daughters maintainingand managing political territory through godly doings and without husbands.

  1. Interesting. This incorporation of older objects was apparently pretty common. One of my favorite digs was along the old Roman road from Jerusalem to Jaffa. I knew, before they began digging that something was there because you could see an arch sticking up out of the ground.

    It was a very old church which was sitting — pillar on pillar — atop an old synagogue (5th or 6th century) that was pillar on pillar atop an even OLDER synagogue which had a complete mosaic floor showing a horoscope mandala. They bundled the floor off took the floor off to the big museum and discovered that the older synagogue was pillar on pillar atop a Canaanite temple — which they knew was there because they found pieces of it in the walls of the older synagogue. It was a very small dig as digs go and was before Israel got modern about protecting tourists. I was able to go down a tiny winding (crumbling!) staircase to the bottom and see how it all fit together. Each building had pieces of the previous building in it somewhere, except, I assume, the Canaanite one which was on bedrock. The Roman road was built on top of what must have been a lot of older ruins.

    It seems they included “pagan” stuff in the updated building to “ease people” into a newer religion. That was obvious in the Canaanite-Temple-Temple-Churches — each of which was exactly the same size as the previous one. I was REALLY excited when they started that little dig. I KNEW there was something down there.

    You have to wonder what else is under the now asphalt-paved Roman road because the land rose considerably from Canaanite times by the time the Romans arrived.

      1. Agree wholeheartedly. It was Hannah Arendt’s entire point about education – including history – since every human being has to reinvent the world from the minute s/he is born. There is no genetic transmission of memory…
        And I do believe we are in great part the podcut of those foreign selves. Which is why I like what you do about memory… It goes beyond the American concept of “Roots”.
        Kwaheri sassa Memsahib. 🙏🏻

      2. Thank you for all those very wise thoughts, Brian. That notion of no genetic transmission of memory is crucial. Never more so than now when wisdom and perspective are in such short supply. One of the great values of embracing the past, is learning to put oneself in someone else’s shoes without having a woke-outbreak of galloping heebie-jeebies.

      3. Have you read Dune by Frank Herbert? It goes beyond Science-Fiction. Some volumes are actual treaties of political “science” (If that is a science…)
        Embracing… Not just the past. Different perspectives. Enugh to understand part of the other’s “shoes”. I can be English with the English or American with the Americans. To a limit. being a mzungu means I can understand most of what a Kikuyu may have in mind. Though I will never be a Kikuyu. Or never fully a Brit. Yet, it facilitates mutual understanding.
        The past is the same. Provided one does not look at the past with today’s filters, which may be what you meant with “woke-outbreak”?
        Be good Tish. (Stands for Patricia, right=

      4. The first two volumes are great. So are heretics of Dune.
        There are many Patricias amongst my friends and relations… a Roman name if I’m not mistaken…
        Au revoir.

  2. Extraordinary and worth stopping in Wirksworth. I once came across a church in Sheffield with the remains of the wall paintings, all destroyed thanks to that Henry. But these carvings are more longstanding!

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