In the churchyard of St Mary’s Parish Church Whalley, are three substantial sized Viking age crosses. Over the last thousand years they have been knocked down, broken up, and used as field fence posts. What we see today are re-erected shafts, some topped with mismatched heads. They are worth a visit at anytime of day or year, but you can best see the fainter intricate carvings when the sun is low in the sky, casting shadows.
Starting with the largest of the three, (pictured to the left): A human figure can be made out on the broad, least worn side, with arms raised and perhaps a halo around its head. Two snakes flank the figure either side. A bird can be made out in the panel above the figure and most intriguingly an animal turning around to look at its tail. On the opposite side is a very faint human figure, and a hole from where the cross was used as a fence post or farm gate.The thin sides of the cross reveal ornate interlace and knot work patterns. The shaft dates probably from the tenth century. The cross head does not belong to this shaft, but is of the Viking Lancashire era.
The second cross in the churchyard is very different in appearance and is perhaps of the later Viking era (eleventh century). No figures of humans or animals, but huge scrolls cover the main body, along with zigzag and triangular patterns. Each of the four sides of this cross shaft are impressive and worthy of careful examination. The cross head could well belong to the shaft, although its clear that a large part of the upper shaft is missing. The impressive socket stone the cross sits in has a dog tooth pattern, similar to ones on the shaft, which implies it could well be the original.
The third Viking age cross is a very odd looking monument. Firstly, the cross head on top is of a late medieval date, so nothing to do with the Viking shaft below. The shaft is set in a large double socket stone, but it is not known if this is the original. The second socket of the stone has been cut away at some unknown date. Double socket stones are rare, but there is one in Haslingden (click here to view the site). The top and bottom of the original shaft are missing, and the markings on the rest are very faint. However, in the right light two human figures side by side can be seen. The shaft dates from the 10th Century.
A few more fragments of Viking age crosses can be seen in the stonework of the church itself both on the outside and the inside, and other pieces are also stored within the church. One of the easiest pieces to observe is found in the south wall just opposite the double socketed cross described above. It is a well preserved shaft just under the lancet windows, on the south side of the church, and can be seen in the photograph to the right.
For scholars, dating these crosses is not easy, and only by comparing them to others within the north-west region, and within wider Britain can any meaningful date or people be credited. The interpretation of what the human and animal figures mean is also difficult, and conflicting views are often given in church and local history guides. The most comprehensive work on this era (Bailey 2010) is cited below, which stresses their Viking origins, rather than Saxon ones.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2013
Access: The crosses can be seen in the churchyard during daylight hours
Parking: Whalley town centre has a carpark, but parking is often easier on the road outside Whalley Abbey
Nearby, just a few moments away by foot: Whalley Parish Church
Just a short drive away: Sawley Abbey
References Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Volume IX, Cheshire and Lancashire, Richard N. Bailey, 2010, British Academy, Oxford University Press