Inside the church of Holy Trinity at Bolton-le-Sands are parts of two Viking sculpture monuments. One is a fragment of a cross and the other is an even rarer survivor – a part of a hogback burial stone. Recently both these pieces, along with some later Medieval grave covers, have been redisplayed and sympathetically lit. We’ll examine the Viking cross fragment first, and then turn to the hogback stone.
Viking Age Cross Shaft Fragment
The shaft was originally discovered during church restoration in the 1800s. It was probably carved sometime in the 900s. Its main face features two ring encircled twists, surrounded by a border moulding (see sketch above). One of the narrow sides has a three stranded plait. Both these types of carving are typical Viking patterns.
Originally it would have marked either a grave or an important location. Sometime in the 1100s the stone had additional work carved into the opposite broad face. Researchers have identified a number of figures, but it is not clear what they represent. Professor Bailey in his Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture observes that the larger figure has a wedge shape nose, hollowed ears and a halo. This large figure seems to be holding a smaller figure in front of it. He speculates that this depicts Mary and Jesus. A third figure stands to the left of these first two wearing a short kirtle and holding a book against its hip. Unfortunately while the original Viking patterns are very clear, these later carvings are extremely faint. They also are on the side that leans against low railings in the church so they are not easily viewed. However, some excellent pictures appear on Professor Howard Williams’s website and we’ll post the link below.
Viking Hogback Stone
The hogback stone was probably also discovered in one of the church restorations in the 1800s. In common with the cross fragment it is made of sandstone, possibly millstone grit, and is of a similar date, sometime in the 900s. Only half of it survives, but the distinctive curvature which is a feature of this kind of monument can clearly be seen.
A hogback is a recumbent gravestone in the shape of a pig’s arched back. It lay directly over the grave of the deceased. Hogback stones are normally found at coastal locations, such as the famous one at Heysham. The ones in our region have a Norse-Irish tradition with similiar examples located on the Wirral, in Cumbria and in West Scotland. Debate is still ongoing as to what they are meant to represent, but there is some agreement that they generally have carvings resembling tiles on top, giving the appearance of a roof of a house. The triangular tiles (or tegulae) can be seen on this one clearly, although some are damaged and others are faint.
Like the cross fragment, the back side has been recut at a later date. It features a scene of a human figure grappling a serpent, or perhaps impaling the serpent through the head with a lance. Again, the carving is very faint and laid up against the interior railings, so is not easily viewed.
In his recent examination of it Professor Williams states that the hogback has groove marks on it. He thinks these were caused by the swing of a door or window around a pivot hole on the main face, when it was reused at some point. Professor Bailey does not mention this, but in turn he speculates that the recut faint figures on both pieces were once part of the same freeze.
To see Professor Howard’s website which has excellent photographs of the later faint carvings which were expertly taken by Dr Aaron Watson, click here.
Holy Trinity Church has done a great job in redisplaying the stones which in the past had been a little neglected. A local blacksmith was commissioned to fix them into place, along with the Medieval grave covers. The lighting clearly brings out the designs, and although the faint carvings are not displayed, they would be very difficult to see anyway. One important point – the hogback stone is displayed standing on its side, and not lying down as it would have been when in use. The author’s sketch above re-orientates it the correct way.
The church has a number of other interesting historical features and to read more about them see our page here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
The church is open at the weekends, and possibly during the week too.
Park on the street near the church. Post Code LA5 8DU
See more on the history of Holy Trinity Church Bolton-le-Sands
Nearby, just a short walk away Bolton-le-Sands Free Grammar School
Just a drive a way Warton Old Rectory
Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Volume IX, Cheshire and Lancashire, Richard N. Bailey, 2010, British Academy, Oxford University Press