The cross – its development as a symbol in early medieval northwest Europe

The cross – its development as a symbol in early medieval northwest Europe


The cross is the pre-eminent Christian symbol, depicting the execution of Christ in a brutal method reserved by the Roman State as a deterrent for offensive crimes. As a symbol it has probably been used since the 2nd century, though it was rarely depicted in art until after Constantine (r.306–337). There are many styles and forms of cross, from the simple Latin cross with unequal arms to the highly stylised Celtic cross. This essay explores the use of the cross in early medieval northwest Europe and some of the different contexts that it came to be used in.

The story of early Christianity in northwest Europe, Britain and Scandinavia, is a complex one. The religion entered Britain first when it was a province of the Roman Empire but by the time St Augustine (early 6th c.–604) [EXH15] was sent on a mission in 598 by the Pope, Gregory I (c.540–604), to convert the Anglo-Saxons there were few traces left of the religious institutions of later Roman Britain. By the early 7th century, so only a few years after Augustine’s arrival, Christian symbols were becoming more common, particularly in eastern Britain. We can see this in the objects found in graves from this period which show strong influences in style from Byzantine culture via Frankia (roughly equivalent to modern France). This paper looks at this particularly in terms of the Christianisation efforts of elite women, their use of the cross as a personal object and the later placement of monumental crosses in the landscape. The British story is later reflected in the way that Christianity progressed through Scandinavia, often through the efforts of clergy from Britain, as well as from other previously converted parts of Europe, particularly what is now Germany.

One object that epitomises this influence and shows how it was transformed into a distinctive local art is the Wilton Cross [EXH9]. At the centre of this cross is a coin of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (r. 613–632). It is surrounded by gold and garnet work reminiscent of some of the most accomplished jewellery from the Sutton Hoo boat burial and with the Ixworth Cross [both will appear in stage 2 of the exhibition]; these similarities are so marked that it has led some scholars to argue that all the objects were made by the same craftsman. We can see the Byzantine connection in other objects from the burial, such as the silver bowls and spoons, and in the so-called Coptic flagon from another princely grave in Essex at Prittlewell.1 It seems that it also influenced women’s fashion and this can be seen clearly in the jewellery found in graves of aristocratic and well-connected women. The use of gold and garnet can be seen throughout Europe at this time, including Scandinavia. At the royal site of Gamla Uppsala, near modern Stockholm, close to the great hall were two separate smaller buildings where recent archaeological work has uncovered collections of raw, uncut garnets, probably these therefore were workshops for making gold and garnet jewellery such as the piece shown in our crosses story.

Both powerful men and women seem to have worn pectoral crosses; there was one found with Saint Cuthbert [EXH10] when his remains were investigated in the 19th century and it has been suggested that the pectoral cross [EXH69] found with the Staffordshire Hoard was worn by a Bishop or member of the senior clergy into battle and captured as a spoil of war. The fact that it, along with most the objects in that hoard, was deliberately damaged perhaps suggests an attempt to remove the religious power of the object. Whereas the Trumpington cross [EXH11], for example, was found with the body of a young woman who had been buried in an elaborate grave lying on an iron bed. The Wilton Cross and the Ixworth Cross have not been associated with an individual through the circumstances of their discovery, though there are clues that these crosses, both discovered in the 19th century, were from graves that were not recognised by the finders.2

Long-distance connections

Like some of the objects found in the rich burial at Sutton Hoo (to be discussed in our forthcoming story on Death and Burial) the Wilton and Ixworth crosses were made from gold and garnet. The garnets used in making them probably came from India and are evidence of the Silk Road connection between northern India and Europe reaching all the way to Britain and Scandinavia. There is also evidence from the same period for silk being exchanged, much of it as gifts from the Byzantine emperors to royal houses in northwestern Europe, with finds from the Rhine area, a scattering from Frankia and a possible single example from a grave at Updown in Kent.3 There are many other objects of jewellery from the 7th century known from eastern England containing garnets suggesting that they were fashionable. Other pendants often combined gold settings for garnets and portrayed the cross. The Desborough Necklace [EXH12], with a gold and garnet pendant cross in a group of gold and garnet cabochon pendants both provides an insight into how these pendants may have been arranged and is very similar to a Byzantine necklace from Sardinia.4 This Byzantine connection was important with the contemporary Roman forms symbolising connection with that world and its ideas, including Christianity. Some individual women were able to travel widely, as seen in our pilgrimage story and the life of Hygeburg (fl. 760–780), to be discussed later in the exhibition. They were also sometimes socially mobile. Bathilde (c.626–680), the wife of Clovis II (r. 633–657), King of the Franks, was possibly sent to Frankia from East Anglia as a slave but rose to become Queen Regent, later took charge of an important monastery, and after her death became a saint. An intriguing seal matrix [EXH38], probably once part of a ring, found near Norwich, shows a woman’s face and name BALDAHILDIS (Bathilde) on one side and on the other portrays a naked couple with a cross over their heads. Another object associated with her is the ‘Chemise de Sainte-Bathilde’ from Chelles which uses silk thread to depict a Byzantine-style cross pendant.

Women and Christianity

The wearing of gold and garnet crosses in eastern Britain is only visible archaeologically during a short window of time in the 7th century. It was common to include a rich range of objects in burials from the end of the Roman period at the beginning of the 5th century through to the early 8th century when the practice was abandoned. As noted, only one of the gold and garnet style crosses is directly attributable to a male context, the Saint Cuthbert Cross [EXH10]. The other pendant crosses (with the exception of the pendant cross from the Staffordshire Hoard) fit with a trend in the middle 7th century for elite female graves to contain a restricted range of rich jewellery, particularly gold and garnet objects. Cross pendants make up a small but symbolically important group within a larger corpus of gold and garnet jewellery which show a group of women who, at least in death, were displaying long-distance connections and a strong affinity to ideas from the Byzantine world. The implication is that elite women were active promoters of these late Roman ideals, including Christianity.

Arguably, this can also be seen through the well documented cases of elite women establishing monasteries. Seaxburh (d. 699), Æthelthryth (c.636–679) and Æthelburh (d.664), daughters of King Anna (r. c. 634–654) of East Anglia, as well as those of his his predecessor, Sigebert (r. c. 629–634), were some of the first to join nunneries in Frankia, in addition to establishing them in eastern England. Ætheldreda established the long-lived monastery at Ely around 673, pioneering a trend for the women of other royal houses.5 There is an intriguing possible connection between the documented Christian activities of the East Anglian royal family, the Wuffingas, and the production of jewels like the Wilton Cross which (along with the Ixworth Cross) as noted above seems to come from the same workshop as the bejewelled military equipment from the Sutton Hoo burial. Sigebert was one of the first kings to abdicate to become a monk and may have spent time in a Frankish monastery prior to taking the throne.

Another intriguing connection to the early monastery at Ely comes from a small cemetery on the outskirts of the town consisting of a group of 15 burials focused on a mound covering the burial of a 10 to 12-year-old girl buried with a group of highly symbolic Christian objects, including a multiple-pendent necklace with a small ‘Celtic’ or tau-like gold cross, and a set of silver pins linked with a chain. The pin and chain may be the fastenings for a headdress or veil. This and several of the other graves either date from the 670s and hence are contemporary with Ætheldreda or the end of that century, a generation after her death. Either way this was a community with strong connections to the royal houses of East Anglia, Kent and Northumbria, as well as with religious establishments in Frankia.6

Later, starting during the 10th and 11th centuries, we can see a similar use of cross pendants in the graves of some Scandinavian women, for instance the silver filigree pendant of Christ on the cross from a grave found in the 19th century at the international entrepôt at Birka [EXH5], reputed to be the oldest Scandinavian depiction of Christ. A very similar filigree pendant, again depicting Christ on the cross, was found in 2016 on the Island of Funen in Denmark by a metal detectorist, though in this case it was rendered in gold [EXH4]. Both objects are thought to be early 10th century in date and hence earlier than the conversion of the Swedish King Olaf Skötkonung (r.c.995–1022) around 995 and the Danish King Harald Bluetooth in 965.

Gold crucifixion cross with filigree and granulation from Funen Island, Denmark, Museums of Eastern Funen [EXH4].

Some scholars have suggested that women had a particular affinity with religion in Scandinavian society and that they assimilated Christian beliefs and symbols into an already existing role.7 We know that there were missions from both Britain and the Rhineland that attempted to influence a conversion of Scandinavia. The writings of Alcuin (c.735–804) in his Vita S. Willibrord recount that Willibrord (658–739), after training with Wilfrid, Bishop of York, made a successful mission to Frisia, later becoming archbishop of Utrecht, also travelled to Jutland, in western Denmark, and was welcomed by the court of King Ongendus (r.c.710), returning to Frisia with 30 Danish converts. Likewise, the Vita Anskarii [EXH7], records that in 829 a diplomatic legation from Sweden requested that the Emperor Ludwig send a missionary because many people there were interested in adopting the faith; Ansgar and Witmar were sent to Birka, where King Björn gave permission for them to preach and baptise key individuals. It further records that a church was built in Birka. Christian objects such as reliquaries, croziers and Tating-ware jugs are known from female graves dated between the 8th and 10th centuries.8 Pendant crosses are rare but perhaps we can see a reaction against the spread of Christian ideas through the finds of Thor’s hammer pendants, again these are most commonly found in the graves of women.9 Possibly related to this action and reaction regarding the new religion is a casting mould for both Thor’s hammer and cross pendants [EXH40] from Trendgården in Jutland. There appears to have been a mixed and perhaps hedged position regarding new and old religious affiliation with some graves showing signs of both.

Women, spiritual protection and the control of burial

Binham Bracteate, Norwich Castle Museum, 2005.756 [EXH37]. Norfolk Museum Service.

Through entering monastic rule royal women may have been extending roles that they had traditionally held, previously, in the administration of older/local beliefs. Glimpses of this can perhaps be found in the symbolism seen on bracteates, a type of pseudo-coin pendant found in the graves of elite women in Scandinavia, Kent and to a lesser extent Eastern England during the late 5th and 6th centuries (see for instance [EXH37] depicting a god holding a beast). The style of these objects and their possible connection to magical or apotropaic symbolism may have cogently transferred to crosses and other Christian symbols, including coinage, suggesting that these women were seen to channel the protection of gods and later the Christian God on behalf of the household, or, in the case of royal women, for the kingdom or royal house. We can see this from the writings of Hrostwitha (935–973), who is the earliest known female writer from German-speaking lands, and wrote in the Opera Omnia about her belief that women from royal families were born into saintliness, beata stirps, as all members of the family were manifestations of blessings, particularly the kings.10

The cult activity of women has also been suggested in the control of rites and performances to do with death and burial in other contexts. Female deities populated Scandinavian mythology at all levels of the pantheon from the fertility goddess Freya through to the valkyries and the norns. We can see valkyries depicted on pictorial stones and they have been found in graves as small silver ornaments. The tapestry found in the 9th century Oseberg ship burial in Norway shows many women taking-part in a procession thought to be associated with the cult of Freya, perhaps the woman buried there was a seiðkona—a practitioner of seiðr or a sorceress. The norns were linked to the activities of spinning, and perhaps by extension weaving.11 Weaving as a metaphor for fate also appears in the mythological stories from Japan as recounted in the 7th century chronicle Kojiki. The description by Ibn Fadlan (c.879–c.960) of a Rus chief’s burial in around 920, in central Asia, recounts a huge, brutal, and complex set of rites in the lead up to the cremation within a ship of the dead man followed by the construction of a mound over the pyre. The funerary rites were overseen by a woman, whom Ibn Fadlan calls the Malak al Maut, or ‘Messenger of Death’.12 A small number of burials in England contain females with objects that are difficult to interpret and located in unusual positions within the grave. These graves seem to be in prominent situations within some cemeteries.

Crosses in the landscape13

Works in stone, particularly those of a monumental size, are often local in their design and execution. Stone crosses from the 7th to 9th century in Britain represent a set of wider phenomena found across the Christian parts of western Europe at this time. The contemporary status of the sites where they are found is sometimes difficult to discern, though it seems likely that in most cases they were erected at monastic, royal or diocesan centres and probably represent just a small surviving fraction of the corpus of such Christian carvings.14 The Ruthwell Cross, Dumfrieshire [EXH13] (click here to see a 3D model of the Ruthwell Cross) is thought to date from the late 7th century and is one of the most impressive examples of a monumental stone cross from Britain at this time. On the body of the cross are several figural scenes with inscriptions in Latin and vine-scroll down the side panels. An Anglo-Saxon poem in runic script surrounds the vine-scroll, a fusion of classical and Germanic artistic and scriptural traditions. It has been interpreted as a way to engage participants in the liturgy of Holy Week, probably specifically Good Friday. One of the panels depicts Christ above two beasts and has been linked to the canticle of Habbukuk.15 Several of the panels depict female figures, including Mary and Martha as also seen on the Maskell Casket [EXH2c] (see our Origins story).

Displaying a fusion between Scandinavian and Christian beliefs but located in what is now the county of Cumbria in northern England, the Gosforth Cross [click here to see a 3D model, EXH41] dates from the first half of the 10th century, a time when a new group of people had migrated from Scandinavia to Britain. Like the Ruthwell Cross, this location is in the former kingdom of Northumbria, also the same kingdom where Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People [EXH14], though by this time the kingdom had fallen to Scandinavian armies and was part of the Danelaw. The Cross has carved depictions of scenes from Norse mythology but within the structure of a Christian symbol. Unlike the earlier Ruthwell Cross, the figural scenes are not bounded within panels but rather follow the Scandinavian artistic conventions. They compare with the stylistic figures on picture stones which can be seen, for instance, on the carvings of the Oseberg ship burial. The depictions on the cross may represent elements in the stories associated with Ragnarök, the series of battles leading to the deaths of many of the Norse gods. This simple reading of the cross as a text in the same sense as the 12th and 13th century Icelandic narratives from which we derive most of our knowledge of Norse mythology may miss other possible meanings, such as the more Christian narrative that can also be read into the scenes like the one face showing what appears to be a crucifixion. The Norse style of the monument may be more about the promotion of the new religion to people that find its artistic rendering better met their cultural expectations. The militaristic confrontation of beasts may in this interpretation therefore represent the battle with evil.16


The cross was a potent and immediately recognisable symbol of the new religion in the situations discussed in this story. Several of the crosses above show a cultural fusion and were made at a time of cultural change and the assimilation of new ideas. The adaptability of this symbol to new cultural situations is remarkable.

Andy Hutcheson


  1. Blackmore, L., Blair, I., Hirst, S. and Scull, C. (eds.) 2019. The Prittlewell princely burial: excavations at Priory Cresent, Southend-on-Sea, Essex 2003, London: MOLA.
  2. Sam Lucy (2016) discusses antiquarian reports regarding the discoveries of the Ixworth and Wilton Crosses in ‘The Trumpington Cross in context’, Anglo Saxon England, 45, 7-37. There are clues that the Ixworth Cross was, like the Trumpington Cross, associated with a bed burial. There is very little information on the circumstances of the discovery of the Wilton Cross.
  3. Lise Bender Jørgensen (1992) maps the occurrence of silk finds in northern Europe in North European Textiles until AD 1000, Aarhus University Press. See also Anna Muthesius’s publications on Byzantine silk and her numerous finds from reliquaries in France from this period onwards. [1]
  4. Geake, H. 2005. ‘The control of burial practice in Anglo-Saxon England.’ In: M. Carver (ed.) The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe AD 300-1300. Woodbridge: Boydell.
  5. Yorke, B. 2005. ‘The Adaption of the Anglo-Saxon Royal Courts to Christianity.’ In: M. Carver (ed.) The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe AD 300-1300. Woodbridge: Boydell.
  6. Lucy, S., Newman, R., Dodwell, N., Hills, C., Dekker, M., O’Connell, T., Riddler, I. & Rogers, P. W. 2009. ‘The burial of a princess? The later seventh-century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely.’ The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 81-141.
  7. Op. cit. note 4
  8. Staecker, J. 2011. ‘The cross goes north: Christian symbols and Scandinavian women.’ In: M. Carver (ed.) The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe AD 300-1300. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Yorke 2005.
  11. Grӓslund, A.-S. 2011. ‘The role of Scandinavian Women in Chritianisation: the neglected evidence.’ In: M. Carver (ed.) The cross goes north: processes of conversion in northern Europe, AD 300-1300. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.
  12. Ibn Fadlān, A., Ibn Abī Al-Rabīʻ, M. I. ʻ. A.-R., Lunde, P. & Stone, C. 2012. Ibn Fadlān and the land of darkness: Arab travellers in the far north, Penguin Books; discussed by Geake 2005.
  13. For a good discussion of monumental crosses see Cramp, R. 2010. ‘New directions in the study of Anglo-Saxon sculpture.’ Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, 84, 1-25.
  14. For a better idea of the range of sculpture from this period see the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Sculpture
  15. Ó Carragáin, E. 1978. ‘Liturgical Innovations Associated with Pope Sergius and the Iconography of the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses’. In: R. T. Farrell (ed.) Bede and Anglo-Saxon England: paper in honour of the 1300th anniversary of the birth of Bede. Given at Cornell University in 1973 and 1974,. Oxford: BAR.
  16. Doviak, A. 2021. ‘Doorway to Devotion: Recovering the Christian Nature of the Gosforth Cross’. Religions, 12,


Apotropaic: designed to avert evil.
Cabochon: convex cut for gemstones, sometimes also emulated in gold or silver.
Canticle: a non-metrical hymn
Diocesan: Seat of a bishop, or archbishop and therefore the centre for church activities within a region.
Habbukuk: Old testament book in the bible recording the oracles and prayers of the eponymous prophet who lived around 600 BC.