There is a saying that ‘mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun’. It was barely daylight, there was no sun, only a thin, white blanket over the world. But our sanity with this trip had already been called into question by a number of our friends, so it came as no surprise that we were out before dawn, all excited, to search the snow-dusted town for a couple of bits of carved stone. Not just any bits, mind you; the Sandbach Crosses are justifiably renowned.
We found them in the silent market square, long before there was anyone about. To be fair, you couldn’t really miss them, towering as they were, darkly into the sky. It is only as you approach that you begin to see the carvings… and it was for these we had come. We had seen pictures, but even so, my first thought at the size of these things ran to a whole, unprintable four letters.
You see, the Bakewell Crosses we know well. One is shorter than I, the other a fair bit taller. No more than that. The Eyam and Ilkley Crosses a little taller still. These two, standing proud on the stone steps, are huge. And even then they are incomplete… truncated from their original height… and may, in fact, be three, not two.
There is some debate about their age. Until recently it was accepted that they were originally erected to commemorate the conversion to Christianity of Paeda, son our old friend the pagan King Penda of Mercia, in 643 AD. You can see why they had attracted our interest. Scholars, however, now suggest a much later date… ninth instead of seventh century. Even so, they would still fall within our period of interest and may still commemorate the event. We may never know. But we do have the odd theory or two about the Crosses in general…
The crosses have had a chequered past. The original site of the crosses is not known and it has been suggested that they were brought to Sandbach in the Middle Ages. In 1585 their presence was documented by William Smith, who held the wonderfully-named office of Rouge-Dragon Pursuivant at Arms of Queen Elizabeth I. They were thrown down and scattered either during the Civil War or earlier, during the Reformation, because they bear ‘graven images’. The pieces were preserved in odd ways… one piece even serving as a cottage doorstep… until they were gathered and re-erected in 1816.
Around the base are a number of information plaques… from which my companion laboriously scraped the frozen snow. One of the crosses is said to be full of early Christian imagery. I am not entirely sure I agree with the interpretation of some of the panels… mind you, I am neither a scholar nor am I trying to make them fit a particular belief system. I would rather like to know what the figure described as ‘Christ transfigured’ is supposed to be carrying though… The second, slightly smaller cross is covered in scenes ‘difficult to interpret’. Certainly, they do not appear to be predominantly Biblical, and we have seen other crosses that carry representations of pagan mythology.
Anglo-Saxon 871-899 AD
Image by Tina Negus, Flickr
One very useful piece of information was given, though, along with an artist’s impression of what the crosses would have looked like when they were first erected. We forget that they would have been painted and gilded and would thus have looked very like the exquisite metalwork their makers would have known, examples of which have survived to this day. The style is easily recognised in such things as the Sutton Hoo treasures that date from the sixth and seventh centuries. And we call these the Dark Ages… I think, perhaps, we have a tendency to underestimate the sophistication of our forebears sometimes.
The church around the corner had to be worth a visit, but being Sunday, we arrived as the service was beginning so decided to come back after breakfast. This, it turns out, was a mistake. Discussing the next leg of the journey I turned automatically onto the motorway and so we did not return. However, all things have a reason and later research tells me we missed more Saxon stones and even another Cross in the churchyard… and ever so much archaeology in the area… So we will just have to go back next time we are in that part of the country. Such a hardship that…