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An Anglo-Saxon Cross Shaft from Elstow

Front panel of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]
Front panel of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]

The second leaflet in the Discovering our Past series produced by Bedfordshire County Council in April 1986 is about an Anglo-Saxon cross shaft from Elstow [CRT130Elstow19]. It reads as follows:

In 1967, stone masons repairing the present east wall of Elstow Abbey church came across a remarkable piece of Saxon carving, reused as an ordinary piece of building stone. That wall had been built in the 16th century, to close off the west end of the church after Henry VIII had dissolved the Abbey in 1539. It allowed the people of Elstow to continue worshipping when the rest of the buildings had been knocked down.

The stone is the base of a Saxon cross shaft. It is 56 cm high, and carved out of local limestone. Its top has a socket to fit the next section upwards. We do not know whether it had an elaborate cross on the very top, but this section is richly decorated with patterns and dragons.

Back panel of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]
Back panel of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]

Each side has a separate design framed in a raised border. The front panel has two splendid beasts facing each other; their tales twist and turn in an interlaced pattern which nearly fills the lower part. The opposite side is filled with an interlace which makes a complicated pattern including three crosses.

The narrower side panels also have dragons. One shows two animals with linking tails. The other has only one beast with its tail and wing starting off another interlace pattern.

The only way to date the stone is to compare its artistic style with other carvings. Experts have decided it was made in the 9th century because it is similar to other pieces found in Mercia, the Saxon kingdom covering the Midlands and Northern England.

The two side panels of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]
The two side panels of the Anglo-Saxon cross shaft [CRT130Elstow19]

Elstow is a Saxon name. Archaeologists have found the burial ground that belonged to its Saxon parish church, lying underneath the foundations of the Abbey buildings. The carved cross shaft was probably part of a splendid memorial that once stood in this early cemetery.

This carving is a precious remnant of early Christianity in what was later to become Bedfordshire. At that time few of our present towns and villages existed, and none of the parish churches which survive today.

The Bedford area was made Christian in the 7th century by missionaries from the north. The first churches were called minsters, centres from which groups of priests could serve the surrounding countryside. One of these minsters may have been at Elstow.