Masham's Rare Anglo Saxon Cross Shaft
On my tours of the Yorkshire Dales, I often stop in Masham sitting on the River Ure to show guests around the town before heading into Wensleydale. It’s a great town with much to see from the two breweries, the grand Town Hall, the busy market square with its Georgian architecture, market cross and home to the annual Masham Sheep Fair.
But, I always take to take guests into the churchyard to see the remains of an early Saxon preaching cross.
The towns name is actually of Saxon origin – coming from Maessa’s Ham – basically a Saxon Lord Maessa’s homestead. It is also believed that there was an early Church built where the Town Hall sits now due to remains of an early Anglo Scandinavian burial ground being found when the towns public toilets were being built.
The cross is actually in the churchyard of St.Mary’s Church in the corner of the market square. It sits just outside the south porch.
What remains is a 7ft high, rounded cross shaft (or pillar cross). It is believed that it dates to the 8th or 9th century AD. The top of the cross is now protected by a lead cap to stop further erosion.
The top of the cross no longer exists but inside the church there are two pieces of the original cross top.
The cross shaft was once covered in obviously splendid carvings believed to be by Northumbrian craftman. The shafts circumference is broken into 4 sections with carvings inside the arcades. These sadly have been badly eroded over the years but some of the carvings can still be made out including the Adoration of Magi, Christ and the Apostles and a human figure awaiting baptism.
It is believed that the cross was originally set up as a dedication to St.Wilfred who as Bishop of Ripon Cathedral from 667-669 who was responsible for converting many locals to Christianity. Therefore the purpose of the cross would have been to attract people to a meeting place for outdoor worship.
The existing church is a mix of Norman and medieval with Victorian additions. The tower actually has some Anglo Saxon masonry built into the stonework and in the Nave from the previous Saxon church built after this cross but no longer there.
With many of my tour clients being US visitors – seeing something of this age is a real treat. It’s a shame that what definition in the carving is left will actually disappear as the rain and wind gradually further erode the imagery – perhaps it should be moved inside the church?