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The Lilla Cross – the oldest Christian memorial in the North



High above Fylingdales Moor at a place called Lilla Howe is one of the most important crosses on the North York Moors if not the whole of England, with a history that dates back to 626.

 

I had passed the cross years ago on a walk before I became a tour guide and not paid a massive amount of attention to it, but after understanding a bit more about its importance, I set out with my wife to hike to the cross to investigate further.

 

We parked at the Forestry Commission car park at Old May Beck, before walking through the Foss Plantation and around York Cross Rigg and Widow Howe Moor to get to the Lilla Cross.

 

This route passed the remains of a couple of other crosses, which sadly were nothing more than stumps. Even though not as old as the Lilla Cross, York Cross and Ann’s cross still are situated in remote locations with beautiful vistas across the wild moorland and have their own histories.

 



The walk we had planned was a circular walk, after all the recent rain it was extremely boggy in places and energy sapping with each step. When we reached the Lilla Cross we had walked almost 4 miles and were ready for a sit down and some lunch!

 



So back to the history of Lilla Cross and who was Lilla.

 

The story of the cross dates back to the 600’s when Yorkshire was part of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria (roughly translated as the area North of the River Humber).

 

The Kingdom of Northumbria was ruled by King Edwin. At the time England was split into a number of rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms including Wessex, Kent and Mercia. There had been disagreements between Northumbria and the West Saxons but when a messenger arrived at King Edwin’s court with supposedly a personal message for Edwin from the King of Wessex, he had no idea it was to lead to an assassination attempt.

 

Upon being led into Edwin’s court, the messenger drew a dagger and attempted to stab the King. Lilla who was reputed to be Chief Minister to the King, threw himself in front of the poisoned blade saving the king, but succumbing to a fatal wound in the process.

 

In honour of Lilla who was a Christian, King Edwin had a cross made in remembrance of his loyal servant. The fact this was in 626 makes the cross one of the earliest Christian monuments in the North.

 



Before talking more about the cross it is worth noting a couple of events which followed. Firstly angered by the assassination attempt Edwin attacked the West Saxons, defeating them in Wessex in 626.

 

Then the Pagan King Edwin, formed an allegiance with Kent, agreeing to marry the Kentish King’s daughter Ethelburgh. She was already a Christian and would only marry Edwin if he converted to Christianity. This he agreed to do in 627, building a wooden Minster in York dedicated to St.Peter, where he was baptised by Bishop Paulinus. It is believed that his friend Lilla’s Christian belief and actions helped Edwin make this decision to become Christian.

 

The cross is situated now on Lilla Howe. The word Howe can be seen on maps around the North York Moors and comes from the Norse word Haugr meaning natural hill or artificial mound. They were usually capped with a cairn and had often been burial mounds, but were later used as boundary markers.

 

It is not believed that Lilla’s remains were buried beneath Lilla’s Howe, but some jewellery was found beneath the Lilla Howe when it was excavated in the 1920’s.




 

It is more likely the site was chosen due to its prominent position as a mark of respect. Lilla Howe is 959 feet above sea level and has wonderful 360 degree views across the North York Moors as well as clear views to the more recent RAF Fylingdales – a continuous ballistic missile warning service run by the US and UK Governments.

 



A number of paths now meet at the cross, including an ancient trackway called Old Wife’s Trod. It is also close to the Old Salt Road from Whitby across the Moors.

 

Lilla Cross now marks the meeting point of 4 ancient Parishes ( Fylingdales, Goathland, Lockton and Allerton) and has become a waymarker on the long distance Lyke Wake Walk.

The G carved onto one side of the cross is therefore likely to signify Goathland.

 



The original cross was erected in 626, but it is believed the existing cross which is in a Maltese style dates to the 900’s. The Lilla Cross was first documented as a boundary marker in Norman times appearing in a charter in 1109, less than 50 years after the Norman Conquest.

 

Temporarily moving home…

 

After World War 2, Fylingdales Moor became used as a military training area. So in 1952 the Lilla Cross was moved to Simon Howe to keep it from harm as the area was being used as an artillery range.

 

10 years later in 1962 when the artillery range closed, the cross was returned to its original site on Lilla Howe by the 508 Field Squadron Royal Engineers and the Territorial Army.

 



The circular walk was 8 miles in total and whilst a bit of a slog it was worth it for the views. I definitely plan to do it again when the heather is in bloom late August. The cross was bigger than I remembered and stands at 7.5 feet high and with its ancient history is well worth checking out.

 

If you are interested in Yorkshire’s history during the reign of the Saxon Kind Edwin of Northumbria – you may find this blog article of interest

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