Blog October 26th 2015

Viking hogback stones in Cumbria- a mysterious part of the heritage of the Viking Age - let Halloween begin !

In the forthcoming blogs I like you to take me along with a journey to Cumbria, England wich I just visited. Several interesting Viking Age stone sculpture artefacts can be seen there. The attractiviness is, they can be seen 'on the spot' (or very nearby, sheltered in the churches !) where they have always been. Almost no need to go to musea here - it is still there, in the wild..

In this part of the journey I will show you the so called 'hogback stones' wich can be seen at - as far I have discovered - four places in Cumbria. These kind of grave-markers were created in the Scandinavian settlements in northern England. These characteristically long, relatively narrow blocks of stone have a curving apex. In its classic version it looks like a stone model of a long-house with tegulated roof and schamtic wall posts.

Intruiging question maybe why they were having the form of a house.. as to depict a symbol of shelter in a new (after) world ?

Their distrbution is focussed across northern England and southern Scotland, with only a few in the north Midlands, and one each in Cornwall, Wales and ireland. There is a relatively late group to be found in the Orkneys. The most outstanding examples can be found in the church in Brompton, North Yorkshire, wich I am planning to visit in the future also. 

The first hogback stones visited, it felt somewhat of a dissapointment. Well.. just a bit. It seemed that at this place the pagan remains found were tolerated, but only outside the church. In some cases the outside atmosphere is being considered as less hazardous to the stone material - as by example with the Gosforth Cross - here or the soil where they were dug op from, or the air conditions did not much good for them. And then there were some very fanatic religious people back in the old days also - let us not forget..

When the old church was pulled down in 1720, the churchwardens ordered (among other monuments as the 'Giant's Thumb') to be broken up for rubble. In a thankfull moment of reason, the locals forcibly interrupted the destruction, and the damaged parts were rivited together (concerning what is stated in Geoff Holder's 'The guide to the mysterious Lake District' - see References). So, starting to be destroyed, they were saved from ultimate destroying. Thank you 18th century people of Penrith ! Remember those weren't quite the ages of protecting history when it came upon stones...

Read more upon the 'Giant's Grave' wich this monument of grabbed together Viking Age sculptures, including the two Anglian crosses at eiach side of the four hogback stones in the book of Geoff Holder. The ultimate book to read on a late Autumn night ! With gosts and all .. let Halloween begin..

viking hogback stones Penrith Cumbria

Back to the slight damp of dissapointment wich fell over me, watching the four hogback stones in St. Andrews Church in Penrith.. Spoiled wit nowadays expectations, at first sight I found them a bit ugly. Very worn and abraised by the Hand of Time. But, then again, as wich is with much in life, the glass appearing to be half empty, became half full as I took my time watching the remaining details..


viking hogback stone Penrith

On top the tegulated roof can be seen, and on the bottom what appears to be 'rolling waves'. Symbolism to an 'endless river' as the ongoing circle of life in the afterworld ? Just a suggestion..

A sharper drawing of how they must have looked like, on the image beneath, with some details of the crosses on both sides.

viking hogback stones Penrith

A little week later on - in the gloom light of late October - but how appropiate ! we headed to the Gosforth Cross in Gosforth. Inside the church - St. Mary's church - itself, the hogback refugees had gotten asylum in a far more caring way. Here - luckily, a lot more detail can be seen. One features a pair of crucifixions (the so-called 'saint's thumb'), the other scenes of a battle ('the warrior's thumb').

viking hogback stones Gosforth

Having been found in 1896/1897 during restoration of the church foundations, they had a better fate and were encapsulated within the back of the church. I wonder if people realised what they have found. Where they aware of their historic and artistic value ? In Penrith, the locals did - and I think they did not knew from wich date and age it was. But they must have felt it was something special. It would be interesting to know how the people thought about these monuments at the time, and what they had known by then, and how they got to know at all in the first place ..

See on the photos the intwined snake images, the shield warriors on the bottom and the crucifixed figure on the side of one of the hogback stones. Pagan and Christ in a culural clash.

viking hogback stone Gosforth
viking hogback stones Gosforth
viking hogback stone Gosforth
viking hogback stones Gosforth
viking hogback stone Gosforth
viking hogback stone Gosforth

Well. I could have been with these stones until after dark, but as my wife wanted to travel on.. well.. I see you again, some day, hogback stones from Gosforth. And if you happen to be there one day, do not forget that monument on the outside...

Further on with the Cumbrian hogbacktour !

In - yes, luckily again in - St. Peter's church in Heysham, there is a truly beautiful hogback stone. The guide told us, it had been studyied by Thor Ewing, a writer, in 2000. in 'Understanding the Heysham hogback' A tenth century sculpted stone monument and its context (link), Thor Ewing tells in detail what he dicovered on the both sides of this hogback stone.

Just being brought in the church as late as the 1970's accompanied with some protest here and there among the church visitors, considered as being a token of old paganism, it had been remarkably nice preserved, and a lot of detail can be seen, still. Truly worthwile a visit.

I had a small debate with the guide in the church if the - zoomorphic, in my opinion - faces on the sides were lions (or hippo's). The guide doubted if the vikings could have known about lions. Well I guess so, concerning the runes on the Ancient Greek lion statue at the Arsenal, Venice. For example. Viking did travel south..

But when he told me he was doubting the vikings 'discovered' (as the native inhabitants were of course, in the first place) America before Columbus, I decided to rest my case..

One has to know when to start and to end a conversation ..

viking hogback stone Heysham Cumbria
viking hogback stone Heysham Cumbria
viking hogback stone Heysham Cumbria
viking hogback stone Heysham Cumbria

Just discovered the book in a bookstore of Geoff Holder - The guide to the mysterious Lake District, I knew there had to be another hogback stone in Lowther, St. Micheal's Church. With a promising image described in the text of 'a naval and a land-based force of shield-bearing Vikings above a fish and what might be a coiled sea serpent. On the reverse is a row of female figures with snakes, possibly a representation of the hideous hag Hel'. Wow. If that did not sound as a true pagan promised land ..

Not complaing too much after all we have seen, this visit was the dissapointing one of them all. But if you wife states 'I am happy to have seen them' and I am answering 'Measuring is knowing' and the even more obligate verb 'handling 'if we did not see it at all, we wouldn't have known anything at all of how they were looking' the glass was again half full, at the last day of our journey..

The hogback stone appeared to be just being tolerated within the entrance segment part of the church. As something you never use anymore but you do not throw away - entirely. That sort of feeling emerged when seeing this hogback asylum seekers.. Bed, bath and bread, ás we say in Dutch, but no luxury at all and standing on some outcuts of wood, you would balance the table with at home..

Come on, St. Micheal's Church.. care a bit more of your 'children' !

viking hogback stone Lowther Cumbria
viking hogback stone Lowther Cumbria

This hogback stone was moved in the church in 1907. Hogback stones layed partially buried in the churchyard before it was dug up and moved into the church.

The promising depiction of a longship - as certainly can be seen after some studying - see

we have missed !

The stone itself is (157 x 50 x 30 cm) and very worn.

The hogback stones in Cumbria - very diverse in quality, but everyone worth a visit ! Especially on a gloomy day in late October ...

The churches to visit - see photos of resp. St. Andrew's church in Penrith, St. Mary's church in Gosforth, St. Peter's church in Heysham and St. Micheal's church in Lowther.

Did I miss out on another one in Cumbria ? Let me know !

In a next blog I will take you to four - still remaining utterly mysterious- statues 'guarding' the graveyard of St. Andrew's church in Dacre..

For the last blog of October 9th see this link.

St. Andrew's church in Penrith
St. Mary's church in Gosforth
 St. Peter's church in Heysham
St. Micheal's church in Lowther

References: (as always, links to where the books can be ordered are attached).

Edwards, B.J.N. Vikings in North West England - The artifacts (1998);

Hall, R. Viking Age archaeology in Britain and Ireland (first printed 1990, reprinted with amendments in 1995);

Holder, G. The guide to the mysterious Lake District (2009)

possibly also (as there within the part of Cumbria dealing with Carlisle, the Eden Valley, Barrow-in-Furness, Whitehaven and the west coast is being dealed with)

Holder, G. Paranormal Cumbria (2010)

Ewing, T. 'Understanding the Heysham hogback' A tenth century sculpted stone monument and its context ;