Page images
PDF
EPUB

CHAPTER II

THE ANGLO-SAXON CROSS IN ITS HISTORICAL SETTING

The great diversity of forms in which the cross manifested itself, and the evident warmth and sincerity of the veneration accorded to it, show how powerful an influence it exerted over the lives and thoughts of this people. We shall try to discover, in this concluding chapter, if there were any events or influences in the Anglo-Saxon period which could have tended to intensify a spirit of devotion to the cross.

The earliest recorded appearance of the cross is that which figured in the procession of Augustine and his monks as they went to meet King Ethelbert. After the king had granted them permission to settle in Canterbury, Bede says that they drew near to the city, also, 'with the holy cross.' The first impression of the cross upon the pagan mind was, therefore, that of a standard of the new Faith. So, too, when the missionaries penetrated farther into heathen territory, they erected crosses as standards and as places of worship and exhortation.

In the next event of importance in the history of the cross in Anglo-Saxon England, this idea of the cross as a standard is strikingly exemplified. It is the victory of Oswald over Cadwalla in 633. To get a picture of the situation of the Angles just before this event, we may turn to the rather florid account of Sharon Turner (1.242-3):

The Welsh king, Cadwallon, full of projects of revenge against the nations of the Angles, continued his war. Osric rashly ventured to besiege him in a strong town, but an unexpected sally of Cadwallon destroyed the king of Deira. For a year the victor desolated Northumbria: his success struck Eanrid with terror, and his panic hurried him to his fate. He went with twelve soldiers to sue for peace of the Welshman. Notwithstanding the sacred purpose of his visit, he was put to death.

The swords of Cadwallon and his army seemed the agents destined to fulfill their cherished prophecy. The fate of the AngloSaxons was now about to arrive; three of their kings had been already offered up to the shades of the injured Cymry; an Arthur had revived in Cadwallon. ... Triumphant with the fame of fourteen great battles and sixty skirmishes, Cadwallon despised Oswald, the brother and successor of Eanfrid, who rallied the Bernician forces and attempted to become the deliverer of his country.

For the rest of the story, let us listen to Bede: In the third book of his Ecclesiastical History, he tells how Cadwalla, the king of the Britons, ‘for the space of a year reigned over the provinces of the Northumbrians, not like a victorious king, but like a rapacious and bloody tyrant,' and how he ended his series of bloody deeds by treacherously slaying Eanfrid, who came to him to a parley for terms of peace. "To this day,' continues the historian, 'that year is looked upon as unhappy, and hateful to all good men. ... Hence it has been agreed by all who have written about the reigns of the kings to abolish the memory of those perfidious monarchs, and to assign that year to the reign of the following king, Oswald, a man beloved by God. This last king, after the death of his brother Eanfrid, advanced with an army, small indeed in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ; and the impious commander of the Britons was slain, though he had most numerous forces, which he boasted nothing could withstand, at a place in the English tongue called Denisesburn, that is, Denis' brook.

“The place is shown to this day, and held in much veneration where Oswald, being about to engage, erected the sign of the holy cross, and on his knees prayed to God that he would assist his worshipers in their great distress. It is further reported that the cross, being made in haste, and the hole dug in which it was to be fixed, the king himself, full of faith, laid hold of it and held it with both hands, till it was set fast by throwing in the earth, and this done, raising his voice, he cried to his army, “Let us all kneel, and jointly beseech the true and living God Almighty, in his mercy, to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy; for He knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation." All did as he had commanded, and accordingly, advancing toward the enemy with the first dawn of day, they obtained the victory as their faith deserved. In that place of prayer very many miraculous cures are known to have been performed, as a token and a memorial

* Chaps. I and 2.

of the king's faith; for even to this day, many are wont to cut off small chips from the wood of the holy cross, which being put into water, men and cattle drinking thereof, or sprinkled with that water, are immediately restored to health.

'The place in the English tongue is called Heavenfield, or the Heavenly Field, which name it formerly received as a presage of what was afterward to happen, denoting that there the heavenly trophy would be erected, the heavenly victory begun, and heavenly miracles be wrought to this day.'

A cruciform church was built on the site of the battle, and the wooden cross that performed so many miracles, and that was still standing in Bede's day, was replaced after its final decay by a cross of stone, to commemorate the event.

King Oswald became both a national hero and a saint, and, after his death in a battle against the Mercians, was regarded as a martyr. Ælfric, for example, devotes a metrical homily to ‘St. Oswald, King and Martyr.'

After his death the very ground on which he fell became potent for the healing of the sick. Bede says,

How great his faith was towards God, and how remarkable his devotion, has been made evident by miracles since his death; for in the place where he was killed by the pagans, fighting for his country, infirm men and cattle are healed to this day. Whereupon many took up the very dust of the place where his body fell, and putting it into water, did much good with it to their friends who were sick. This custom came so much into use that, the earth being carried away by degrees, there remained a hole as deep as the height of a man.

Some of these miracles the historian narrates in detail, but he gives much more space to the wondrous miracles effected by the bones of the sainted king. A heavenly light shone all night over his relics, devils were cast out from a man whom the priests had exorcised in vain, a boy was cured of ague, and a man was healed at the point of death.

These tales of miracle show how strong a hold Oswald and his rood had upon the popular imagination. Indeed,

Eccles. Hist., chap. 9.

it is not likely that the influence of this victory upon the national feeling for the cross can be overestimated. The cross had delivered the Angles from their enemies in the hour of greatest need. It was the victory of Constantine repeated in England, and probably the obvious points of similarity in the two stories helped to make the legend of Constantine as popular as it evidently was. This victory of Oswald, as well as that of Constantine, formed the associations with the cross that made appropriate the familiar Old English epithet sige-beacn, the banner of victory.'

Alcuin and Ælfric both give accounts of this victory of the rood, both, however, based upon the narrative of Bede. 'Alcuin's account is contained in his poem De Pontificibus et Sanctis Ecclesia Eboracensis. In this, the only variation worthy of note is that in the speech that he puts into the mouth of Oswald the army is bidden to bow to the cross:

Substernite vestros

Vultus ante crucem. Accordingly, the entire army, on their knees before the cross, pray to God. Alcuin has inserted an Adoration ceremony into the story.

As we pass from the seventh to the eighth century we find no historical event of significance in connection with the cross, and in literature only the cross-symbolism of Bede. While he frequently repeats, as his life-motto, ‘Mihi absit gloria, nisi in cruce Christi Domini nostri,' he gives no evidence of a special feeling of love for the cross; he merely repeats the traditions as he found them in the Fathers, without particular emphasis.

But in the latter part of the eighth century we come upon remarkable poetry of the cross in the work of Cynewulfand whoever else may have been the poet of the Dream of the Rood-in which the adoration of the cross reaches its most ardent expression. Closely following this comes the Latin of Alcuin, who is decidedly a cross-worshiper, though

e. g. Opera, ed. Giles, 4. 181; 7. 126.

he was unable to rise to the level of the Old English poetry. He expressed his devotion to the cross chiefly by developing mystical interpretations of its parts, and by reviving and imitating the work of Fortunatus, especially in the cruciform acrostic. In this his colleague, Josephus Scotus, followed his example and surpassed it.

According to the Chronicle, in the year 773 ‘a fiery Christ-sign appeared in the heavens after sunset,' and in the year 800,' a cross appeared in the moon on a Wednesday at dawn.' These are the only apparitions of the cross recorded. The first cruciform church of which we have record, after the church of Oswald at Heavenfield, was built in 810. At some time early in the ninth century began the custom of erecting crosses adorned with the famous interlaced ornament. This custom seems to have come from Ireland, but to have spread rapidly over England, Scotland, and Wales. The custom continued in England, at any rate, up to the time of the Norman invasion. Finally, at the battle of Hastings, the army that fought with Harold in the defense of their country shouted the battle-cry, 'The Holy Cross, the Cross of God!

We find on looking over the course of events in AngloSaxon history that, while the cross became almost a national emblem, special interest seems to have been focused upon it during the latter part of the eighth and the first part of the ninth centuries. Of the events in Anglo-Saxon history which we have anything to do with the cross, the victory of Oswald is easily of the first importance. Let us see if the effect of this could have been reinforced by influences from outside of England.

I. THE INFLUENCE OF IRELAND

The art of the Anglo-Saxons was chiefly an imitation of Irish art. It was from Ireland that they learned the arts of illumination, of metal-work, and of carving in stone.

1 See p. 9.

« PreviousContinue »