In the most northern parish of Cumberland there stands, as it has stood since the year 670, the most remarkable Anglican cross that exists in the world. (p. 210)
This monument is remarkable not only as being our one source of a belief that Alcfrith the King had died in the moment of victory, but it also, as Bishop Browne has well pointed out, gives us the earliest example, known to be in existence, of English literature. Those of us, therefore, who want to see the earliest specimen of English writing in the world must pay a visit to the Bewcastle Cross. (p. 210)
And who was this Alcfrith to whom the monument was set up, probably to commemorate his death in battle in the year 670? (p. 210)
He was the son of Oswy, King of Northumbria, and nephew of Oswald the King. He was the patron and friend of St. Wilfrith who built Hexham Church and brought over to this country the arts of Gaul and Italy. (pp. 210-211)
It was Alcfrith who turned the scale at the famous conference at Whitby in the year 664, by which English Christianity broke away from the ruder type of the Celt and joined itself with the Latin Church of the West, and all the civilisation that Rome at that time could offer. It was this same Alcfrith who was the chief instrument in the conversion of the Midlands. It was this Alcfrith who helped Oswy, his father, to conquer the Cumbrians. It was more than probable that Alcfrith the King was leading his Anglian soldiers against the Cumbrians when, in the moment of victory, he fell and died on this very spot. (p. 211)….
At last we reach the brow of the slope that leads down to the ford, with its two or three humble cottages close by the little public-house. We wonder what we have come for, for we are looking down into a depression in the moorland that is almost featureless, and has little evidence of the existence of man for miles, save for a white dot here or there, which tells us of a lonely farm. (p. 216)
But one thing takes our eye. It is the upstanding wall of a crumbling fortress-keep upon a green mound halfway up the near slope. This is Jacky Musgrave’s Border castle, the terror of the Scotch marauding bands of old. (p. 216)
Where is the Cross? Where is the Church? Both of them seem absorbed in Jacky Musgrave’s castle. It is not till one has looked for a few moments that one can dissociate them, and then the jumble of Church and Vicarage and Vicarage barn, and Bewcastle Cross gets disentangled from the castle building, and we see the spot where, in the shelter of the fortress, the moorland Church lies, and where, in the shelter of the moorland Church, stands the Bewcastle Cross. (pp. 216-217)….
Approaching the monolith one is astonished at its size, and wonders how it got here. Even in these days of steam cranes and steam traction it would have been a great work to bring it from the quarry in the moorland, two miles and a half to the north, to its present standing place. But that it came from thence there can be little doubt, for a sister stone, with a flaw in it, still lies there. The men who brought it here would have nothing but rollers and the strong arms of men and the willing help of oxen and horses to haul it there, and how they set it up on end would have been a puzzle for any but skilled builders. (pp. 217-218)….
Now let us carefully examine this Roman monument, which not only embalms the memory of three of the four northern princes who did more than any other to make the faith of the Church of England a reality in Northumbria in the seventh century, viz. Oswiu, brother of Oswald, Oswiu’s son Alcfrith, and Wulfhere, the Mercian King, but also preserves to us the name of Cyniburga, Alcfrith’s widow, daughter of Penda, the Pagan King of Mercia, and Cyneswitha, who may either have been Cyniburga’s sister or the widow of Penda and mother of Cyniburga and Wulfhere. (pp. 218-219)
There was no greater fighter or missionary king alive at the time than Wulfhere, King of the Mercians who died three years after this cross was set up, in the year 673. There was no greater benefactor of art and letters than Oswiu, the king under whose patronage Benedict Biscop established his famous seats of learning on the banks of Wear and Tyne and on the Isle of Farne; and there was no greater decider of the Anglian Church’s destiny than Alcfrith, the arbiter at the Synod of Whitby. One’s heart thrills as, with memory of that Northumbrian Church and its golden age before one’s eyes, one gazes at a monument that brings before us such remarkable names. (p. 219)
Nor is it only as a pillar of remembrance of great actors in the Church’s drama that this monument so impresses us as we gaze. For as Bishop Browne puts it: “On the Bewcastle Cross we find the earliest example, known to be in existence, of English literature. On the last leaf of our Cambridge MS. of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in Bede’s lifetime, there is on the back of the leaf, in a small hand probably contemporary, the English version of the beginning of Caedmon’s first song, which in the body of the MS. is given only in Latin. But that, even if it is contemporary, is not earlier than 731, sixty years later than the date of the Bewcastle Cross; this fact, that we have here the earliest known specimen of Anglian script, of English literature, is enough to give a unique position to this great monument of antiquity.” (pp. 219-220)….
For more than twelve centuries it has stood four-square to all the winds that blow, and twelve centuries hence that noble figure of the victorious Christ will still bless all believers who come to see, and twelve centuries hence, as now, His soldiers and servants, who come to this saluting point, may feel sworn in anew against all lust and devilry, and go forth conquering and to conquer for love of Him Whose feet are for ever on the swine. (pp. 224-225)
We will return to Carlisle by another route, but not before we have entered the twelfth century Church that bears St. Cuthbert’s name. It stands in the place of the earlier house of prayer, probably built here by the monks who were bearing St. Cuthbert’s body towards its final home, when after seven years’ wandering through Yorkshire and Cumberland, Kirkcudbrightshire and the land north of the Birder, they, on their way to Chester le Street, brought the body of the Saint to rest for a little while, in the year 875, beneath the shadow of Alcfrith’s Cross. (p. 225)
(Round the Lake Country, pp. 210-227)