“Bloody Hell!” The blasphemous words were out before I could stop them… and in a church too! I think, under the circumstances, I might be forgiven. My companion, though less verbal, was equally astounded.
The history of the little kirk at Ruthwell is a hard one to trace… I can find out very little about its origins except that it is the oldest serving church this far south in Scotland and that is has a medieval church at its heart that goes back to 1200AD, if not further. The current interior of the building is simple and clean, painted in pastel colours… and dominated by the Ruthwell Cross.
There is no shortage of information about that. Even standing just inside the doorway of the little church we were utterly amazed at the sheer scale of the thing; a great, carved pillar of stone standing behind the altar and serving as a focus for worship. The carvings looked so crisp too… as if it had been sheltered much of its life from the attrition of the elements.Of course, as we got closer we saw the whole story… we had only seen half of it. The apse in which it stands has a crypt … and the base of the cross sits within its well. The massive blocks dwarf the Gosforth Cross… it is, quite simply, incredible.
The cross stands eighteen feet high and dates back around 1,400 years. Latin inscriptions line the narrow bands at the edges of the cross, birds and strange creatures sit amongst the vine-like scrollwork of the sides while the two main faces are deeply incised with images. Its early history is unknown, though local legend suggests it may have been part of a priory at nearby Priestside. Certainly the cross is so imposing that if it was intended to be placed indoors, the building would have had to be large.
It is thought that the cross once stood within the ancient church here but was dismantled in 1642 and its pieces buried in the clay of the floor after the Reformation, when such imagery was seen as idolatrous. When the church was remodelled the fragmented cross was taken into the churchyard and left there. In 1823 they pieces were gathered together, restored and reassembled in the grounds of the Manse by Henry Duncan, the minister. In 1887 they were moved into the church, a special apse being built to accommodate the height of the cross.
The stained glass…including another St Hilda of Whitby, where we would be going, the carved beasts and winged horses on the chairs… all paled into insignificance. Especially when we saw the panel titled in Latin, “Jesus Christ: the judge of righteousness: the beasts and dragons recognised in the desert the saviour of the world.” A phrase we have come across and written about in the books.
There have been the inevitable disputes over whether it was originally cross or pillar and how accurate the reconstruction might have been and the jury will doubtless remain out on the interpretation of some of the scenes depicted. Nor will we know why, at some time over a thousand years ago part of the ancient poem The Dream of the Rood was carved onto its borders in Anglo Saxon runes.
The poem is classed as one of the earliest Christian poems in English literature, penned by an unknown hand, though usually attributed to Caedmon in the 7th century. The earliest known copy preserved it in the 10th century Vercelli Book. It tells of a dream, where the narrator converses with the Rood… the Cross itself. While I was examining the font, brought from a local church, my companion was reading the translation of the text. He let out a small triumphal noise and brandished a finger…
“Christ was on the rood-tree
But fast from afar
His friends hurried
To aid their Ætheling…”
We looked at each other… we had drawn that comparison in the first of the Doomsday books…The Ætheling Thing… this was going to take some processing! We left quietly, returning the key to the Manse and setting off on the long drive through the Scottish Borders towards Edinburgh.