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The saxon cross

The cross was recovered from under the chancel floor during restoration work in 1907. Its site when found has been taken to suggest that it was one of many items discarded by Butterfield during his 19th century restoration of the church, but there are at least two alternatives. It is possible from the siting that the cross was destroyed during work on the chancel in the 15th century, or it could have been destroyed earlier if the present chancel is a rebuilding of a post-Saxon one contemporary with the remains of the 12th century nave.

In considering its origin, it has been suggested that the cross could be from a ‘minster’ on the site of the present church, or that this could even be the site of the abbey founded in 

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979 AD. Its weathered condition suggests that it was an external feature, but it does not appear on any pre-restoration illustrations of the church, leading one still further to think that it may have been associated with an earlier structure.

The fact that does remain is that the crosshead was associated with a Saxon church. It has been dated from the 9th to the 11th centuries but a more recent study of its characteristics suggests a date in the second half of the 10th century, a period contemporary with the first recorded founding of the abbey.

The wheel-head cross evolved in the Irish Sea cultural region and became the dominant form of cross there during the 10th and 11th centuries. In England its spread is initially associated with the Norse penetration of the north-west from Ireland and from there it spread across the Pennines into the Danish area. Its appearance in south and south-east England is rare. The wheel-head form of cross could have reached Amesbury overland from the north-west or, as is more likely, direct by sea via the Bristol Channel. There is, then, a suggestion at Amesbury of cultural links with Ireland during the mid or later parts of the 10th century.

The shape of the cross is a later form of the Anglican cross evolved in Northumbria at the turn of the 8th century. Elements of the design in the termination of the arms suggest an influence by a tradition exclusive to Ireland. The only two extant crosses with the identical pattern of linked triquetras are at Cardynham in Cornwall and Coychurch in Glamorgan.

The interlace pattern around the edge of the head originated in northern Italy in the 9th century and is similar to that found on stones at nearby Ramsbury and Wherwell. This fixes the earliest possible date for the Amesbury cross in the mid-9th century.

The design and execution of the Amesbury cross are of a high quality, suggesting a competent sculptor, worthy to be employed by a rich patron with possibly royal connections. An abbey was founded at Wherwell in 986 AD by Queen Aelfthryth, the foundress of Amesbury. It is interesting to note that all the sculptures in this group have been assigned dates prior to the known foundation of churches at each of the sites.

Ties with the Celtic west could have survived here until the 10th century and perhaps this is reflected in the later dedication of Amesbury’s church to St Melor. The cross may well represent Amesbury’s earliest link with Christianity.