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Sample texts about BRITAIN
By Irving Hexham


Links to Websites for places mentioned in
the Christian Travelers
Guide to Britain

See: English Church leaders slide show.

See: The Saxon Crosses of Cumbria slide show.

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The Christian Travelers Guide to Great Britain



According to the great expert on conservation and author/editor of the 46 volume Penguin Buildings of England series, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner [1902-1983], Cumbria is one of the richest areas for the history of early Christianity in Britain with an extraordinary number of ancient stone crosses some of which are "unrivalled in the whole of Europe."

Gosforth is a quaint English village well off the tourist beat because of its remote location. This is a pity because in the churchyard is a very rare Anglo-Danish stone cross 14 feet high that is richly carved with Norse and Christian symbols. This is the tallest Viking cross in England. It is very important historically because it is a visible reminder of the complex transition of the Viking invaders, who occupied the area from the 8th C onwards, from pagans to Christians. On the E face of the cross is a carving of Christ crucified. Two Roman soldiers and a woman, assumed to be Mary Magdalen look on. The rest of the lower carvings tell the story of Ragnarok an d the destruction of the Norse gods. Above Christ is a puzzling carving which some believe is the Norse god Vidaar taking revenge against the wolf that in Norse legend slew his father. The carefully selected themes depicted in the carving are not accidental but clearly are intended to portray the triumph of Christ over the old gods and the His coming judgment at the end of the world. The graveyard also contains two 10th C tomestones covering the graves of Norse Chiefs that represent the houses of the dead that are decorated with battle scenes. The church also contains a Viking "fishing stone."

St Bridget's Church, Beckermet, is an ancient vernacular Cumbrian church that was built on the site of an even older monastery probably founded in the 6th C. Today, St. Bridge's is only used three times a year. In the village of Beckermet the more modern St. John's church serves everyday needs. Two Norse cross shafts are to be seen on the S side of the Church, one of them has a round base is similar in design to the Gosforth Cross. The other cross has runic inscriptions and scroll designs. The interior of the church is simple with an ancient sandstone altar and plain glass windows.

St. Cuthbert's Church, Bewcastle, is located in a remote and difficult to find area several miles N of Lanecost Priory. This inaccessible church is well worth a visit because the 7th C, yellow sandstone, Bewcatle Cross stands in its graveyard. The origins of this remarkably well preserved stone cross, which is 14 feet high and missing its upper sections, is unknown. The artwork is exquisite and clearly influenced by the Coptic art of Egypt a fact that raises all sorts of very intriguing questions. The cross is inscribed with runes praising King Alcfrith, son Oswi, who died in 670. John the Evangelist is depicted on the W side of the cross. Above John is the inscription and above that a carving of Christ holding a scroll in one hand while the other hand gives a blessing He is stepping on the head of an adder and a lion. Above him is another smaller inscription and a carving of John the Baptist. The S side has a panel containing finely carved symmetrical knot and vine panels. The E side is carved with a vine scroll decorated with the heads of animals and birds. Finally, on the N side there are panels with more knot and vine work. Commenting on this and the Ruthwell Cross, which was found a few miles N in Scotland, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote "The quality throughout is amazing … There is nothing as parfect as these two crosses and of a comparable date in the whole of Europe." The church itself is built within what was once a Roman outpost built by the Emperor Hadrian n 122 AD which during the 2nd C and 3rd C this frontier post had a garrison of 1000 troops. The church was built in the 12th C and renovated in the 18th when it was dedicated to St. Cuthbert whose life is told on a tapestry inside the church. The surrounding graveyard has a number of interesting old tombstones.


  See the Island of Iona slide show.

Iona was founded in 563 by St. Columba, Iona became the main base for the evangelization of S Scotland and N England and Ireland in the 6th C and a leading center for Christian scholarship throughout Europe. The name of the island is believed to be the result of a misreading of the Latin for yew tree that may have been confused with the name Jonah. Good pasture and shallow coastal seas teeming with fish made the island an ideal location for a monastic community. The original buildings are thought to have been made of wood although in the 8th C stone was imported for the manufacture of large crosses and, presumably, construction purposes. At the height of early community's success the island was dotted with over 1,000 skillfully decorated stone crosses of which only a few survive today. Scholars also suggest that such great art treasures as the Book of Kells were produced by the monks of Iona. This dynamic Christian community was brought to a sudden and violent end early in the 9th C when Viking raiders plundered the abbey slaughtering many of its monks. Most of the survivors fled to the relative safety of Kells in Ireland where they attempted to continue their scholarly and academic work. elaborate stonework or decoration.




Maclean's Cross close to the nunnery, by the parish church and manse, is the 15th C MacLean cross which is a well preserved example of Iona workmanship. On the far side is a carving of the crucifixion. The cross is located at what was once the junction of the islands two main roads.




Today only 3 early free standing High Crosses remain on Iona out of over 1,000 that existed here in the middle ages. Such crosses were very popular in N Britain, Scotland, and Ireland during the 8th C and often displayed remarkable artistic skill. The surviving crosses are St. John's Cross, St. Martin's Cross and St. Matthew's Cross, all of which are found W of the Abbey. The remains of 2 other early crosses, the St. Odran's Cross the stem of an unknown cross can be seen in the Nunnery Museum. Due to weathering the original St. John's Cross has been removed for repair. A good replica now stands in its stead. All of these crosses were constructed from large pieces of granite slotted together with mortic-and-tenon joints. The sides of the crosses are elaborately decorated with vines, ornamental circles, flowers and scenes from the gospels. The W face of the St. Martin's Cross depicts Daniel in the Lion's Den, while the E face of the St. Mathew's Cross shows the temptation of Adam and Eve. Clearly in an age where books were expensive and rare high stone crosses served to communicate the gospel to a largely illiterate population.




The Abbey was built by Reginald, the son of Somerled (d. 1164) in the early 13th C. on the site of the earlier Celtic monastery and the Benedictine chapel is believed to be on the site of the original church built by Columba. Today the Abbey is named after this church which was dedicate to the Virgin Mary. Hence the name St. Mary's Abbey, but the original name appears to have been St. Columba's Monastery. Because at the time of its founding it was endowed with extensive lands on the islands of Canna, Coll, Mull, Colonsay, and Islay as well as on the Scottish mainland the monastic community on Iona appears to have been relatively wealthy. The austere design and layout of the buildings suggest that it was built by Irish masons using designs they brought with them from Ireland. Building in the Irish style continued until 1250 when it came to an abrupt halt until the mid-15th C. During this time the community appears to have stagnated for at least 100 years. Then in the 1450 Abbot Dominic (1421-1465) initiated a series of reforms and new building projects including a new choir and the tower.




The Parish Church was built in 1828 after the British Parliament in 1824 decreed that every community ought to have its own church to ensure the Christianization of the population and counter the growth of political radicalism. Consequently, it was known as a "Parliamentary Church". This is a simple stone building that is entirely practical. Forty-two such churches were built in the Scottish highlands to a standard design drawn up by the architect Thomas Telford (1757-1834). Telford was the son of a shepherd who apprenticed as a stone mason in Edinburgh and London before becoming one of the most innovative architects and engineers of the age. >> Cairn Blār Buidhe 60 meters W from the St. Columba Hotel is a small earthen mound that is one of the few prehistoric sites on the island believed to be a 2 C B.C. burial mound. >> St. Oran's Chapel this is most likely the oldest surviving building on the island and is dedicated to St. Oran, also known as Odran, (d. 563). The present building was erected in by Lord Somerled (d. 1164) in the 12th C and is clearly inspired by the Irish style of the time. It fell into disrepair after the Reformation, but was restored and reroffed in 1957. Odran was one of the founding monks of the Iona community, who died on the island shortly after their arrival. According to legend Columba received a vision in which he saw Odran's soul ascending to heaven protected by angels who warded off devils seeking to take him to hell. As a result of this vision the community named their cemetery Reilig Odrain in his honor. His feast day was the 27th of October. >> Surrounding the chapel is the ancient burial ground Relig Odhrain named after the saint. According to tradition over 27 Kings and Queens of Ireland, Norway and Scotland were buried here.




St Columba's Shrine stands N of the W door between the nave and the monastic buildings. Originally it was a separate building that over time was incorporated into the overall design. Scholars believe that the shrine was originally an oratory used for preaching to pilgrims who gathered by the high crosses. In the shrine is the outline of a burial chamber which in all probability was the grave of Columba. >> The Nave was restored in 1910 and most of the upper part of the building date from then although the lower sections are 15th C. The N Transept dates from between 1200 and 1220 and is a fine example of Benedictine architecture. On the W wall is the reconstructed night stair that was used by the monks to gain access to the church from their dormitory for night services. The oak screen at the front of the transept was donated by Queen Elizabeth II, in 1956. The S window is a modern design showing the life of St. Columba installed in 1965. Outside the S Transept lies the foundations of a large late 13th C transept that was never completed. The Choir was restored by Thomas Ross between 1902 and 1905 who preserved most of the 15th C which replaced an earlier 12th construction. Parts of the 12th C building, however, are still to be seen on the N side. >> The Cloisters and monastic buildings complete the Abbey complex. The earliest of these was constructed in the 13th C. Over the Chapter House is a small room believed to be the site of the original library. It was restored in 1938. The Dormitory and other working buildings were restored between 1950 and 1953. Today these buildings provide living quarters for the Abbey staff and a limited number of visitors. To the S are two detached buildings. The first houses Abbey Museum which contains numerous fragments of ancient Christian carvings found throughout the island and is one of the richest collections of early stone crosses and gravestones in Britain. Next is Michael Chapel which was built in the late 12th C and restored in 1959. . >> St. Mary's Chapel is now a ruin on the SE side of the Abbey. It is believed to have been a pilgrim church during the middle ages.


    See: Wells Cathedral - slide show.

Wells Cathedral, founded as the church of St. Andrews in 704 by King Ine it was elevated to the status of a cathedral in 909. The Normans pulled down the earlier church to build one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. The magnificent W front,150 feet high and 300 wide, contains over three hundred 13th C sculptures of saints and kings many of which are life size. The display is crowned by a frieze of Jesus surrounded by his Apostles and two 6 winged cherubim. Originally brightly colored today they are plain stone figures with a golden hue. Once inside the visitor is confronted by a fantastic arch that looks like a double "S" and is sometimes described as the scissor arch that appears both in keeping with its gothic surroundings and somehow far too modern. In fact, the arch was built as an emergency measure in 1338 by a brilliant architect intent on preventing the collapse of the central tower. In the N transept is a rare astronomical clock while each capital and corbel in the transepts tells its own story from medieval life including an old man with toothache and another caught stealing. A flight of stairs approached through the door opposite the clock leads upwards to the splendid octagonal Chapter House where the clergy of the diocese once met with their Bishop and higher clergy to discuss sacred and secular issues. In the 14th C Lady Chapel one finds some exquisite stained glass. A breathtaking rose window lightens the main church and a Jesse window in the chancel that illustrates the genealogy of Christ.