St. Botolph's Cross, Frosterley

An arm of the cross, the first part to be found, in Sept 2013.
Source: Paul Frodsham.
Copyright: Paul Frodsham.

St. Botolph's Cross, Frosterley

The centre of the cross, with incised concentric rings, found in 2014.
Source: Paul Frodsham.
Copyright: Paul Frodsham.

St. Botolph's Cross, Frosterley

The top of the shaft of the cross was found embedded in the back of a skeleton, buried face-down in about 900AD.
Source:  Gail Hildreth & Alex Jackson.
Copyright:  Gail Hildreth & Alex Jackson.

Reconstruction of St. Botolph's Church at Frosterley

Conjectural reconstruction of St Botolph’s chapel in the 8th century, with the cross standing to the south, by Peter Ryder.
Source: Peter Ryder.
Copyright: Peter Ryder.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: St Botolph’s Chapel, Frosterley
Current Location: Durham University (but awaiting transfer)
Theme: Ritual
Period: Early medieval
Date: c.8th century (?)

What is it?
During archaeological excavations in 2013 and 2014, several fragments of an ancient stone cross, dating probably from the 8th century, were recovered from the ground to the south of the ruins of St Botolph’s Chapel. The cross may originally have stood outside a timber church (later rebuilt in stone), and seems to have been deliberately destroyed at some point during the 9th or 10th centuries.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
The Frosterley cross is an example of a type of stone cross that was produced during the so-called Northumbrian Golden Age. It is carved in a distinctive type of fossiliferous limestone known as Roker Dolomite, known only from outcrops near the famous Golden Age monastery of Monkwearmouth (Sunderland), founded in AD 674. St Peter’s at Monkwearmouth formed a twin monastery along with St Paul’s at Jarrow where the Venerable Bede (672-735) lived and worked. This was one of the most important monasteries of the Northumbrian Golden Age, and would have had extensive workshops run by the most skilled craftsmen of the time. It is assumed that the Frosterley cross must have been made there, then transported up the Wear to be erected at the Chapel of St Botolph (though it may not have been thus dedicated at such an early time).

St Botolph was a contemporary of St Cuthbert and is thought to have died in 680; in medieval times he was an important saint and many churches were dedicated to him, though Frosterley is the most northerly known example. The name ‘Frosterley’ is Norman in origin, and the oldest known reference to it is in the late 12th-century Boldon Book, but prior to the Norman conquest the village may have been known as Bottlingham, after St Botolph.

The cross was found broken into many pieces, having apparently been deliberately smashed up; the top of the shaft was found in the grave of a man buried face down in a shallow grave, dated to the late 9th or 10th century, possibly to about the time that Monkwearmouth and Jarrow monasteries were abandoned following their sacking by Vikings. There is still much work to be done on the remains of the Frosterley cross, and other finds associated with it, before we can approach the telling of its full, fascinating story.

Why is it important?
This cross is a key piece of evidence in demonstrating the ancient origins of the settlement of Frosterley. It appears to demonstrate intriguing links between this relatively inaccessible inland ‘backwater’ and  one of the great establishments of the Northumbrian Golden Age at Monkwearmouth. The fact that it seems to have met such a violent end, possibly linked to Viking incursions into Weardale about which nothing is known, is also fascinating. Work on the finds form the excavation is still in progress; there may yet be more surprises in store.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • St Botolph’s Chapel, Frosterley. Unpublished Altogether Archaeology excavation reports by Archaeological Services Durham University, 2014/2015. (To be made available via the North Pennines AONB website).

  • Other Information that might be useful:

    Eventually it is hoped to display the finds from the St Botolph’s excavations in the Weardale Museum (they are currently still under analysis at Durham University) – this entry will be updated to reflect this in due course.

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