The extraordinary Corwen Churchyard Cross is thought to be the earliest post-Conquest cross in North East Wales. It probably dates from the 12th century, and is thus likely contemporary with the oldest remaining parts of the Church of St Mael and St Sulien.
As seen today, the cross is some 2.2m high and square sectioned, a gently tapering shaft, running up to an ornamental head, the east face of which retains the best of the remaining ornamentation, a rather beautiful interlaced rope-like carving within a shield shaped capital. The head, as is often the case, has been lost, likely removed and destroyed as part of the Reformation in the 16th century - although more of that will be said a little later. The edges of the cross have been rounded beautifully, and there is, most notably on the east facing length, a simple but pleasing vertical grooving on either side. This grooving upon an otherwise plain facing also serves to highlight an interesting latin cross, not unlike the famous Owain Glyndwr’s Dagger impressed upon the rock now serving as a lintel above the doorway of the priests doorway in the reconstructed south porch. Unsurprisingly, it too has been attributed to Owain Glyndwr.
The ornamental interlaced rope-like carving and the latin cross, both on the east facing length of the Cross.
While the headstone has been lost, a drawing of the Cross is to be found in Richard Gough’s edition of William Camden’s Britannia, and dated to 1789. This clearly shows the Cross with a startling looking octagonal cap with a hollow in its centre. This cap would seem to have been lost soon after, certainly by the time of Professor Westwood’s visit in researching his Lapidarium Walliae in 1835.
Richard Gough's 1789 drawing of the Corwen Cross, the middle of the three shown, showing the curious octagonal cap and 'rude stones' upon which the basestone sits.
The sharp-eyed of you will have noticed one other difference between Gough’s drawing and the Cross as it is to be seen today. From Gough’s drawing it is clear that the basestone within which the cross shaft is fixed, rests upon a series of seemingly unfixed and fairly irregular shaped stones - and this is highly unusual and, as far as this author is aware, unheard of elsewhere in North East Wales. These stones were earlier witnessed by Thomas Pennant, writing in 1776, and described as,
‘four of five rude stones, as if the whole had been formed in imitation of, and in veneration of the scared Cromlechs of very early time.’
Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales Vol. II (1776)
Westwood, visiting in 1835 makes no mention of them at all, and these ‘rude stones’ were certainly gone by the time of Elias Owen’s visit at the end of the 19th century. The providence of these stones is entirely unknown, but to say they are intriguing would be an understatement. The brutal, beautiful basestone as seen today is unusual in itself, given that most remaining churchyard crosses are to be found within a fairly conventional block stone. Upon the face of the Corwen basestone are several (Owen counted seven) impressions, identified by Owen and the Rev E.L. Barnwell as Neolithic, possibly Bronze Age cup marks - though little has been said of these in the years since, suggesting that such identification amounts to wishful thinking. But then again, the fact that this basestone rested on unfixed, crude stones cannot help but lend a prehistoric air to the site, though there is no suggestion that the shaft and long lost headstone were anything other than post-Conquest.
Another curiosity is the position of the Cross. Owen makes the point that most churchyard crosses are to be found on the southern side of the church, while St Mael and St Sulien’s cross is most assuredly on the western side, and rather close to the tower. Neither Gough or Pennant were clear as to the position of the Cross when they visited at the end of the 18th century. Is it possible that they would have mentioned the unusual western position had it been so sited? Owen suggested that it is possible that the Cross was moved from the more usual south to the western side of the Church for some reason, perhaps during the numerous renovations made to the Church. He suggests that the ‘rude stones’ and presumably the octagonal cap were victims, either intentionally or accidentally of the translation. And, it is worth mentioning, that the fascinating and wholly curious prehistoric monolith, known as Carreg y Big yn y fach Rewlyd, that once stood by the north wall, and was later built into the porch there lends weight to the possibility that in the very near vicinity of the churchyard was a prehistoric site of some importance. Is it possible that Barnwell and Owen’s belief in the cup marks on the basestone do actually have some credible weight? There have been repeated discoveries of masonry, subsequently lost, which may have been parts of the lost cross and base sustaining stones.
Elias Owen's drawing of the Corwen Cross in, 'Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd'. (1886)
Much has been written about the purpose of the churchyard cross, but the truth is that no one is certain as to the reason crosses were raised within the grounds about the church. There is a clear purpose given in A Statute of Worcester of 1229, which categorically states that churchyards should,
‘contain a decent and comely cross to which there may be a procession on Palm Sunday.’
However, whether this was the case throughout the British Isles is impossible to say. It is likely that the churchyard cross was raised as obvious evidence of sanctity, as any other reason. And whatever the primary purpose of the churchyard cross, it is certain they took on other roles as the centuries progressed - as places where announcements were made (although the market cross in a town, if there was one, would likely be the primary source of news) or as a place for preaching.
It is likely that most churchyards had a cross, though whether that cross was always of stone is unknown. Few remaining churchyard crosses have kept their headstones, although there are wonderful examples at Derwen, Trelawnyd and Tremeirchion. In many cases, the cross shaft has also been lost, what remains often being reused as sundials, as at Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd. There are also a few pre-Conquest crosses in North East Wales, including the stunning Maen Achwyfan cross and examples within St Bridget’s at Dyserth. We owe a debt of gratitude to Elias Owen, whose efforts in documenting the crosses of North East Wales have saved many from obscurity. It’s unlikely, however, that the remarkable Corwen Cross would have ever suffered this fate.