Dyserth is ancient - bewilderingly so. There have been people here since the Neolithic, if not earlier, settled within the hills above the village, beneath the quarried ruins of Dyserth Castle and Moel Hiraddug. And others followed throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The Romans looked out from the heights and braced themselves against the weather and mined the lead here, bringing it down to the Flintshire coast before shipping it out to elsewhere. And after them came a return to power of the peoples the Romans had conquered, but also something else - something new. Dyserth is thought to be one of the earliest, if not the earliest centre of Christianity in North Wales. The name of the village would seem to be a derivative of the Latin word, ‘desertum’ - desert, a sign that perhaps Dyserth was once the site of an early Christian hermitage. The importance of Dyserth to early Christianity in Wales can not be understated - the Church here, currently dedicated to St Bridget, was likely a mother church - entirely understandable if its past is as ancient as thought.
And that ache of age of devotion to the Christian faith can be seen - felt, in fact, within the confines of St Bridget’s, not least in the presence of the astonishing cross and cross base. They are evidence of a pre-Conquest devotion, evidence of a wildness of cultures and influences from far and wide. And they continue to whisper to us from the mystery of the past.
Elias Owen's drawing of the curious Dyserth Cross and pedestal
In fact, there were once three medieval crosses within the grounds of St Bridget’s of which two now remain. This has led to some confusion in the past. But the two that remain reflect the diversity of cultural influences within Flintshire during the 10th and 11th centuries - one has only to look upon the astonishing Maen Achwyfan to have this further confirmed. Both Dyserth crosses are almost certainly 10th or 11th century in origin and show a level of ornamentation that is clearly influenced by Irish Sea influences - an amalgamation of Viking, Welsh and English fashions. It does well to think of Flintshire as a melting pot of ways, where artists fashioned wonders in stone from a vibrant gathering together of the various styles that plied the seaways of the Irish Sea.
Once to be found in the churchyard, this astonishing cross is an amalgamation of various cultures.
The cross known now, rather prosaically as F2 is a wonder - a first sight on eyes not unlike the response to licking a battery. To be in its worn and broken presence can make one a little flustered - it’s time travel, you see, a sudden transportation to a distant past. To see such things in museums, while mindful of all the very sensible reasons for placing them there, does not quite produce the same effect, however lavish the mise en scêne. To see these relics of the past, in the landscape in which they were first raised can make you breathless - if you’ve a mind to allow yourself to settle into the necessary mindset (many it seems to me are, for whatever reason, loath to do so). It is likely this cross that Thomas Pennant describes as, ‘of very curious workmanship’ and current to his visit at the end of the 18th century, though now within the safe confines of the church remains close to its original position.
Pennant might be forgiven for his description, since the decoration is indeed very curious. Readers of Pennant might, however, be a little surprised to find him so taken, given that he lived a mere trip and tumble from Maen Achwyfan, to which the Dyserth cross is often, understandably compared. Still, his writing on Dyserth came a good decade before his description of Maen Achwyfan in his later work, ‘The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell’ - it is thus of interest, that Pennant’s opinion of Maen Achwyfan might well have been inspired by his trip to Dyserth.
The cross stood in the churchyard for most of its long history before being moved into the church sometime at the end of the 19th century - Owen saw it in the churchyard in around 1886, while the Royal Commission makes clear that it was in the church by the time of their visit in 1910. Owen states plainly that the cross was stood on the south side of the church, as one would expect, but there is a rather curious drawing by Violetta Harriet Darwin (daughter of Erasmus Darwin who was the grandfather to the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin), which shows the cross stood at an angle to the near north west of the church. While the appearance of the cross would appear accurate, it is likely that a certain artistic licence has been taken in its positioning. The drawing appeared in a book of works by amateur artists in around 1860 - but given that Professor A. O. Westwood visited the cross in the 1820s and saw it positioned to the south of the church, and Owen saw it in the same position sometime in the 1880s, it would seem that we should not take Darwin’s drawing too seriously when considering its position in the 19th century.
The gently tapering cross stands, upon its more modern pedestal, at about 6 ft 7 inches in height. The broken and really rather moving remains of the circular cross head are stunning, with its worn projecting limb emanating from a central boss. Within this limb are two intersecting lines forming a neat cross. Directly beneath the cross head at the top of the shaft is an apparent lobe-like feature, which seems to hang down towards the beautiful interlaced ribbons of ornamentation that run down towards the base, ending in a large intersecting cross, not unlike the smaller example on the cross head. On the very worn north facing surface, the cross head boss is proud, surrounded by intricate whorls, while the shaft is weathered plain to its base, where some wonderful, tightly interlaced ribbon work can be viewed.
The curious base, known as F3, was possibly designed to be set against a wall, since the rear is blank. It is contemporary to its larger cousin.
The remains of the second cross, identified now as F3, can also now be found in the church, besides its much larger cousin. Owen identified the socket as originally part of the much larger F2, but this would now seem to be mistaken, and it is more likely the lowly remains of a separate cross. It was found embedded within one of the walls during one of the several restorations of the church in the 16th and 17th centuries (although Westwood claims the find was more recent to his writing in the mid-19th century), and was viewed by Owen in 1880 in the porch, having been brought under cover from the churchyard.
The socket is curious in that it is of irregular shape, with a flat, plain back, but with the remaining 5 sides enjoying similar interlaced ribbon work as seen on F2 (which seems to have been the reason Owen believed it to have been originally part of the larger cross), but also enjoying circles enclosing crosses on other faces. It would be reasonable to assume, in absence of any other evidence to the contrary, that it was designed to be placed against a wall, the rear not expected to be viewed. The height of the socket is just under 20 inches, but there is a curious blank section about 5 inches in height at its base, which Owen suggested was evidence that it had been buried to this level. It has been dated as contemporary to the larger cross, between the 10th and 11th century, and adds further interest as to the importance of Dyserth during this pre-Conquest period.
Mention has been made of a third cross, which has led to some confusion since it has often been folded into the story of the crosses within the church, known as F2 and F3. Tradition tells that during the Siege of Dyserth Castle in 1263, in which Llywelyn ap Gruffudd destroyed the English held fortification, Einion, son of Hirid Flaidd was killed by an arrow on the slopes of the hill. The event was recorded in a manuscript of ancient pedigrees held by the great 17th century antiquarian and collector, Robert Vaughan, and in an earlier 14th century account by Griffith Hiraethog.
‘His (Ririd Flaidd’s) eldest son was Madoc, Enion the second and Howel the third…The said Enion was killed in a fight at Diserth in Flintshire, in memorie of whome a Crosse was erected there, and called Croes Enion, yt is, Enion’s Crosse, and thereon was engraven this distic.’
Robert Vaughan, Pedigrees (transcribed by Howel W. Lloyd and quoted in Old Stone Crosses, Elias Owen 1886)
The distic referred to was the following inscription said to be found on Croes Enion.
‘Oc si petatur lapis yste kausa notatur
Einion oxi Ririd Flaidd filius hoc memoratur’.
A confusing passage to be certain. Even with the obvious difficulties in translating the sense and meaning of a text from one language to another, the passage is curious. As best as can be rendered, the inscription translates into English as,
‘That near the cause of this secret writing if they ask the fall remember Einion this is the son of Ririd Flaidd.’
Enough to hint at understanding but more to cause a scalp scratching struggle to understand its meaning entirely. It is of course possible, as some commentators have said, that the inscription was wrongly copied (Griffith Hiraethog’s original copy was said to have been written in, according to Owen, ‘a very illegible hand’), but since the inscription and the cross it was on have long since vanished, it is now impossible to say.
In fact, neither of the extant crosses within St Bridget’s could possibly be Croes Einion, raised on the slopes of Dyserth Castle subsequent to the Siege of 1263, since both crosses actually date to at least two hundred years earlier.
Croes Einion was said to have been brought to the church for its protection - an assertion made ludicrous by its subsequent rough treatment. But, to the church it seems to have come. Pennant suggests that the shaft was being used in his time as a, ‘stile into the churchyard of Diserth.’ A. O. Westwood, writing in the mid 19th century makes plain that neither of the existing crosses could possibly be Croes Einion due to their age, but also mentions a third, now lost cross, engraved, ‘in a very unsatisfactory manner by Watkin-Williams’, which he describes as a,
‘Smaller cross…although which much defaced, shows a nude figure standing upon a circle inclosing a Maltese Cross surrounded by interlacing ribbons. The stone was subsequently used as a step into the churchyard, the head broken away, and the surface so much defaced that scarcely any trace of the figure remained at the time of my visit.’
A.O. Westwood, Lapidarium Walliae (1876-79), p. 209
Westwood produced a drawing of the cross, based on Watkin-William’s original and another, which would seem to be the cross as Westwood saw it, probably in the first quarter of the 19th century. The repurposing of the cross as a stile would seem to have all but destroyed it. By the time of Elias Owen’s visit in the 1880s, the cross had been lost altogether, it’s current whereabouts, if indeed it has a whereabouts, is unknown. This then would seem to have been the original, enigmatic Croes Einion - raised to remember a lost son and comrade.
Westwood's drawings of the 1870s showing the mysterious and enigmatic Croes Einion (no.5) - now lost
As for the purpose of medieval crosses, the debate continues to smoulder with the ever present threat of flaring to flame, and the reason behind the raising of pre-Conquest crosses, while likely little different to their more recent cousins, are no easier to discern. It is hard to see past the importance of Dyserth as an early centre of Christianity and assign to the crosses a consequent salience. This may or may not be entirely fair. The Dyserth crosses have been variously described as boundary crosses, marking ecclesiastical lands, sanctuary crosses and, on safer ground, churchyard crosses. It has even been thrillingly suggested that they were station crosses, two of what would have been 14 crosses at which the faithful would have given prayer and reflected on the day of Christ’s Crucifixion.
The Dyserth Crosses, whatever their original function, can be said with some considerable confidence to be further evidence of Dyserth’s ancient past. But they are wonders in their own right - enigmatic, dream like memories of our past, of a time when Flintshire was a maelstrom of both conflicting and reconciling visions of a faith born some 2400 miles distant in a land very alien to the hills and vales of north east Wales.
E. Owen, Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Vale of Clwyd, Wrexham & Oswestry (1886)
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, ed. John Rhys, Caernarvon (1781 & 1883)
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire: Denbighshire, London (1914)
R. J. Silvester, Welsh medieval freestanding crosses, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 162 (2013)
R J. Silvester & R. Hankinson, Medieval Crosses and CRossheads, Scheduling Enhancement, CPAT Report No. 1036 (2010)
A. O. Westwood, Lapidarium Walliae, Oxford (1876-79)