At some time in the late 10th or early 11th century, the extraordinary Maen Achwyfan cross was raised on the spot it still stands today, a little more than a mile outside of the village of Whitford. Why it was raised is still something of a mystery, largely a consequence of its relatively isolated position. But an altogether more interesting question relates to the nature of the community that raised it.
Maen Achwyfan has stood for a thousand years, and may stand for a thousand more, a 3.4 metre free standing cross of red sandstone, probably quarried from the St John’s area of Chester where a workshop is thought to have existed. There have been any number of descriptions of the Cross, the first of which we have available to us is dated to 1695, and relates to Edward Lhuyd’s contribution in Gibson’s published edition of Camden’s, ‘Britannia’. David Griffith’s more recent description, given in full below, is a succinct but wholly excellent description, and far better than anything I could write.
‘The cross-head, the spandrels of which are unpierced, has a continuous circle enclosing the arms on both main faces and an external rim bearing two panels of plaitwork. The shaft has a series of decorative forms including rig-knots, concentric circles, irregular looping knotwork, interlinked rings, T-frets, and a key pattern which forms an enclosed saltire cross. On the better-preserved east facing face of the shaft is a seemingly naked figure, with bent knees, who holds a spear in his right hand and what is probably an axe in his left. He stands on a snake-like form which rises up under his left arm. On the narrow south-facing side is another figure with a short tunic holding a sword across his body, set above a four (arguably eight) legged animal which is set sideways with its legs against the vertical frame; further animals appear below. The sides of the shaft are roughly bevelled and this has damaged some of the decoration.’
David Griffiths. ‘Maen Achwyfan and the context of Viking Settlement in north-east Wales’. Archaeologia Cambrensis 155 (2006)
Looking at the Cross for any length of time is a bit like falling into a H.P. Lovecraft tale - the sense of being dragged into an alien landscape is palpable. It seems to be teasing you with a meaning that is just beyond your ken.
The date of its raising, whether late 10th or early 11th century places the Cross firmly in the Viking Period, though what that actually meant in 11th century Flintshire, Tegeingl as it was then, is a matter of debate, and will be discussed shortly. But the Cross is undoubtedly of Viking influence, or more accurately Hiberno-Norse influence, since the Irish Sea and its environs were the realm of the ‘Black Host’ from the ninth century onwards. It is remarkably well preserved for its age and station, though it has weathered somethat on its western face. But it retains a clearly visible and pleasingly complex decoration.
The Cross has always been considered Viking influenced, from our earliest studies. Edward Lhuyd in 1695 believed that it had, ‘been erected by the Danes, for that there is another very like them at Beau-Castle in Cumberland, inscrib’d with Runick Characters.’ Yet, it’s date was a matter of debate until fairly recently. Professor Nancy Edward of Bangor University has, however, now confidently dated the cross to the stated dates. As for this being a Viking Period, the question that remains - which Viking Period we are referring to and what did that actually look like in North East Wales.
There are considered to be three distinct periods of Viking activity between the late eighth and late 11th century, of which Maen Achwyfan falls neatly into the second, some considerable time after the expulsion of the Viking, Ingimund from Ireland and Anglesey (902-903) and his settling, along with many of his people on the Northern half of the Wirral Peninsula. This is important, since Tegeingl fell, and arguably still does within the sphere of influence of Chester and West Cheshire, including the Wirral. It is perhaps not surprising then, that Tegeingl, after one hundred years of Viking activity in the Chester area began to witness what is known as, ‘acculturation’ - the emergence of a Hiberno-Norse influence into the fabric of its culture. And as it happens, Lhuyd did not have to look as far afield as, ‘Beau-Castle’ to find similarities between Maen Achwyfan and other Viking influenced crosses, since there are the remains of similar crosses at nearby Dyserth and Meliden, and many more throughout the Wirral.
The finds at Dyserth and Meliden, together with Maen Achwyfan, the curious discovery of what is thought to be a Viking burial at Talacre, and a smattering of possible Norse influenced place name evidence (nearby Axton, Kelston and Linacre) have led to speculation that there was Viking settlement in North East Wales. Evidence of settlement remains scarce, however, although one is mindful of the lack of evidence of Viking settlement of Anglesey until the discovery of the remains of what is possibly a trading station at Llanbedrgoch.
Maen Achwyfan is unignorable, and its art and iconography have been thoroughly studied over the centuries. The cross remains at Meliden and Dyserth have already been mentioned in passing, and there are far too many similarities between them to be discounted. It is clear that this region was being heavily influenced by the same source, and that this original source was either wholly Viking in origin or immersed in its culture.
There continues to be a debate as to whether the Cross is entirely pagan, or if it displays Christian iconography - despite its relative good repair, this isn’t clear. Given its date, and its position in an area steeped in early Christianity (at Dyserth, for example), it’s likely that it was accepted as being Christian by the later peoples of the area, even if it wasn’t at its creation.
Another interesting aspect of this argument is the name - Maen Achwyfan. Reading Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century, you would be forgiven for believing the name of the Cross as translating to, ‘The Stone of Lamentation’, of which more will be said, based on his excitement at the number of Bronze Age barrows surrounding the Cross, one of which at least contained a number of bodies that were said to have demonstrated violence. Pennant’s naming of the Cross rather irked Elias Owen, writing at the end of the 19th century, since he rightly pointed out that the proper translation is, in fact, ‘The Stone of St Cwyfan’. It remains curious, as Owen admits that Lhuyd did not make the connection to the 7th century saint, obscure as he may be, but nor did Lhuyd translate the meaning to be, ‘lamentation’. Owen refused to name the Cross as anything other than Maen Chwyfan or Maen y Chwyfan in his writings, but despite this, Pennant’s influence has clearly reigned supreme.
As to who St Cwyfan was, this is almost entirely a matter of speculation. He is said to have been a disciple of St Beuno in the 7th century, while he has also been identified as the Irish born Kevin of Glendalough, a man renowned as a hermit in his native land. Clearly, this places Maen Achwyfan in a Christian context, which of course does not remove it from a Viking context. And it is worth mentioning here, that at nearby Dyserth, the original dedication of the parish church was to St Cwyfan. And if, as said, St Cwyfan is actually St Kevin, the hermit out of Ireland, the origins of Dyserth as an early Christian hermitage becomes more interesting, indeed. In fact, one can take this thread of thought a little further, since St Bridget, to whom the parish church at Dyserth was later dedicated, held cult status in Ireland and throughout the Wirral and north west England. The cultural impact of the Vikings out of Ireland becomes ever more distinct. St Cwyfan’s influence reached into Denbighshire, since the village of Llangwyfan, some ten miles south of Whitford is named after the saint.
If much has been said about the iconography of Maen Achwyfan, rather less has been written about the position of the Cross. It seems the razzle dazzle of the Cross itself has rather obscured the more prosaic environs. Given that there are six barrows or tumuli in the near vicinity of the Maen Achwyfan, this may seem a little odd - but then the Cross is really very razzle dazzle. If the relationship between the Cross and its placing has been somewhat ignored in the past, recent studies led by David Griffiths have gone some way to address this issue.
Edward Lhuyd made mention of one the barrows about the Cross, thought now to be the tumulus designated, unromantically as No.1, a little to the north west. His interest was focused on the finds from an excavation of the barrow which he briefly describes, finding a great many bodies, many of which displayed evidence of wounds. These included skulls pierced with arrows, it seems. You may wish to forgive Pennant his excitement at this, since such evidence is rare. Lhuyd goes on to state that this barrow was just one of twenty in the area, a considerable density of tumuli, although six have been clearly identified within around half a kilometre of the Cross. He uses the term, ‘y Gorsedheu’ to describe them, a term which can be readily rendered into English to mean, ‘thrones’, and is suggestive of a ceremonial, bardic, governance existence. In fact, there is a nearby village, some two miles to the south east of the Cross called, Gorsedd. Thomas Pennant, who it must be said was a very near neighbour to the Cross, his family home being at nearby Downing, took all this information and declared that the Cross, ‘takes its name, in all probability, from the penances which were often finished before such sacred pillars, attended with weeping and the usual marks of contrition’. And hence, Maen Chywfan, the Stone of St Cwyfan, became Maen Achwyfan, the Stone of Lamentation, much to Owen’s chagrin.
The barrows are much older than the Cross, of course - thousands of years older, in fact. The Cross then, was obviously raised in what would have been known to those that placed it there, as an ancient place, resonant of ceremonial religious relevance, perhaps. Was this the reason it was raised there? In truth, you can claim your favourite reason from any number that have been thrust forth over the years. Much has been said of the apparent lack of a settlement nearby, a church being the obvious example. There is no evidence of llan place names in the near area and this has left the Cross rather isolated from a definitive, known Christian centre. The nearby Gelli grange attached to Basingwerk Abbey was built some 300 years after the raising of Maen Achwyfan. Historians and antiquarians have spent much of the last few hundred years looking for some sort of evidence of Christianity in the landscape around the Cross - a cemetary, perhaps, or the remains of a settlement. Nothing yet - keep looking. And much has been said of the apparent propensity of Christianity in rather bullishly appropriating pagan sites, as if to prove that their God was demonstratively bigger than your gods. But perhaps too much has been made of this theory, and it does seem to have been rather discounted of late, and rightly so.
Perhaps it’s naive, perhaps overly optimistic of human nature, but is it not more likely that the raising of Maen Achwyfan on the site of these many barrows (but not, we should note on a barrow) is a recognition of meaning, a respect for the beliefs of ancestors, a recycling of faith - not some declaration of war on the past. Well, that’s my chosen reason - there are others, if you should wish an alternative.
Still, it does seem a little odd - this Cross in this place. Attempting to address a gap in our knowledge of Maen Achwyfan, David Griffiths undertook a study of the environs in 2006, and discovered a number of curiosities. Magnetometer readings of the area directly around the Cross itself have thrown up the possibility of a trackway running towards the Cross, which faces the apparent approach, from the south west. And add to that, there would appear to be a hint of a curvilinear enclosure surrounding the Cross, and all of a sudden, just like that in fact, we have something extremely interesting - the possibility that Maen Achwyfan was raised within a purpose built enclosure reached by a trackway. Now we have the possibility of ceremony, of ritual, of monumentality.
It is clear that Maen Achwyfan was raised in an area of note, the six barrows in its near vicinity evidence of this. The question remains as to whether Maen Achwyfan was raised to effectively recycle that importance, to continue its relevance within a community, and whether that community, wherever it may be or have been, was a Hiberno-Norse settlement, or simply heavily influenced by the Vikings out of Ireland. What remains a possibility is that the Bronze Age tumuli became a kind of focus for the peoples that followed, a gathering place, of sorts, a meeting place - not unlike the hundred stones of the Saxons or the things of the Norse - and Maen Achwyfan raised in an age of political flux, to say the least, could reflect part of this tradition. It would be in keeping with one of the likely functions of medieval crosses.
But what does Maen Achwyfan mean to us? It's a fair question. It still stands, after all - has done so for over a thousand years. It hasn’t been knocked down by Puritan zealots, rehomed or extensively defaced. That would suggest that it has remained relevant, even if we are unsure as to why for all those many years. So, I ask again - what does it mean to you?