Os grid reference: NZ 9009 1126. From Church street it’s a fair-old climb to the top of the precarious flight of 199 steps up to the west side of St Mary’s churchyard, overlooking the river Esk where it meets the north sea; but at the very top we are compensated by the tall monument called Caedmon’s Cross, a late Victorian-style Celtic cross that commemorates the famous 7th century Anglo-Saxon poet, Caedmon. He lived for most of his life at St Hilda’s monastic community of Streonaeshalch (Whitby), the predecessor to the present-day abbey, as a laybrother and herdsman. But Caedmon was to become an outstanding religious poet, and we have St Hilda to thank for that! The cross is richly decorated on all four sides and, although it’s not an ‘ancient’ cross as such – it’s still a remarkably stunning monument. It’s well worth visiting.
Caedmon’s Cross is almost 20 feet high and stands upon a solid stone-base. It was made from a hard type of sandstone quarried close by Hadrian’s Wall; and was set-up in 1898 to commemorate the 7th century poet of Whitby Abbey, founded by the Northumbrian saint, Hilda. The monument is very reminicent of the Bewcastle, Ruthwell and Gosforth Crosses with its panels depicting various Saxon saints, kings and Biblical figures, and there is an inscription recalling Caedmon. On the front side (east face) in 4 panels: Christ in the act of blessing – his feet resting upon a dragon and a swine, King David playing a harp, the abbess Hilda with her feet on tiny fossilised creatures (ammonites) with a gull by her side, and behind her her five best scholars. Also Caedmon in his stable being inspired to sing his hymn about ‘The Creation’ – below which an inscription: “To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”
On the west face in panels: double vine stems symbolising Christ, loops with 4 scholars of Whitby at the time of Caedmon: Aetla, Bosa, John and Oftgar, below which are carved the first 9 lines of Caedmon’s hymn of Creation. The two sides of the cross show an English rose, birds, animals and an apple tree (Eden). Also, a harp at the foot of The Tree of Life (harmony with Christ). The cross-head is carved on one side with the Agnus Dei and the four Evangelists with their symbols, while the other side has knotwork, bosses, and a dove representing the Holy Ghost.
We know from what Venerable Bede tells us in his ‘Ecclesiastical History Of The English People’ that Caedmon was ignorant, at first, of words and song and, knew nothing much about ‘life and creation’, being teased and mocked by the other monks, but that his life literally changed overnight when he had a wonderful dream in which he was visited by an angel. He was told to compose a hymn about the Creation with our Lord at its ‘very core’. The following morning he rushed to inform abbess Hilda about this dream. Hilda was filled with joy at what she heard and encouraged him to write down what the heavenly angel had revealed. And so the great hymn to ‘God the Creator’ was composed; he even sang it in a angelic voice in front of his fellow monks.
Abbess Hilda invited scholars from the monastery to evaluate Caedmon’s work, and she asked him to take the tonsure of a monk – which he did. But he also set out to write about the Christian Church and compose other religious hymns and poems with the Bible at the heart of each one. Sadly the Creation hymn is Caedmon’s only surviving work and is said to be ‘the oldest recorded Old English poem.’ He is said to have died in the monastery hospice in AD 680 surrounded by his friends after having a premonition of his own death; St Hilda also passed away that year, aged 66. However some accounts claim that Caedmon died in AD 684? The 11th February is St Caedmon’s feast-day. Close by there is a rather battered medieval wayside cross on a circular stepped base.
Bede, The Venerable., A History Of The English Church And People, Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1982.
Roberts, Andy., Ghosts & Legends of Yorkshire, Jarrold Publishing, Norwich, 1992.
Smith, William., Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire., (Ed by Dawn Robinson-Walsh), Printwise Publications, Bury, Lancashire, 1993. (Orig. ed by William Smith in 1883).