The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith, Cumbria

OS grid reference: NY 5165 3016. A short walk in an easterly direction from market Square and king street (A6) in the centre of Penrith is the ancient church of St Andrew, a Saxon foundation. At the north-side of the church stands a slight mound on top of which are two pillar-crosses and four hogback gravestones – collectively known as the Giants Grave. These stones are said to have been placed over the burial site of Owain Caesarius, legendary and heroic king of Cumbria during the early 10th century, who was said to have been a giant of a man. Also in the churchyard is the Giant’s Thumb, a damaged Anglo-Norse wheel-headed cross dating from 920 AD.

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith.

The two tall and slender pillar-crosses standing 15 feet apart are now heavily worn and it is difficult to make out the carvings on them, but they have been dated to around 1000 AD and are Anglo-Norse in origin. Both crosses have sustained some damage – the taller cross with a badly damaged head is between 11 and 12 foot high, while the smaller cross, also without its head is between 10 and 11 foot high. Set between them, spaced 2 feet apart, and embedded into two long slabs are four hogback gravestones with curved upper edges and some rather nice carvings, including spiralling and circles with crosses or interlacing inside them. These graves represent Viking houses with carved sections depicting the life of the person(s) buried beneath them, often  with intricate symbols and patterns; the stones here may represent four wild boars killed by king Owain in Inglewood Forest.

Hogback Gravestone, Penrith.

Close by stands the Giant’s Thumb which also commemorates Owain Caesarius who was a legendary, perhaps mythical, king of Cumbria from 920-937 AD. This 6 foot high monument is another pre-Conquest cross with part of its wheel-head now missing. It stands upon a 19th century Victorian base with an inscription. According to local legend, the cross was set-up at the time of Owen’s accession to the throne of Cumbria. However, some historians have argued that Owain or Ewan was, actually, Owain ap Urien the son of king Urien of Rheged in the 6th century AD, who was probably of Welsh/Irish descent. Rheged was a part of the old north country, known to the bards as Hen Ogledd, which covered a large part of northern England and southern Scotland, in particular Rheged was centred on Cumberland and Westmorland, its people speaking the old Brythonic language. King Urien of Rheged ruled from 550-590 AD.