NGR: NY 16240 33314. The Church of St Michael at Iselgate, half a mile southeast of Isel village, in the Derwent Valley, Cumbria, used to house the famous ‘Triskele Stone’, a Celtic symbol of motion, but sadly it was stolen from this 12th Century Norman church in 1986. Only a photo survives. However, there are still two large fragments of an Anglo-Saxon cross-shaft. The Triskele is a pre-Christian symbol or motif consisting of a three-armed carving similar to the Manx symbol (Three Legs of Man) which might represent the Holy Trinity? although the symbol goes back thousands of years to the Neolithic, and was used in ancient Greece; this particular stone, however, had Viking origins, being associated with the Norse gods, Thor and Odin. The stone also had carvings of a sun-snake and a four-armed swastika (or fylfot – the symbol of Freya). The hamlet of Iselgate is a few miles northeast of Cockermouth, whilst St Michael & All Angels’ Church is just off Blindcrake Lane – beside the river Derwent, not far from Isel Hall.
Stanley Kingsnorth (1984) in a magazine article tells us a lot about the Triskele Stone, saying: “The Triskele Stone came to light in 1812 when the bridge of 1691 spanning the river Derwent was rebuilt.” Mr Kingsnorth continues, saying it: “takes its name from the three-limbed design which appears on two faces, a variation of this sign is well known to us as the three-legs of Man. This strangely sculptured stone, now placed in front of one of the chancel windows, is about twelve inches high and has been closely studied by scholars. It is described in some detail by the Rev. W. S. Calverley, a former vicar of Aspatria in his paper presented to the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archeology Society in 1885.
“Each of the four faces of the stone shows designs in relief, those in the upper panels being different on each side, while the lower panel of all sides displays the “‘Sun-Snake”′ sign resembling a double ended hook on its side, which is to be found in the relics of many early cultures. Three of the upper panels depict the emblems of the principal pagan Norse gods. The symbol for Thor is the thunderbolt or hammer device and appears in strong relief on one face. Another side is adorned with an unsymmetrical triskele sign with two limbs to the left and one to the right and which is attributed to Odin, or in the alternative spelling, Woden.
“On the third face a four-armed swastika appears, being the symbol of Freya the god of fertility and peace, while the re-maining side shows a balanced triskele having all three arms turning to the right, that is, with the sun. This sign is held to represent the Trinity of the Christian faith, and is the most significant dedication if the stone is, as so many suppose, part of an early stone cross which stood on the site..”
Stanley Kingsnorth goes on to add: “The other two stones now to be found near the south door are clearly fragments of the main shaft of a pre-Norman cross probably of a later date than the Triskele Stone. They were discovered in the walls of the church during the major restoration which took place just over 100 years ago. One is worked in relief on two sides and the other on all four faces with a variety of spirals and whorls, typical Christian designs of the Celtic post-Roman period. But again the pagan influence has persisted, as at the bottom of the fully patterned stone there is a boldly carved broad arrow or spearhead pointing downward. In his study of 1889, Calverley identified this as the sacred emblem of Woden as descri-bed in the old Norse sagas, where the unfortunate sacrifice has his breast marked with the point of a spear and is offered to Woden, after which he is hanged.
“In heathen ritual, the gallows was in the form of a cross, usually of ash, so it can easily be understood how the Cross of Christ and the symbolic ash cross of the Nordic peoples came to have an over-lapping meaning to the diverse inhabitants of this remote area during the confused and changing times between the withdrawal of the Roman legions and the arrival of the Normans.
Lawrence E. Jones & Roy Tricker (1992) say that Isel church has: “A perfect setting by the river Derwent for St Michael’s small and simple towerless church. (The nearby hall is much more spectacular, and has a pele tower). It is a Norman church of c1130 (with a fine chancel arch), but there are three Saxon stones with very interesting carvings, including a swastika and a triskele, also Saxon cross fragments. One 15th century chancel window has three Mass-dials carved in its stonework.”
Arthur Mee (1961) tells us: “The church was chiefly built by the Normans, and has still their doorway, their chancel arch, and several of their little windows. Another window pierced in the 15th century has three sundials on it. There are two stones carved before the Normans came, and one being part of a 10th-century cross and the other having the rare three-armed symbol called the triskele, one of the earliest devices found on Christian monuments.”
Sources / References & Related Websites:
Jones, Lawrence E. & Tricker, Roy, County Guide To English Churches, Countryside Books, Newbury, Berkshire, 1992.
Kingsnorth, Stanley, Storied Stones At Isel — A Visit to St. Michael’s Church, (Magazine Article in Cumbria – Lake District Life, May, 1984), The Dalesman Publishing Co. Ltd., Clapham, Lancaster.
Mee, Arthur, The Kings England — Arthur Mee’s Lake Counties — Cumberland And Westmorland, Hodder And Stoughton Limited, London, 1961.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.