A letter from Bewcastle – April 2024

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago I welcomed a small group of special visitors to our benefice. They gathered from Europe and North America to spend some time looking at, and touching, one of the most important Anglo-Saxon monuments in northern Europe. I am, of course, referring to our Bewcastle Cross. They were the top Old English runologists in the world. What is a runologist? Well, someone who studies runes, the ancient form of writing that was used in the northern part of Europe by Germanic peoples, including Scandinavians, before the Latin alphabet was introduced, and for a long period after for special purposes. Runes are comprised of straight lines (although some later forms have a few have curved elements) and so are well adapted to carving on wood and stone. Both the Bewcastle Cross, and its sister at Ruthwell, have extensive runic inscriptions, and many of the characters have similarities to the letters we use today. For example:

This runic inscription from the Ruthwell Cross reads ‘Krist was on rodi’. ‘Rodi’ is ‘rood’ as in ‘rood screen’ that you find in some churches and is the Old English term for ‘cross’. So this translates as ‘Christ was on the cross’, a line from the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’, which we read together and meditated on around the Bewcastle Cross on Good Friday.

The visit was organised by Professor John Hines of Cardiff University, an internationally renowned expert on Anglo-Saxon and Viking Age archaeology, history and literature, now retired. He wrote to me in December asking for permission to visit, with the small international community of runologists, to see if, together, they could make some progress on deciphering the main runic panel on the west face of the Cross. They came one weekend in early March; some of them, including Professor Hines and his wife, joining us for the Sunday morning service in St Cuthbert’s church. At the conclusion of the service I went outside, as I always do, to finish by greeting the cross with a kiss and praying before it for God’s blessing on all who have been worshipping, and the whole of creation. I think the runologists who arrived too late to join the service, and were outside looking at the cross and waiting for the others, were rather bemused to see this! For them, the cross was an archaeological object of intense interest, rather than an enduring icon of Christ’s presence among us.

But this old stone cross has been standing here, silently, for the last 1,300 years, proclaiming Christ’s passionate and unquenchable love for us and all creation; through the period of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that was once here, followed by the violence of the Viking invasion, the Norman conquest, the border battles, and then that turbulent and murderous period of sad reiving history. Always there, always silent, just waiting for us to listen.

Previous, rather over-enthusiastic Victorian antiquarians have tried force their own readings by engraving into the panel what they thought the runes should say (I wonder how often we do the same). That, plus the long years of rain and wind, have rendered much of the panel now indecipherable. Hence the visit by the runologists. It was fascinating and such a privilege to be in their presence. I spent the next couple of hours with them, watching, listening and occasionally asking questions, as these experts went over each line of carving. They gently ran their fingers over the runes feeling for the slightest hints of carved depressions. I think it was this, more than anything else, that most affected me: bare fingers, gently caressing this ancient rock-hard stone, millennia old, with extraordinary tenderness, and in so doing, yielding its secrets, identifying characters the eye could not detect, hidden from sight. It made me think of all the hidden things in the world that can only be detected through gentleness and tenderness – the reality that lies behind all life. And that reminded me of one of my favourite poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins that begins, The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…

Your friend and priest,

Robert

Permanent link to this article: https://www.bewcastlehouseofprayer.org.uk/a-letter-from-bewcastle-april-2024/

4 comments

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    • Timothy Coombe on 29th March 2024 at 9:51 pm
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    Last year after a snowfall Tricia and I accidentally smeared some of the snow across a heavily worn and to us unintelligible inscription on a gravestone in Stapleton Churchyard and we were amazed at how the old inscription immediately stood out clearly in white against the red sandstone background. It was an entirely harmless exercise as the snow soon melted away but I wonder if such a simple technique has ever been tried on the runes of the Bewcastle and other Celtic crosses by those runologist experts who visited?

    1. Hello Tim, interesting idea – I’m sure it will have been tried, but I’ll leave that to Professor Hines and others to answer!

    • Jo Kay on 29th March 2024 at 6:56 am
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    Thankyou, Robert. That was interesting and spiritual at the same time. Fascinating stuff. Blessings for this most important weekend of the Christian year. Jo Kay

    1. Thank you, Jo. Very glad to hear you enjoyed it.

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