The Saxon Cross Shaft, minus its surmounting cross, in St. Peter’s Gardens (previously churchyard) is the oldest relic of Wolverhampton’s early history and the most ancient edifice in the West Midland Conurbation, yet many Wulfrunians do not seem to be aware of its existence. It has witnessed incredible changes in the development of the town since it was first raised on the highest point in the town centre, a position it has occupied ever since. Probably one of the most dramatic events to take place in its vicinity was the rout of the Danish army in 910/911AD at the Battle of Tettenhall, or was it Wednesfield or both? Our cross might have heard the clamour of the battle possibly safely protected by Heantun’s defensive palisade, depending of course on its hotly disputed age.

The Saxon column in St. Peter’s Gardens.

Much has been written about the cross shaft, with a considerable amount available on line but it could be said to have had mixed appraisals: some writers on Saxon sculpture ignored it altogether but T. D. Kendrick writing in 1938 called it ‘The noblest monument of its kind that has come down to us’: he regarded it as unique and the only surviving example of the southern continental Baroque style from the ninth century.

The most authoritative recent accounts are those written by the late Mr. Michael M. Rix staff tutor in architectural history at the extra-mural department of Birmingham University, and more recently a study by Professor Jane Hawkes of York University. Michael Rix’s article was published by the Royal Archaeological Institute in its journal of June 1962 and Jane Hawkes’ study is in the recently published (2018) Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture for Derbyshire and Staffordshire. This article makes use of information from both publications together with some additional comments and observations.

Historical background

In the sixth and seventh centuries peripatetic Celtic priests would establish preaching locations and would carry with them their wooden staff with its cross head, to plant on the ground whist they addressed their listeners. Depending on their success a fixed wooden cross would be erected on the preaching site which in time would be replaced with a more permanent stone cross. These crosses almost invariably predated the foundation of a church on the same site and the subsequent church would usually be built immediately to the north of the cross to prevent the church’s shadow from falling on the cross. The date of any wooden cross in Wolverhampton will never be known, and the date of its stone replacement is a matter of considerable dispute.

Michael Rix comments: - ‘The Wolverhampton Cross deserves a distinguished place in any catalogue of Anglo-Saxon art by virtue both of its scale and the quality of its decoration. Its position is also focal in any study of the fifty and more cylindrical-shafted carved crosses of this period’.

The Wolverhampton cylindrical cross shaft was for long a source of dispute among experts of pre-Norman Conquest sculpture. Disagreements arose over its original purpose and creation date: was it pagan or Christian? Danish or Saxon? did it date from the late 12th.century or the mid-9th? The air has cleared over the last 80 years and it is now known to be Saxon in origin and created within an approximately 100-year time frame. It deserves a distinguished place in any catalogue of Anglo-Saxon art and is one of more than two thousand or so cross shafts of the Saxon period around Britain most of which exist only as fragments, it is the only complete Saxon monolithic circular column remaining in the country.

Despite being ignored by some writers it was considered important enough to have a plaster cast made from it in 1877 from a mould made by Sergeant Bullen of the Royal Engineers. The cast was placed in the Great Cast Hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum where, ironically it was placed next to a cast of Trajan’s Column from Rome, somewhat undermining its grandeur. Unfortunately, the cast is now in storage following reordering of the Cast Hall.

The casting of the Wolverhampton column proved to be most fortuitous: whilst the real column has suffered badly form pollution and weathering over the last 140 plus years, the cast obviously has not and was used in 1913 by Dorothy B. Martin as a source for an extended drawing of its carved decoration.

Plaster cast in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Extended drawing of ornament on the column by Dorothy B. Martin. 1911.

The column is approximately 4.3 metres (14 feet) tall (its precise height is concealed by the more recent supporting stones around its base) and varies in diameter from 0.76 metres (30 inches) at the base to 0.56metres (22inches) at the top, immediately under the cap.

Early writers believed it to be of post Conquest date but this view changed in the 1930s when a date of 994 was suggested, to coincide with the foundation,by Lady Wulfruna, of St. Peter’s Church as a minster, however this event is considered somewhat dubious by Professor Hawkes in her recent study.

In 1938 T. D. Kendrick in his book ‘Anglo Saxon Art to AD 900’ pushed the date back even further to the middle of the ninth century, a date postulated by Michael Rix in his paper, following extensive research.

That date has now been modified again by Professor Hawkes who believes early to mid-tenth century is a safer estimate. She tells us that despite its long history there is no recorded mention of it until 1794 when it was discussed in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine, although it is shown on Isaac Taylor’s map of Wolverhampton published in 1750.

The dating of the column is based mainly upon the style of decoration carved around its circumference, it comprises predominantly typical pre Danish (Viking) era ornamentation, consisting of bands of exuberant swirls of foliage between bands of frisky Anglian beasts with their heads turned looking backwards, all carved with supreme skill. More importantly it has two bands of Acanthus leaf decoration that provide the principal basis for its dating.

Artistic Inspiration

It was suggested in Mr. Rix’s article that the designs of many Saxon cross shafts, circular and rectangular, were based upon the wooden staff rood of the early missionary that was planted as a rallying point and for use as a preaching cross. This suggestion arises partly from the pendant triangular forms at the bottom of the decoration on some cross shafts, including the Wolverhampton column, matching those found on fragments of metalwork from early cross staffs. The foliage and animal decoration are also a common feature on both the metalwork attached to wooden staffs and some stone crosses. The decoration on the Wolverhampton column exhibits a degree of undercutting matching the filigree metalwork popular in the ninth century. This led Mr. Rix to suggest that this type of metalwork was the direct artistic inspiration for the carving on the column.

Some of the animals on the Wolverhampton column are similar to those on items of metalwork found in the Trewhiddle hoard, discovered in Cornwall in 1774. Coins found in the hoard date these items to the third quarter of the ninth century, so leading Mr. Rix to propose a similar date (850 AD.) for the carving on the Wolverhampton column but within a fairly wide stylistic period.

Mr. Rix also identifies other similar and well-known crosses and fragments of the same period. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner relates the Wolverhampton column to cross fragments at Masham and Dewsbury, both in Yorkshire, grouping all three as Mercian types because of their circular section, and dating them to the early 9th century.

Professor Hawkes, as mentioned above, believes the column relates more to the Benedictine Reform period in the middle of the 10th century. The date range of 850 to 950 AD is determined predominantly by the use of Acanthus leaf decoration as discussed below.


The Acanthus Factor

One of the more interesting features of the ornament and possibly unique to the Wolverhampton column are two narrow bands of Acanthus leaf decoration and Acanthus leaves attached to the exuberant grape vine scroll in the wider bands, an artist’s botanical hybrid! ?


Band of Acanthus Leaf decoration.

It is the use of Acanthus foliage that provides the clue to the age of the column, but paradoxically it also leads to the discrepancy in dating. The acanthus leaf was a popular decorative motive in classical Greece and Rome and would have been seen in this country during the Roman occupation but being a Mediterranean plant, it normally played no part in Saxon work. It did not appear in general use again until the end of the twelfth century. Early 20th. Century historians saw these decorative bands on the column as an example of this reintroduction and dated the column accordingly to the third quarter of the 12th.century.

Roman acanthus detail: Jordan.

The earlier Saxon dating suggested by T. D. Kendrick in 1938 was based partly on the knowledge that the acanthus leaf did make two brief appearances well before the 12th century and could have been used by our accomplished sculptor for his ‘rather wild acanthus ornament’ (Nikolaus Pevsner’s description ). Its first reappearance was the result of Carolingian influence from the continent during and just after the reign of Charlemagne the Great. In the year 800 A.D. Charlemagne was created Holy Roman Emperor, by the Pope, who resurrected the ancient title especially for him after it had lain dormant for many centuries. To celebrate his newly acquired title Charlemagne built a new octagonal chapel at his palace in Aachen in Germany, now the Cathedral, and to emphasise his new link with Rome he imported some ancient columns from Rome and Ravenna to utilise in its construction. These came complete with their Corinthian capitals that incorporate Acanthus leaf decoration and so the Acanthus was reintroduced into northern Europe. This Carolingian Renaissance became a strong influence in European culture and the acanthus leaf began to appear in architectural detailing and in decorative manuscript work on the continent.

Charlemagne enjoyed friendly relations with King Offa of Mercia, whom he called his ‘brother’. Offa’s daughter married Charlemagne’s son and they exchanged court representatives, so inevitably there would have been some cultural influence on the Saxon court. Although Offa died in AD 796 that influence could have endured into the 9th.century. It has been suggested that Offa might have received from Charlemagne a present of a decorated missionary’s staff after Offa’s visits to meet the Pope in Rome, when he sought to follow in Charlemagne’s footsteps. Even so the Acanthus leaf does not seem to have ventured across the English Channel to any great extent and did not become part of the Saxon catalogue of decorative motifs at that time. The only surviving examples of its use in the mid-9th.century in this country appear to be on the border of a manuscript in the British museum; on a few Saxon coffin lids and, according to Michael Rix, on the Wolverhampton cross shaft, allowing, of course for other examples that could have subsequently disappeared.

The Ramsey Psalter: late 10th.C.

The acanthus failed to take root in post Offa Saxon Britain and was not seen again until the middle of the tenth century when it arrived as part of the cultural ethos that accompanied the Benedictine Reform Period. These reforms were introduced by continental monasteries on the direction of King Athelstan, who was guided by the English bishops including Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester.

Aethelwold established artistic workshops including manuscript illustration and sculpture where use was made of the acanthus leaf alongside traditional Saxon motifs. Professor Jane Hawkes believes it was this school of design that inspired our sculptor.

It is difficult for us today to appreciate the artistic dichotomy that the carving on the Wolverhampton column illustrates, not unlike inserting a strip of Art Deco decoration into a Robert Adam classical frieze. It is unlikely we will ever know what prompted our gifted Saxon sculptor to include bands of classical acanthus decoration within his brilliant traditional and lively Saxon carving. One thing is certain; the confident exuberance of his carving displays great skill with a well-developed design aptitude: qualities perhaps more applicable to the later Saxon date of 950 than the earlier one of 850.

Certainly, the carving has a confidence and quality that suggests a long period of development, similar to some manuscript work: in particular on the well-known Ramsey Psalter of circa 970; where acanthus scrollwork within the loops of the ornate capital letter ‘B’ adjoins typical Saxon interlacing.

The acanthus leaf has probably been the most enduring architectural motif of all time; from its traditional carved inception by the great Greek sculptor Callymachus around 350 BC, it was never out of use until the beginning of the 20th. Century. If you stand by the cross shaft and look toward Barclays Bank you will see a continuous acanthus moulding running around the 1870’s building, 1000 years or so later than the moulding around the cross shaft.

The Uriconium Connection

It has been established that the geological composition of the stone from which the column is made is a hard, moderate to fine grained sandstone quite unlike the sandstone in the Wolverhampton locality which is coarser and more friable. There is a tradition that the Wolverhampton column is a recycled column from the Roman city of Uriconium in Shropshire, some twenty miles to the west. Dr. Roger White of Birmingham University, who wrote the official guide to Uriconium, tells us that much of the hard fine grained sandstone used in the city came from a quarry at Hoar Edge near the Lawley Hill, eight miles to the south of the old city. The tradition for the column’s Roman origin is strengthened by its profile: it has a subtle entasis (slightly curved convex outline) synonymous with the aesthetic refinement of classical columns generally but not seen on any other Saxon round columns except for their short round window balusters that are usually excessively curved.

Uriconium Baths Basilica, showing the position on the floor of lost columns.

Dr. White suggests the Wolverhampton column could have come from the Baths Basilica adjoining Watling Street where the street passes through the centre of the city. Part of the external wall of the basilica, known as ‘The Old Work’, still stands and forms the most dramatic structure remaining in the city. He confirms that there were 24 columns and bases inside the basilica, and he believes some of these could still have been upright in the middle of the ninth century. All the columns and bases have long been removed from the basilica by stone robbers, as were all the other columns in the city including those at the entrance to the Forum opposite to the basilica, but the bases to the Forum columns still remain in a trench excavation alongside Watling Street. Some writers have suggested that the Wolverhampton column came from the Forum. There is a problem with both of these suggestions: first the remaining bases in the forum are too small to fit our column (45 cms. and 61cms. diameter as opposed to 76 cms. diameter for the Wolverhampton column) and the columns in the basilica were much taller than our column but one could have been reduced in height deliberately or accidentally. Interestingly Dr.White reports that a Saxon strap tag (metal belt fastener) of the 9th. or 10th. Century was found in the recently re-excavated robber’s trench, in the south aisle of the basilica: did a Saxon stone recycler burst his belt buckle as he strained to move a column base!?

Another detail linking the Wolverhampton column to the Roman remains is the method of connecting columns to bases using the mortice and tenon technique where a large square dowel could have been used to connect the stone members together. 100mm Square holes can clearly be seen in the remaining bases of the Forum colonnade and match precisely the 100mm. square hole in the top of the cap on the Wolverhampton column: suggesting a standard procedure for fixing the column capitals and bases.

Dr. White believes the columns in the basilica would have been of the Corinthian order and tall enough to match the height of the ‘Old Work’. The Corinthian order was generally used in the more important buildings. If you needed only to support a simple roof the Tuscan order would have been the column of choice. It was the last of the five Roman orders to be developed and would have been the cheapest and easiest to produce (it is often seen today in fibre glass form flanking the entrances to modern houses.). There are reasons to suggest that the Wolverhampton column was of the Tuscan order and not the Corinthian. All the Roman orders had their specific proportions and those of the Tuscan order seem to fit our Saxon shaft The upper diameter should be three quarters of the lower diameter (Wolverhampton, 22inches to 30inches; ( 56cm. to 76cm.) : the height of the column should be six times the lower diameter ( therefore our column should be 15 feet (4.57m.) tall. It measures only 14 feet which seems to be an inconsistency, but this could be explained by the necessity to sink the column into a circular mortice in the huge plinth stone. The plinth is 6 -7 feet in diameter and 1 foot 9 inches deep. A one foot (30 cms.) deep mortice would seem to be an appropriate depth into which to fit the column to guarantee its stability, making it a perfect fit for the Roman Tuscan proportions. The plinth stone weighing approximately 4 tons, appears to be of a coarser grained stone, it is very weathered and presumably came from a local source. It should also be noted that Corinthian columns generally had fluted shafts: the un-sculpted lower section of our column does not.

Wroxeter Church font.

The column weighs approximately 3.6 metric tons so dragging it to Heanton, probably initially along Watling Street, must have represented a considerable physical feat as well as a strong act of faith. It is generally agreed that it would not have been re-carved until it had been erected on its present site.

The Wolverhampton column appears to be unique in one other respect, it is the only monolithic Roman column in Britain that has probably been standing since it was first erected nearly one thousand nine hundred years ago, apart of course from its brief journey to Wolverhampton. There is another Roman Tuscan column standing in front of York Minster, but this was dug up as fragments from under the central tower during underpinning work and re-erected in 1969. There are two small columns forming gateposts at Wroxeter church, but they were excavated in the 19th. Century.

Of those column bases remaining at Uriconium just one would fit the Wolverhampton column perfectly. It lies just within the walls of the old city located inside Wroxeter church and was inverted and hollowed out in the Saxon period to form the church font.

Finally, in considering the dimensions of the cap stone on the Wolverhampton column it is noticeable that these are what would be expected if it was the original Tuscan capital, allowing for the Saxon re-carving The cap has the standard 4 inch (10 cm.) square mortice recess on top, referred to above, now filled in with mortar. It split at some time in the past and has been repaired: it is tempting to speculate that the split occurred when the crosshead separated from the column, although it could equally be due to frost damage.

The Problem of Visualisation

In his study of the column, Michael Rix was keen to provide a visual reconstruction showing the possible original appearance of the complete cross. He knew of the existence of a cross head of the mid ninth century only 34 miles away. This is the Saxon Cross head in St. Michael’s church in the village of Cropthorne, Worcestershire that was discovered buried in the interior of the chancel wall when building repairs were being carried out and proved to be relatively undamaged. It is heavily decorated on the front and back with animated beasts and birds in bold trails of vegetation, not identical to those on the Wolverhampton column but similar in character. Strangely the edges of the arms are decorated with a Greek key pattern.

Mr. Rix considered that something similar to the Cropthorne cross head was as close as we were likely to get to the cross head that stood on the Wolverhampton column so a drawing was prepared showing the column with the Cropthorne cross superimposed.

This drawing was submitted to Mr. C. A. Ralegh Radford who in Michael Rix’s words was ‘The uncrowned king of pre-conquest studies.’ at that time. He rejected the drawing because in his opinion the cross would have been modelled on the missionary’s staff or rood as were other crosses of the broader period, e.g. Leek; Ilam; Brailsford in Derbyshire; Penrith and Beckermet in Cumberland and many other smaller fragments in various part of the country. All of these crosses had square tapering shafts of varying lengths connecting the top of the column to the cross head.

A second drawing for the Wolverhampton cross was prepared early in 1962, showing a tapered shaft between the column and the superimposed cross and this became the accepted assessment of its likely appearance.

Unfortunately, there is one major problem with this assumption and that concerns the question of structural integrity: by far the majority of other examples are or once were monolithic structures whereas the Wolverhampton cross was a composite structure with at least three separate components. Monolithic structures are much more resistant to lateral stresses than a jointed structure which is only as strong as its joints.

During high winds a cross with a long tapered shaft would have exerted excessive leverage on the joint at the top of the main existing column: our sculptor would have been aware of this problem and would have been unlikely to create a structure in an elevated position that would be likely blow over in a severe gale.

Unfortunately despite close examination of the column on several occasions and photographic records being taken, no one seems to have measured the depth of the mortice on the boss before it was filled with a waterproof composition: knowing its depth might have given a clue to the height of the original superstructure.

Professor Jane Hawkes has suggested that the initial depiction of our column, showing the cross sitting directly on top of the main column, is the most likely representation of its original appearance. The revised drawing below is similar to the first illustration, and I believe should now be considered as its more likely original appearance.

When speculating on the size of the lost cross, one key factor would be uppermost in the mind of the sculptor, he would need to find something he could use consisting of the same hard sandstone as the column: an obvious choice would have been the circular column base. We know the size of these from the Wroxeter font and a cross carved from such a base would have been only two or three inches shorter than the Cropthorne cross. This of course is only speculation.

The stepped base shown in this illustration is determined by the findings from the excavation made in 1949 under the supervision of Michael Rix. The existing ground level coincides approximately with the top step and indicates how much the ground has risen as a result of centuries of burials. The original ground level would have been much the same as the level of the adjacent existing pathway to the church porch.


In our multi coloured world we can appreciate the beauty of natural stone sculpture but our medieval ancestors who lived in a less colourful world, valued applied colour and would use it where they could afford to do so. Richard Bryant, a specialist in Saxon painted sculpture who has made a close study of the Saxon paintwork at Deerhurst Saxon Church in Gloucestershire, is firmly of the opinion that our column would have been painted when it was first erected. Not quite as colourful as a Totem Pole because the colours would have been restricted to the earth colours, Yellow Ochre; Brick Red; White and possibly Black. Blues; Greens; Purple; etc., would probably have been unobtainable or too expensive.

When and where did the Cross Head go?

Perhaps the question should be, ‘Did it fall or was it pushed’. Hundreds of crosses throughout the British Isles have disappeared or remain only as fragments and many of those will have been deliberately destroyed. Mr. Michael Rix believed the Wolverhampton cross head was probably removed during the Puritan Commonwealth period, although he does not say as much in his article. It is on record that the famous nonconformist Richard Baxter of Kidderminster tried to remove the cross head from the column in Kidderminster during the Commonwealth period, but his ladder proved to be too short and while he went to find a longer one a crowd gathered and prevented him from knocking it to the ground on his return. Such an attempt might have been made on the Wolverhampton Cross because the rector at St. Peter’s Church during the Commonwealth, the Rev. John Reynolds, may well have had similar inclinations: he was ejected in 1662 as a result of his Puritan leanings.

There is evidence that once removed some cross heads were treated with respect. Several including that at Cropthorne, have been found built into the structure of their church and others may be waiting to be discovered, but whether this was an attempt to preserve them or just to make use of them as building stone is a moot point. It could be argued that if they were treated only as a convenient source of stone they would have been broken into more manageable pieces. Again, at Wroxeter church in Shropshire part of a Saxon cross shaft has been built into the external face of the south wall of the nave in such a position that it seems to be ‘on display’.

Not knowing the nature of the tragedy that befell our crosshead it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could reappear again at some time in the future during church building repair or excavation works.

Future Conservation of the Column

From time to time over the last fifty years consideration has been given to preserving the column before it erodes even further. A study in 1998 by Cliveden Conservation Workshops Ltd. discovered that the stone was corroding not only externally but also internally and will continue to do so. Proposals have been put forward to move the column into St. Peter’s church but much importance is placed on the fact that it has stood in the same position for the last 1100 years or so, a view backed by English Heritage who felt something would be lost if it was moved, even if a replica was placed in the same position. Another suggestion was made to place a protective cover over it, probably the best compromise but one that would call for a very sensitive design solution. A proposal was put forward in 1977 by the Wolverhampton Society of Architects to excavate around the column to expose the original ground level and the steps as part of a general conservation project but this was not acted upon.

A relatively simple improvement could be made to the column’s appearance by removing the rubble stonework around its base, that was obviously placed there as a very crude method of preventing the column from falling. This was carried out at some unrecorded date, probably in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

We owe it to future Wulfrunians to do something to preserve this Saxon Christian work of art that is important not just for Wolverhampton but as the West Midland Conurbation’s oldest Christian monument.

Timescale of Events

100 AD. Approx. Roman column shaped and carved, possibly for the interior of the Baths Basilica at Uriconium. (Dr. Roger H. White) or the Forum (Gerald P. Mander MA. FSA.)

850 - 950 AD. Approx. Column brought from Uriconium to Heanton.

1649-1660. Commonwealth: danger period for Christian iconography. Possible loss of cross head?

1751. Shown on Isaac Taylor’s map of Wolverhampton minus the cross head.

1877. Plaster cast taken for the Victoria and Albert Museum.

1877. Charles Lyman comments: profile of column not Norman but has classical entasis.

1949. Excavation around base on the eastern side of the column, by Michael M. Rix, reveals decayed remains of four steps.

1953. Fractured capital cramped together.

1962. Article by Michael M. Rix for The Royal Archaeological Institute.

1990. Inspection of the cross shaft by Richard Marsh Conservation.

1992. An archaeological assessment by Birmingham University Field Archaeology Unit, including a re-excavation on the east side of the column.

1999. The column cleaned and repaired.

2019. Article by Professor Jane Hawkes for the Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture.


This article could not have been written without the generous contributions of the following professional historians and I am duly indebted to them.

Michael Rix MA.
Professor Jane Hawkes
Dr. Roger H.White.
Richard Bryant

Return to the
previous page