Medieval Studies High Crosses
Catherine E. Karkov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0070


High crosses are freestanding stone sculptures that are a feature of early medieval art in England, Ireland, Scotland, and, to a lesser extent, Wales. They are distinct from cross slabs, which are shaped slabs decorated with relief carvings of crosses and sometimes other types of decoration on one or both sides. The exact origins of the high cross are controversial. Much debate continues concerning in which area they were developed first. In terms of their form, the influence of prehistoric insular standing stones, the Jupiter and victory columns of the Roman world, and Early Christian processional crosses all have been cited. Surviving monuments suggest that high crosses first appeared in the 8th century and that their popularity varied both regionally and chronologically. In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales they tended to disappear after the 10th or early 11th century, while in Ireland they remained popular well into the later Middle Ages. They also vary greatly in size (some are no more than a meter high, while others rise to 5 meters or more) and in decorative programs. In England and Scotland, for example, the earlier crosses are generally the most complex, but that is not the case in Ireland. (Note that high crosses are also discussed in the Oxford Bibliographies article Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture; see that article for general bibliographies as well.)


The high cross is one of the characteristic monuments of Anglo-Saxon England. The vast majority of crosses date from the early Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian periods (8th through 10th centuries), and they are located in the north of England. The southern examples not only are fewer in number, but they tend to receive far less scholarly attention than do their northern counterparts. As is true with Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture in general, Anglo-Scandinavian high crosses (the Gosforth Cross, for example) often display a greater secular content than do their Anglian counterparts. There are surprisingly few overviews of English high crosses, perhaps due to the large number of monuments that survive and the range of forms that they take. In general, pre-10th-century crosses are monastic sculptures, while the Anglo-Scandinavian period sees a marked increase in secular patronage. The first place to go for information on any individual sculpture is the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Collingwood 1989 (originally published in 1927) was the first systematic attempt to classify the Northumbrian crosses, and it remains a good introduction to the field, even if some of the author’s dates and conclusions have been proved wrong. Brown 1903–1937 is equally out of date, but it is an excellent source for early understanding of the crosses, especially their iconography, and for anyone interested in the historiography of the subject. Mitchell 2001 is also excellent for the information it provides on why some of the early crosses were erected. Karkov and Orton 2003 is useful for its new approaches to the study of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture.

  • Brown, G. Baldwin. Anglo-Saxon Sculpture. Arts in Early England 6.2. London: John Murray, 1903–1937.

    This volume covers more than just high crosses, but because high crosses are one of the most common types of Anglo-Saxon sculpture, it remains essential reading both for what it has to say about the monuments and for its seminal position in the study of Anglo-Saxon art in general. Brown’s work marks a shift from 19th-century antiquarianism toward an art-historical methodology. Sculpture is discussed in all six volumes, but Volumes 5 and 6 are most important.

  • Collingwood, W. G. Northumbrian Crosses of the Pre-Norman Age. Lampeter, UK: Llanerch, 1989.

    Although Collingwood’s methodology and much of his information are now out of date, this book remains essential reading as one of the pioneering publications in the field and as a monument to the late-19th- to early-20th-century interest in an originary medieval heritage. The volume is illustrated entirely with the author’s own drawings, many of which capture details that are now lost to the eye. The drawings are also a tribute to Collingwood’s own artistic eye and talent. First published in 1927 (London: Faber and Gwyer).

  • Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture.

    Best source for information on stone sculpture of any sort. Organized by county, the volumes in the series provide introductory essays on the context of the sculptures; a full photographic record and catalogue entries with origin, date, and provenance; and bibliography, description, and discussion of each work. A complete list of titles and photographs from some of the volumes in the series can be found on the project website.

  • Karkov, Catherine E., and Fred Orton, eds. Theorizing Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003.

    The seven essays in this book grew out of an eponymous seminar held as part of the 1998 Leeds International Medieval Congress. While the majority of the book is devoted to the Bewcastle and Ruthwell monuments, other sculptures, such as the Sandbach crosses and the Hackness Cross, are discussed.

  • Mitchell, John. “The High Cross and Monastic Strategies in Eighth-Century Northumbria.” In New Offerings, Ancient Treasures: Studies in Medieval Art for George Henderson. Edited by Paul Binski and William Noel, 88–114. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2001.

    An excellent consideration of the larger meanings of the high crosses both within Anglo-Saxon and larger early medieval contexts. Mitchell considers not just the influence of Early Christian iconographic traditions on the crosses but also the role that Late Antique traditions, the contemporaneous landscape, and monastic ideologies might have played on the development of form and imagery. The best modern survey of the material to date.

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