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A Survey of Medieval (and earlier) Freestanding Crosses in Norfolk

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Way back in 1978 I published a booklet called 'Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses (of Norfolk and Suffolk)'. I didn't really have that much material on either subject, so combined them into one (very slim) volume. Over the years I never really thought much more about the old wayside and churchyard crosses - although a number feature elsewhere on this website as 'plague stones', or have other legends attached to them.


Then in 2016, I was asked by one of the archivists at the independent Felsted School in Essex if I could shed any light on a large stone block in their village, which they believed might have been the base of a market cross. I helped as well as I could, given my limited knowledge of the subject - but it served as a spur for me to find out more, and has ultimately led to this (purely historical) study of Norfolk crosses.


My objective is to gather information from diverse and scattered sources, then add where possible my own deductions and field observations, for the use of future researchers. So, since 2017 I've spent considerable time in finding out what I could about the crosses of Norfolk, and since retirement, in visiting, measuring and photographing the vast majority of those that survive. In addition, I've done my best to research those that no longer exist, and consider the evidence for possible cross-sites based on place-names, old maps and documentation.


It may well be that I'll eventually extend this study to cover Suffolk as well - but that county seems to have fewer surviving crosses, and the sources are neither as extensive nor as diverse. There is, for example, no detailed Suffolk equivalent of Blomefield and Parkin's 18th century 'Essay towards a Topographical History of Norfolk'.


But most importantly, Suffolk never had a Basil Cozens-Hardy.


Until his death in 1976, he was a mainstay of the Norfolk & Norwich Archaeological Society, possessed of a passion for all things antiquarian. In 1933 and 1934, the Society's journal 'Norfolk Archaeology' published his two-part paper 'Norfolk Crosses', which formed the starting-point for this survey. I didn't know of its existence until some time after my booklet was published in 1978; it would have made a big difference to it if I had. Cozens-Hardy not only researched and wrote about crosses, he went out into the field to measure and photograph them, as well as investigate sites for hitherto-unrecorded remains. He said that he "started with about a dozen recorded crosses and [have] been able to swell the total to over a hundred."


In fact his paper listed 167 instances, though some were conjectural. Of the 14 suggested by place-names, only 5 have since been confirmed as actual cross sites (2 of them by me.) A few stonework remnants that he thought might have been crosses are now known not to be, while he also included a couple of objects that even he wasn't convinced by. Nevertheless, his study recorded more than 140 medieval and Saxon crosses of which we can be certain by evidence either physical or documentary. It's regrettable that three of the physical remnants he visited and described have been lost since the 1930s.


My own survey lists more than 300 confirmed crosses, plus 29 sets of remains that might be fragments of cross, as well as 51 locations that I or others have suggested as the possible site of a cross. I have followed the same criteria as Cozens-Hardy, and I would state the same caveat which he did in 1933: "The list does not claim to be exhaustive. To make it so every churchyard in the county and every pre-Reformation will must be inspected." Well, over the years since then every churchyard has been inspected. But there still remain an untold number of wills, deeds, estate plans, field books, old maps and other documents that might yield clues to the former existence of far more freestanding crosses than we could imagine.


This is by no means an academic study. Again in words used by Cozens-Hardy, "my object is mainly to record." I'm only an enthusiastic amateur, but I hope that the information (and speculation) brought together here can serve as a basis for further research by others more qualified than me.


About Freestanding Crosses

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