Anglo-Saxon decorated jet cross

Anglo-Saxon decorated jet cross.
Anglo-Saxon decorated jet cross.

Written by Jeannie Swales

Scarborough’s Castle Headland has had, if you’ll forgive the cliché, a long and very chequered history.

There’s evidence of a prehistoric settlement there – shards of pottery dating from at least 1600 BC, possibly as early as 2100 BC, have been found there.

Somewhere around the late 4th or early 5th century AD, the Romans built a signal station on the promontory, exploiting its natural geography to help protect their northern settlements from seaborne invasion.

By the mid-12th century, the site boasted a magnificent castle – started probably around 1130 by the Earl of York, William le Gros, and continued 20 years later by King Henry II. It was an important royal military base – Henry II spent around £650 on building it, an enormous sum of money at the time; his youngest son King John invested £2,291, more than on any other castle in the kingdom.

The Castle was a Royalist base in the Civil War, and the centre of a five-month siege by the Parliamentarians.

And in December 1914, it was one of the targets during the Bombardment of Scarborough by German battle cruisers.

But amidst all the turmoil and bloodshed of its nearly 4,000-year human occupation, there appear to have been periods of peace on the headland. Once such was in the later years of the first millennium: around AD 1000 a small Saxon chapel with a cemetery was built on the headland amid the ruins of the Roman signal station, possibly utilising three of the station’s walls, with a fourth new one added.

That’s where this week’s exhibit was found, during a major excavation of the site in the 1920s – an Anglo-Saxon decorated jet cross, which was laid on the breast of a skeleton.

It’s believed that the chapel was destroyed in the late summer of 1066, when the town was sacked and burned by Norwegian invader Harold Hardrada, aided by the treacherous Tostig, brother of the king, Harold Godwinson: the pair were en route to their defeat by the king at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York.

The following century, as part of the development started by William le Gros, the highly decorated stone Chapel of our Lady was built on the site of the destroyed chapel; a third chapel on the same site was built around 1312 and demolished in the 17th century.

The cross is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects that have been acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.