Chapter 4

An analysis of the man and dragon combat from the Sigurd legend in the North of England to the first carvings of St Michael and the Dragon

Heathenism survived longer in the North of England due to a second influx of Norse from Dublin in 918, led by Ragnall, who had taken York around 911, and retook it in 919. The area was still considered heathen in 942, after which there was a period of unrest, ending in 954, with the Northumbrian region being recovered for the English crown. King Eadred succeeded to the kingdom of York after Erikr Bloodaxe was expelled from York. Even in the period prior to 954, the Church had re established some of its status through cooperation with the Scandinavian governing body. For example Archbishop Wulfstan I seems to have allied himself with the Northern Kings against his Southern King. Yet it is not until the early 11th century that there is evidence of an advanced ecclesiastical organisation that observed the details of religious rule. This is implied in the Laws of Edward and Guthrum Note 1, which has been regarded as a late 10th century document referring to East Anglia, but is dated 1002 1008 by D Whitelock, and attributed to Archbishop Wulfstan II of York, and lays down religious rules for the Northern Danelaw region. This document emphasises the importance of such practices as the respect of sanctuary, observance of fasts and feasts, with penalties for law breakers. It suggests an area where the Church is strong, especially now with the English crown behind it, but still a land where pagan traditions had not been entirely discarded. This is reflected in a another 11th century document called De Obsessione Dunelmi Note 2, which shows that this region also ignored the ecclesiastical laws of marriage and divorce at this time.

York itself was a flourishing commercial centre, with a direct line of communication to the North Sea down the river Ouse, with sheltered anchorage nearby. The route westwards beyond the Pennines provided links with areas centred round Halton, Heysham, Preston and Kendal. This then provided access to the Irish Sea, linking the Scandinavian kingdoms based on Dublin and York, Dublin being more Norse, while York was orientated both ethnically and commercially towards the Danish culture. The rich landowners of the area, and possibly the wealthy merchants also, wished to display their prestige, and this is reflected in the large output of stone sculpture in this period. The majority of this 10th century sculpture is funerary, with often secular or pagan motifs, indicating patrons from the secular world, although in some places the church also acted as patron. me stronger Church, capable of dictating ecclesiastical law to the secular community, had also more influence in the artistic adornment of church grounds, be it through direct commissions or through tolerating fewer pagan or secular motifs on sculptural monuments. This would appear to be reflected in some of the Sigurd carvings in Yorkshire, especially at Kirby Hill, Nunburnholme, and possibly at Ripon.

The example at York however is the most extensive carving, but is definitely funerary, and is the only remaining grave slab with the Sigurd story ( P1ate 5). The carving tells the story in the same fashion as the Manx examples, in that all parts of the story are equally emphasised, although the killing of the dragon is given the most space, as it is in the Manx carvings. There is definitely no Christian symbolism on the stone, to create a pagan/Christian balance. The same has been assumed of the Manx examples, although it is impossible to be certain of this due to the fragmentary nature of the stones. Therefore it would seem that the York example is in the same group as the Manx stones, namely possibly emphasising the ancestry of the deceased, or as is more likely, evoking the heroic nature of the dead man. There are slight variations in the organisation and nature of the motifs: for example, there is no ring of meat, but instead there is the new motif of the dead Fafnir, with a recognisable head and nick in his side ( P1ate 6, Figure 3). It may be that this is still the link to the Manx examples, altered by the innovative nature of the York schools of sculpture. It could also have occurred the other way round, with the York sculptors developing the first images of the Sigurd myth, through the many influences in all mediums that were available to them. The motifs could later be communicated to the Manx artists.

If this is the first of the Sigurd carvings, this would place it before 950, during the period when the Vikings were still in control of the Northern Danelaw area, and when pagan, or secular Scandinavian elements were still in high regard. The graveyard in which the slab was found is dated to the early 11th century, with many of the carvings being design pieces for the surrounding region. However some of the slabs found date from the early 10th century, and have obviously been reused. Dating the York slab from the interlace on the other side of the slab is impossible, since it is a basket weave design, commonly used to cover blank areas, and found in carvings from both the Anglian and Anglo Scandinavian period. The beasts fighting Sigurd are little more help, since they are in the narrative free style, found also in Sweden and the Isle of Man, and can be attributed to any date in the Viking age. It is therefore possible that this stone is an early prototype of the carved Sigurd scene, and a date in the early to mid half of the 10th century would make some historical sense, but there is no archaeological evidence to support this.

Kirby Hill is closest to the York slab in iconographical details, since it includes the raised thumb to be sucked, and possibly the remnants of the dead dragon ( P1ate 8). The second stone Note 3, now lost, that contained a horse and dragon with a sword imbedded in a notch in its side, is also similar to parts of the York slab. The existing panel at Kirby Hill also includes new elements, namely the smithy’s anvil, and along with the headless body above, the carving has closer affinities with the Halton cross. It is difficult to analyse this properly, since the slab is broken, but this is the first example to show a juxtaposed Christian image in the feet of a crucifixion in the panel above. The emphasis in the Sigurd scene seems to be on the sucking of the thumb, denoting knowledge gained by sinful means (since Fafnir was slain because of greed). The knowledge is gained by deception, since the meat was intended for Regin, not Sigurd, and only saves Sigurd’s life at the cost of Regin’s. In a sense even Sigurd’s life is forfeit, since the gold he takes from Regin is cursed, and leads ultimately to Sigurd’s con death. The Christian crucifixion on the other hand, provides a righteous version of this, with the death by Christ’s own choosing, and the knowledge of all the sins of the world being for the sake of all mankind, to save all, since even Christ is reborn. This is a direct example of the pagan myth being used to bring the pagan and Christian world closer, by introducing parallels that promote the Christian faith.

The cross head at Ripon poses a problem, in that what remains appears extremely important, but there is so little left that all conclusions can be based on very little evidence indeed. The image of Sigurd sucking his thumb ( Plate 9, Figure 5), with his foot on the head of Fafnir, is on the cross head itself, and not on the cross shaft, like the Kirby Hill and Manx examples. There is no other image on the reverse, and this implies that even if there were other Christian images on the cross shaft, these would take secondary place to the pagan, or secular image on the cross head. The second cross head which had the two birds surrounding the domed centre was found in an identical location. It is identical also in shape, size, style and technical expertise Note 4. It is therefore logical to assume that these were a pair, but it seems odd that two closely connected parts of the myth would be split up onto two pieces. This would perhaps make more sense of the two pieces at Kirby Hill, although here they are not of the same size, and cannot so easily be paired. The Ripon cross is dated by J Lang to the 10th century Note 5, and the remaining interlace cannot enable a more specific estimate. Since the two cross heads match, it can be supposed that the two original crosses formed part of a grave monument similar to the Giant’s grave at Penrith, where a slab over the grave has at head and foot a cross. If this was the case, then the importance given to the Sigurd legend implies that this was more than simply emphasising the dead man’s heroic nature, and that the man’s ancestry is also being referred to.

Finally the Nunburnholme scene is a pagan addition on an otherwise Christian cross ( Plate 10, Figure 6), the only other pagan symbol being a centaur. The crude figures carved on top of the mass scene may be another pagan/Christian parallel, since the figure that is identified as Sigurd is holding the meat ring and raising his thumb to his mouth. Consequently the juxtaposition may be designed to emphasise the differences between the pagan repast and the Christian communion, the motif added later by some inspired sculptor. However there may be a further reason why this cross includes the Sigurd scene. Part of the estate that included Nunburnholme is known to have been owned by Morcar, Earl of Northumbria at the time of the Domesday records, and presumably was held prior to this by previous Earls, including his predecessor, Tostig. Morcar probably received the estate after Tostig had been expelled from the region and his land confiscated in 1065, although he still held Halton at this time. Tostig could claim ancestry to Sigurd through King Harold Bluetooth and Ragnar Lothbrok, and there may be a connection between the Halton cross and the Nunburnholme addition, since the Halton cross also shows scenes from the Sigurd myth ( P1ate 11, Figure 4). However the Halton cross is usually dated shortly after 1000, and this would mean that the Halton cross was not erected as a monument to Tostig, but he gained it as part of his ownership of the estate, and presumably recognised the scene and its relevance to himself. It may therefore be that the Nunburnholme addition results from a wish by the common land owner to link the two in a way that would honour his ancestors. The detailed scenes at Halton would reflect a slightly earlier date (and a more isolated area), which would be amenable to a secular scene of this type. The later addition at Nunburnholme, on a strongly Christian monument, is necessarily tempered by its context and Christian environment. The two possibly are linked, but not as closely as can be argued, although if the Halton cross was given a later date, the connection in Tostig as patron would be much stronger.

The reason for Tostig being patron of the Nunburnholme cross lies partly in the above argument, but also in the large portrait of the seated soldier on the adjacent face to the mass scene ( P1ate 7). This is presumably a record of the patron. It has also been noted that the figure’s pose is paralleled by the St Michael on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois in Ireland, where the saint is sitting on a seat resting on a devil Note 6. In this light the shape on his head changes from the helmet of an earthly soldier into the nimbus seen on other figures on the Nunburnholme cross. While this may be coincidental, it may show that St.Michael was known to sculptors, or the artistic world at this time, although in this case there is no apparent conscious link to the slaying of the dragon by Sigurd. However this still may have some bearing on the question of the iconography of St.Michael and the dragon in the Anglo Scandinavian culture.
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Note 1 – D Whitelock, “Conversion of the Eastern Danelaw”, Saga Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research, Xll, 1941. 2 ibid Return
Note 2 – ibid Return
Note 3 – J T Lang, “Sigurd and Weyland in pre Conquest carving from the North of England”, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, V.48, 1976. Return
Note 4 J T Lang, “An Anglo Scandinavian Crosshead from Ripon Cathedral”, Interim, 114, 1975, p.11 12. Return
Note 5 – ibid Return
Note 6 – I R Pattinson, “The Nunburnholme Cross and Anglo Danish Sculpture in York”, Archaeologica, CIV, 1973, p.226. Return– – Top – –

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