“Dark Ages” tradition until the cross was erected as early as the seventh century or possibly in the eighth. The fact that it is here at all possibly gives testament to the continuing tradition of re-using sacred sites. The Romans had re-used the site of Cocidius’s shrine. By the time the Romans left Britain the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Doubtless in this remote outpost the soldiers clung to the old ways more tenaciously than in Rome itself but it is still inconceivable that the garrison here did not have a Christian church of some description.
In this part of England after the departure of the legions the main Christian influence would have been from the Celtic missions from the east. No post-Roman coins have been found in the vicinity so it doesn’t seem likely that there was a settlement here that would have justified a church as we know it. Yet the cross is tall and elaborately-carved, far too grand, one would have thought, to mark the outdoor meeting place for a scattered Christian congregation - a so-called “preaching cross”. So its purpose is a matter for speculation. What is not in doubt is its approximate age. It has runic inscriptions that commemorate King Alcfrith, son of King Oswiu, who himself convened the Synod of Whitby in AD664 at which Roman Christianity triumphed over the Celtic tradition. About AD680 is the best estimate.
As we shall see, this is a cross with much imagery. Pevsner made the point that much of it is of Egyptian Coptic provenance, reinforcing the links to the Irish-Celtic monastic tradition which was itself influenced by that branch of Christianity. He also makes the point that the Gallic masons employed by Benedict Biscop and used in building the great monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth had no tradition in naturalistic carving. The Synod did not proscribe Celtic Christian traditions and the decades following saw a process of assimilation and consolidation, not of eradication. This, then, seems most likely to be a cross of Celtic craft traditions that claims the area for Christianity. But feel free to develop your own theories!
I have said it is a cross, but of course the actual cross head is missing. A fragment was found in the seventeenth century but after passing through the hands of a series of antiquarians of the day it was lost.
The site acquired renewed military significance in 1092 when William II annexed Cumbria from Scotland and a castle was again built here. Presumably it was of the motte and bailey pattern. In 1340-60 the present castle was built using stones from the Roman fort. It is testament to the sparse population of the area that after nine hundred years the stone hadn’t been long since carted away. After cycles of decay and repair it was finally demolished in about 1640 just before the Civil War.
So what of the church itself? It is a simple single-celled rectangular building with no separation between nave and chancel and with a western tower. The Church Guide puts its building date at 1277. The east window is an Early English style triple lancet and this is the only wall that survives from that time. Pevsner puts it at about 1200 but 1277 is just a plausible. One imagines that Bewcastle was not amongst the first areas to adopt the new-fangled Decorated style! On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine there was no church of any kind on the site between 1092 and 1277 (or 1200 for that matter). Is there a Norman church below?
The church was known to be in a parlous state by 1703. It was rebuilt in 1792 with seventeen feet being shaved off the west end and the western tower was added. It was altered again in 1792 and rebuilt in 1901. So we have a very vanilla and un-historic church sitting on a site of great historical importance and adjoining one of the greatest surviving Anglo-Saxon antiquities!