I confess that I didn’t even notice that the font was made of alabaster rather than of stone. It really is not obvious at all. Both Pevsner and the Carlisle Diocese website say that it is so I’m sure it’s a fact. I do not remember ever seeing a mediaeval alabaster font before so I did a bit of digging. As I suspected, it is vanishingly rare. I consulted the font collector’s oracle - Francis Bond’s “Fonts and Font Covers” - and he has a section on materials other than stone. He mentions lead, pewter, gold, silver and brick - but not alabaster which does not even have an entry in the index. In fact I haven’t been able to unearth a single example anywhere - which is not to say there aren’t any but if there are then nobody is shouting it from the rooftops. I emphasise here that I am talking of pukka mediaeval fonts, not sixteenth century and later.
We are all used to seeing alabaster monuments in churches but these generally post-date the supposed date of Crosscanonby font by a century or two. Its use only became fairly common in the fourteenth century and I think it fair to say that it’s main use in churches has been for effigies of the great and the good and, therefore, the well-heeled. . There is no shortage of stone in Cumbria, to put it mildly, so why on earth was alabaster used in this out of the way spot? Most monumental alabaster - “a hydrous sulphate of calcium” - in this country is found in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire in what are known as the Keuper beds and it’s darned expensive. That’s before you take into account the cost of transportation to Cumbria.
However, it turns out that alabaster was also found in Cumbria itself. There are remains of workings at a place called Barrowmouth which is close to Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast. Whitehaven is just seventeen miles from Crosscanonby and most of the route could be by sea. Interestingly, there seems to be considerable vagueness about when it was operational. Certainly I have seen no source that suggests that alabaster or gypsum was being extracted as early as the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries. Yet it seems almost inconceivable that the alabaster at Crosscanonby came from anywhere else.
With great economy, Pevsner noted that the Crosscanonby font was “C14 like Aspatria”. Why did he mention Aspatria? Well, Aspatria, whose church is considerably bigger, is only six miles away so that could have been the reason. Much more likely in my view, was that Pevsner was drawing attention to the the stylistic similarity of the two fonts. Without saying so he implies that Asptaria’s font too is of alabaster. Just to confuse us though he doesn’t mention it and then goes on to say “c13 (my italics) like the one at Crosscanonby...”. Thanks for all that Nicky, baby. I haven’t been to Aspatria at the time of writing so I have stolen an image from the internet for you to see. To me it looks mightily like the same artist carved the two fonts! Does anybody out there know if the Aspatria font is made of alabaster too?
So what we have here is not only one of the earliest uses of alabaster in any English church but also possibly the earliest known use of Barrowmouth alabaster. Pevsner, as we have seen, dates the font to the fourteenth century whilst others suggest thirteenth. Either way, this is an intriguing historical mystery.