While he was here, Peter looked for a couple of mediaeval gravestones that he remembered seeing a few years before. This is his report of these stones.
A Mediaeval Grave Slab at Alston Church
Standing in the south porch of St. Augustine’s Parish Church at Alston are two blocks of orange sandstone, each having a row of flowers carved in relief on one bevelled edge. A closer inspection, when the church was visited in April 1999, showed that these were parts of a 13th century priest’s grave cover. The grave cover, a cross slab of conventional form, has been sawn down the middle and the remaining half cut in two. It bears a cross of round leaf bracelet form – a very common design appearing in the late 12th century and widely used throughout the 13th – carved in relief. Superimposed across the upper portion of the cross shaft is a chalice, the symbol of a priest; it is possible that this was accompanied by another priestly symbol, most likely a clasped book on the missing left hand half of the slab. The cross shaft rises from a stepped base, only traces of which remain. The most unusual feature of the slab is a series of eight-petal flowers which spring from the cross shaft, their heads being carved in high relief on the broad marginal chamfer; in between the flowers are dog-tooth ornaments, another indicant of a 13th century date. A rebate behind the chamfer, with 18th century tooling, indicates that the slab has been re-used, probably as part of a door or window jamb, perhaps in Smeaton’s 1769 rebuilding of the church.
Whilst cross slabs are the most common form of mediaeval memorial to survive, the floral decoration on this one puts it into a relatively small and high status group. The carving of the foliage springing from or flanking a cross is sometimes linked to the ‘Tree of Life’ concept, which apparently originates in Persian art, symbolic of the death of Christ bringing new life to mankind; it has also been linked to a custom of throwing foliage or flowers onto the coffin before the grave is infilled.
When the church was previously visited in February 1989, a second mediaeval slab was lying loose at the west end. This was a small tapered slab of fawn sandstone, 0.57m long, tapering from 0.285m to 0.20m in width, and 0.11m thick. It bore, within a roll-moulded border, the incised motif of a single pair of shears, set centrally. The shears are the emblem of a woman; a mediaeval housewife would probably have worn a pair on her girdle; kitchen scissors are a modern equivalent. Small slabs such as this, bearing only an emblem (usually either the sword or the shears), without the usual cross, are not uncommon in Northumberland; they are hard to date, although a 12th or 13th century date is quite possible. In 1999 this slab could not be found.
Thankfully, the woman’s gravestone is safe and sound and, what’s more, it has a companion! There is another, larger slab dedicated to a woman, and carved alongside the shears is a cross-like symbol.
Who were the people who were important enough to merit these headstones? The women we can never know, but we can take a guess at the identity of the priest. The clues are, 1) an important cleric, and, 2) buried in the late 12th or 13th century.
Although Alston Moor in the 12th century was part of the estate of the kings of Scotland, at the same time it was a valuable asset to the kings of England who held the mineral rights. The lead mine here was providing silver for the royal mint at Carlisle and lead from the Moor was transported for use in the “king’s houses at Windsor” (i.e. Windsor Castle) and exported to France for the monasteries at Caen and Clairvaux. In 1158 the mine was rented at 100 silver marls (£66) per year, which rose rapidly to 500 marks. Such a valuable place would deserve other symbols of its status.
The kings of England had also retained the advowson (the right to appoint the clergy), of the church here and one of the first acts that Henry II carried out on his accession to the throne in 1154, was to personally nominate a priest, whose name was Galfrid, to the church at Alston. Incidentally, this must have created tension at times, when the priest was loyal to the king of England, while the de Veteriponts, who were the lords of the manor, were loyal to the king of Scotland, while the people were somewhere between – if they cared at all.
That aside, supposing on his appointment this priest was a youngish man who lived here until his death in old age about 1200, then, from the dating of the grave slab, it could have been his. He was certainly a priest of high status, appointed by the king himself, and as such he would have warranted an ornate gravestone. Such a stone would also emphasise the influence of the king of English king, so it might have carried weight as a political statement. Then, early in the 13th century, the value of the silver and lead mine on Alston Moor decreased dramatically as the rent plummeted to only ten marks in 1210, at which level it remained for centuries. At a guess the status of the church in the eyes of the monarch would have declined correspondingly; the priests would have been less important and their burials of less consequence. In short, all of this adds up to the possibility that the ornate gravestone was dedicated to the king’s own clerk, Galfrid.
These gravestones are by far the oldest known man-made relics remaining on Alston Moor and it is only now that their significance has come to light. (History by no means stands still!) What these stones really need is pride of place in a museum – which is the sort of thing that Alston Moor really needs.