Whilst idly wandering around the wonderful Frome Independent Market on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I found myself drawn into St. John The Baptist Church for a brief escape from the hustle and bustle. In the church I came across what appeared to be 2 random Saxon stones embedded in the inner wall of the tower (the tower is sited at the end of the south aisle). The sign beside them explained:
The stones at Frome were discovered in the 1860s and set into the wall circa 1865. The church was considerably altered in the mid-19th C. The top stone is probably the shaft of a cross, set sideways into the wall. The stone is of an oolitic limestone type, known as Bath Stone, part of the Chalfield Oolite Formation. It is probably 9th C and identified with the work of the West Saxon lacertine group (Cramp, p. 152). Lacertine is interlacing ribbons and animal forms. The shaft would have been seen upright. A head of the dragon-like beast or wyrm is at the base as shown in the photo below, biting some interlacing, and the body intertwines upwards. A wyrm doesn’t have wings, where a dragon does.
Dog or Lion?
The dog-like creature in the stone below is carved in relief and patinated. However, it does not seem to be a finished piece of work as some of the stone has not been carved away around the body to make the image stand out. It may have been an apprentice piece. Perhaps both were reject carvings and may have survived in a different environment to the purported cross.
The dog-like creature is thought to be circa 11th C, although probably late-Saxon rather than Norman (Cramp, pp. 152-3). However, the image endures across England and into the Norman period with different styles. It is similar to the type of images that are to be found in the margins of manuscripts. Below are a couple of images from the Bayeux Tapestry margins. Whilst the tapestry was commissioned for the Norman regime (probably Bishop Odo) it was made in England in circa 1070.
The reason I was thinking about whether maybe the Frome carving was meant as a lion is seeing the lion in the Book of Durrow. This was produced around the time of St. Aldhelm (latter part of the 7th C). The lion prefaces the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (lion because the gospels of the Book of Durrow are pre-vulgate – the eagle is St. John’s symbol later). It reminds me of what I have called a lion at Kilpeck (above). It has more of a wolf-type head. Not many folk would have actually seen a lion. The lion was important in Christian symbolism. Beside being an evangelist symbol it represented the house of Judah, from which Jesus was descended (Meehan, p. 59).
There are different styles of Anglo-Saxon art which can help with dating. My knowledge is insufficient in such an area – history, architecture, archaeology and art have so many different categories and divisions of expertise. It seems from analysis across Wessex that the stones are probably not from St. Aldhelm’s time (he died in 709) based on stylistic evidence. Unfortunately, chroniclers are not always reliable when it comes to recording history, and stones can be moved.
Cramp, Rosemary, Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture in England, Volume VII: South-west England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Meehan, Bernard, The Book of Kells (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994)
Moss, Rachel, The Book of Durrow (London: Thames & Hudson, 2018)
Thames & Hudson, The Bayeux Tapestry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985)