26 November 2020

by Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons).

We call it Celtic. Though it’s also Pictish, Viking, or Anglo Saxon. We call it Interlaced though it can be freeform, zoomorphic, spirals or tessellated. What am I talking about? I’m referring to the genre known as Insular art. (Some of which comes from the Mainland…) (Bain 1977).

But, whatever it is – we know it when we see it.

Man and Monster - Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire
Man and Monster

I don’t have a speciality subject in archaeology but for many years now I’ve had an interest in Early Medieval Christianity. I’ve travelled all over Britain to see antiquities of that period. Thus, I’m now particularly familiar with the collection on the Isle of Man, doubly interesting as it consists of Viking as well as Celtic examples. (Kermode 1994).

In which your scribe enters the Early Medieval Scriptorium

Celtic art is ideal for someone like me who is no artist but can do technical drawing. Yet it requires consistency and an awful lot of patience. Some examples are infamously intricate.

Recently I went on a course to further my knowledge of this art form. On the course I learned about parchment and how to cut quill pens. It also covered marking out the geometry using a compass and straight edge, and the traditional pigments. This was as close to texts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels as anyone is going to get these days.

The course was in Cromarty (a little north of Inverness) so this was a rather long journey – worth it though.

Table with pencils, papers etc on it

This art form is often associated with the West of Britain and so I wanted to know if there were any examples of it here in Wiltshire. (Wiltshire is only in the West Country if the inhabitants feel like it). Well, as it turns out, there are quite a lot of pieces, all produced in the Anglo-Saxon period (Circa 500-1066 A.D.)

The Anglo-Saxons were skilled in many different media, though not enthusiastic builders in stone. Thus they’d have made most buildings from timber. That said, there are stone churches. We’re so fortunate in Wiltshire to have one of the finest and most unaltered Saxon churches – that of St Lawrence in Bradford upon Avon. And a great many more contain elements of Anglo-Saxon carvings.

Artistic cues for Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire

The artists took their cues from both Celtic knotwork and Norse gripping beasts. Athough a favourite design element of their own was the foliate element, and so we see examples of all these concepts in Wiltshire. (Meehan 1995). Countering that are more classical figures and tessellated design elements.

Some examples of Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire now follow – Not an exhaustive list!


St Lawrence’s church is famed for this magnificent pair of angels. (St Lawrence’s church website).


Britford 1 - drawing of Anglo Saxon art - Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire
Britford 2 - King Solomon's knot
Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire


Broad Chalke anglo saxon art
Broad Chalk 1 (JC)


Much has been made of this fellow’s posture. I reckon it’s a mere ploy to get him into the space in a tidy fashion.

Codford St Peter - Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire


I’m much more sympathetic to the monsters found in churches, rather than the angels – being a monster myself. Here are two Norse dragons.

Drawing of Colerne Norse dragons - Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire


Cricklade church is famous for its tower – visible for miles around. In the north porch are two much older carvings – part of a cross shaft and a grave cover respectively.


Eysey is a deserted village north of the Thames at Cricklade with its church demolished in 1953. Found in the river, these pieces are now in the museum. (Cricklade Museum website).

Eysey piece - Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire


Knook has this grand example of a knotwork border and a Norse style tympanum.


According to the very helpful website `Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture`, there are no less than nine examples of this art in Ramsbury church. Here are three of them.


St Mary’s church at Rodbourne Cheney church is old and indeed has a couple of carving fragments.

My conclusion

To begin with I assumed that examples of this art were only found in the Celtic (i.e. western) parts of the country. I was very wrong, as you can see. Which goes to show how important research is. But, I enjoy researching new things very much…

About the images

All photos and drawings © Rebecca Davies November 2020. That is except the B/W Photos which were kindly supplied by the Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture Website – though not those marked JC (Broad Chalk 1 and Ramsbury 5a). They were taken by Dr John Crook (Dr John Crook website).
Big thank you to everyone.

See also by Rebecca: https://swindonian.me/2020/10/24/wiltshires-sarsen-stones/


There are many books written about Insular art and its creation. Some are easy to follow – others are more impenetrable.

BBC, History of the World; Thorwalds Cross. http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/lK4EapVHRgKV_DyFGeDeIQ (Accessed 16th November 2020).

Bain, G. (1977) Celtic Art; the Methods of Construction, Constable, London.

(Iain Bain wrote books on Celtic art too).

Corpus of Anglo Saxon Stone Sculpture website http://www.ascorpus.ac.uk/ (Accessed 16th November 2020). 

Cricklade Museum https://www.cricklademuseum.co.uk/ (Accessed 18th November 2020).

Dr John Crook. http://www.john-crook.com/ (Accessed 16th November 2020).

Groam House Museum https://groamhouse.org.uk/ (Accessed 18th November 2020).

Kermode, P. M. C. (1994) Manx Crosses, Pinkfoot press, Forfar.

Meehan, A. (1995) The Tree of Life, Thames and Hudson, London.

(All of Aidan Meehan’s books are useful).

St Lawrence church website http://www.saxonchurch.org.uk/guide.htm (Accessed 16th November 2020).

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