Anastasia Moskvina – PhD History of Art, University of East Anglia
The monasterium at Whithorn was probably established in the late 5th- early 6th century. The first phase of the evolution of the monasterium – from c. 550 to c. 730 – was characterised by a steady development of a settlement with a double curvilinear layout. The settlement was laid out generally following Irish practice. A stone church in the centre of the monasterium was in existence in the beginning of the 6th century (See Hill 1997 for full excavation report).
Around 700, a curious straight line of features, including posts, graves, stones and slabs, appeared on the site of the cemetery to the south of the church. It may have been designed to mark a symbolic boundary between a group of shrines and a graveyard to the north and an area of unused ground to the south. This line survived the radical transformation of the site in c. 730 and was joined by a parallel row of aligned post-holes in the subsequent period (Hill 1997, pp. 110, 12, figs. 3.30, 3.31).
Fig.1. Schematic plan of excavated cemetery at Whithorn, c. 700. Author’s drawing after Hill 1997.
The reconstruction of the monasterium, which started in c. 730, continued until the 760s or 770s. Among other alterations, a sequence of three aligned (i.e. arranged in line on the same axis) buildings - two timber oratories and a stone-founded burial enclosure – were built over the site of the shrines and the cemetery. The axes of the oratories followed the socket line of an earlier shrine. To the south of this enclosure, there appeared a range of axially-aligned timber buildings (Hill 1997, pp. 103, 176, figs. 2.9, 3.29, 4.5). Around 800, the two oratories were united into a timber church, while the enclosure was rebuilt into a burial chapel. The two retained the same axial alignment (Hill 1997, pp. 42-43, figs. 2.10, 2.13).
Notably, this period of rebuilding coincides with the beginning of Northumbrian domination in Galloway (Hill 1997, p. 18). Bede records that a Northumbrian bishopric was established at Whithorn by 731, attesting to a Northumbrian expansion into Galloway and to rising political aspirations of the Northumbrian church (HE V.23). Archaeological evidence suggests that the Northumbrians may have gained control over Whithorn even earlier - towards the end of 7th c. (Hill 1997, pp. 17, 37). Thus, alignment at Whithorn seems to follow the arrival of the Northumbrians and is not recorded before, which invites to look for the origin of this phenomenon in Northumbria.
At the royal vill of Northumbrian kings at Yeavering, where linearity was a constant and prominent feature, the most distinctive case of alignment is dated to the height of Yeavering’s development under King Edwin (616-633) and constitutes a sequence of structures, including a prehistoric barrow, halls, graves and free-standing posts (See Hope-Taylor 1977 for full excavation report). At the monasteries in Jarrow and possibly Wearmouth, pairs of churches are precisely aligned on the same axis. At Jarrow, two monastic buildings (A and B) to the south of churches also form a straight line (See Cramp 2005 for full excavation report). Similarly, at Hexham a pair of buildings are precisely aligned: the church dedicated to St. Andrew, with a crypt underneath its east end, and a small apsidal structure immediately to the east (See Cambridge & Williams 1995). Another potential, although debatable, instance of architectural alignment is found at Lindisfarne (For information, see O’Sullivan & Young 1995; for reconstruction and argument towards alignment, see Blair 1991).
All these sites, through their royal and elite patronage, seem to have been associated with power and political control. In addition, the architecture and layout of these sites could have been designed to make other symbolic statements of domination. Thus, the group at Hexham, built immediately after the pro-Roman Council of Whitby, is thought to have evoked associations with Rome, with its typically Roman crypt and Apostolic dedication (Bailey 1976; Fernie 198, p. 61; Gilbert 1974; Taylor & Taylor 1965). Wearmouth and Jarrow, in the light of earlier unsettled boundary disputes between Deira and Bernicia precisely in this area (as the disputes were ongoing even in the united Northumbria), are likely to have been making a territorial claim initiated by Kind Ecgfrith of Deiran descent (Cramp 2005, pp. 28, 350). Lindisfarne was established almost immediately after King Oswald’s victory over Cædwalla of Gwynedd and his subsequent ascension to the Northumbrian throne (HE III.1,3). Finally, the development of Yeavering should be seen in the overall context of the gradual establishment and acceptance of Anglo-Saxon lordship, observed both locally and regionally.
This means that 7th-century Northumbria was a place of ideological tensions and shifting powers. In a sense, this unsettled political and cultural climate could have made Northumbria a ground for architectural experiments, with the kings and the elite to be seen urgently searching for the means of proclaiming their authority. As a result, the visual narrative of alignment, selected to convey the message of power and domination, was widely accepted and seems to have been firmly established in Northumbria by c. 700, when it started to spread into the neighbouring regions. It is in this context that alignment at Whithorn, not observed before c. 700, should be considered. It seems that alignment at Whithorn in its essence is no different from that in other places across Northumbria: it could have been a strategy adopted to cope with anxieties over leadership and thus a predominantly political and ideological, rather than merely architectural, feature.
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Bede (1969) The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, eds. Judith McClure and Roger Collins. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Blair, J. (1991) The Early Churches at Lindisfarne. Archaeologia Aeliana. 5 (19). p. 47-53.
Cambridge, E. & A. Williams. (1995) Hexham Abbey: a Review of Recent Work and its Implications. Archaeologia Aeliana. 5 (23). p. 51-138.
Cramp, R. (2005) Wearmouth and Jarrow Monastic Sites. 2 vols. Swindon: English Heritage.
Fernie, E. (1983) Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons. London: BT Batsford.
Gilbert, E. (1974) Saint Wilfrid’s Church at Hexham, In: Kirby, D.P. (ed.) Saint Wilfrid at Hexham. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
Hill, P. (1997) Whithorn and St Ninian: The Excavation of a Monastic Town, 1984-1991. Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited.
Hope-Taylor, B. (1977) Yeavering: an Anglo-British Centre of Early Northumbria. London: H.M.S.O.
O’Sullivan, D. & R. Young. (1995) Lindisfarne: Holy Island. London: BT Batsford
Taylor, H.M. & Taylor, J. (1965-1978) Anglo-Saxon Architecture, 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.