The namestones in this collection come from a few different sites in the North East, including Billingham, Birtley, Hart and Monkwearmouth.
Together, they show the range of artistic styles and cultural influences in play across the region from the 7th century right up until the 11th century, when the Norman conquest began.
Monkwearmouth is probably the most famous of these sites, and was created by the Northumbrian nobleman Benedict Biscop in AD 674. Unlike Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, whose founders were largely Irish-Scottish monks from Dal Riada, Benedict had been to Rome and set out to bring his experience of Roman Christianity into Northumbria.
To do it, he brought stonemakers and glassworkers over from Francia, and had them build one of the first stone buildings in England. Benedict was well travelled in mainland Europe, and brought books and other items from the Mediterranean world.
The monastery later became famous as the home of Bede, Anglo-Saxon England’s most famous writer, and was renowned as a centre of book production, until it was sacked by Viking raiders and abandoned in the 9th century. A page from one of the most famous examples, the Codex Amiatinus which was produced at Monkwearmouth and taken to Rome as a gift for the Pope, is pictured here.
The carvers at Monkwearmouth clearly favoured the square-ended cross form, and yet the stud-like centres bear a striking resemblance to the types of crosses found in Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, whose motifs are drawn from Anglo-Saxon metalworking. Some also show a similarity to several Irish carvings.
Among the namestones in this collection, you can see one of the smallest, one of the last to be written with solely runic inscriptions, and one showing the beginnings of Norman influence.
'Pray for us all' namestone
Billingham, AD 700-750
'Pray for us all' namestone Billingham, AD 700-750
Some namestones have decorated borders, but this one is pretty unique; it is filled with text. Reading clockwise, you can make out part of a Latin phrase II ORAT EPRO II F.— —.]INIB’ I. Originally, it probably read ORATE PRO FRATRIBUS NOSTRIS ET PRO CUNCTIS CHRISTIANIS HOMINIB(US), which means something like “Pray for all of us, our Christian people”.
The triangular or pyramid-like symbol is an ‘Alpha’. Many of the namestones are inscribed with Alpha and Omega, shorthand for a phrase from the Bible, Revelations XX II 13, which says ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end”. The Omega has broken off on this namestone, but these symbols are found on stones from Lindisfarne and Hartlepool, linking the three sites.