Ruthwell Cross


Made in the 8th century, the Ruthwell Cross is one of the most impressive monuments to survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. Found in the village of Ruthwell in south-west Scotland, this stone cross stands at over five metres high and is elaborately carved with inscriptions and scenes from the life of Christ.

What is the significance of the Ruthwell Cross?

The Ruthwell Cross is important for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the best examples of ‘insular art’ – the artistic tradition which flourished in Britain and Ireland after the departure of the Romans. Secondly, the cross was made at an early point in this period. Thirdly, its surface is carved with inscriptions in Latin and also in Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – using the runic alphabet. It is unusual to find runes on a Christian monument.

These inscriptions appear alongside classically influenced vine-scroll designs (which show interlacing vine leaves inset with birds and animals) and carved scenes showing Christ and various other religious figures. Though scholars agree that it was probably used as a preaching cross, there is some debate about exactly what these scenes are. One is very likely to be Christ treading on the beasts – an image we also find on a similar monument called the Bewcastle Cross. This shows Christ in a position of dominance over two creatures. Another image shows Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet, which is an episode from the Gospels. The cross was probably originally painted.

Why is the Ruthwell Cross important for literary historians?

The cross is important for the history of English literature because it contains an inscription in runes of a version of The Dream of the Rood – one of the oldest surviving Old English poems. This poem tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree that was cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. The only other surviving copy of this text is in the Vercelli Book, a late 10th or early 11th century manuscript now housed in Vercelli Cathedral’s Chapter Library, in northern Italy.

During the time of the Reformation the Ruthwell Cross was pulled down and partially buried. It was only reconstructed in the 19th century.

Full title:
The Ruthwell Cross
8th Century
Carved stone
Old English [in runes]
Usage terms

Image AT3PPM: South West Images Scotland / Alamy Stock Photo
Image EDRN2Y: Aisle / Alamy Stock Photo
Image EDPRW8: Aisle / Alamy Stock Photo
Image EDRNEA: Aisle / Alamy Stock Photo
Image ARNE34: South West Images Scotland / Alamy Stock Photo

Held by
Cummertrees, Mouswald and Ruthwell Church

Related articles

Old English

Article by:
David Crystal
Language and voice

David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.

Old English heroic poetry

Article by:
Michael Bintley
Heroes and heroines, Myths, monsters and the imagination, Faith and religion, Form and genre

Old English heroic poetry celebrates ancient and contemporary warriors, but it also celebrates acts of self-sacrifice and the stories of brave women, and combines pagan and Christian values. Mike Bintley introduces some of the key texts of the genre, including Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood and Judith.

The elegies of the Exeter Book

Article by:
Michael Bintley
Gender and sexuality, Faith and religion, Form and genre

The poems in the Exeter Book known as the 'Old English elegies' focus on loss, separation and the transience of earthly things. Mike Bintley explores these poems, which include The Wanderer and The Wife's Lament, and highlights the parallels between the elegies and the riddles in the Exeter Book.

Related collection items