Wayside Crosses, What Exactly Are They?

Wayside crosses, predominantly set up between the 9th and 15th centuries, served as navigational aids in challenging landscapes. They commonly marked paths connecting religious sites and were regularly used by parishioners and funeral corteges.

Wayside crosses are an important part of cultural and religious history, especially in Europe. These crosses, often found at the side of roads, in marketplaces, or on hills, have been a symbol of Christian faith for centuries.


Early Beginnings

The early beginnings of wayside crosses in Europe are intricately linked with the spread of Christianity during the Middle Ages. Initially emerging in this era of religious and cultural transformation, wayside crosses served as more than mere symbols of faith; they were integral to the dissemination and practice of Christianity across the continent.

Old Wayside Cross on Shaugh Moor, Lee Moor, Devon, England
Old Wayside Cross on Shaugh Moor, Lee Moor, Devon, England

Their emergence can be traced back to a time when the new religion was taking root in various parts of Europe, and these crosses played a pivotal role in marking the landscape with the sign of the Christian faith.

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In their earliest incarnations, wayside crosses were often simple in design, typically made of wood or stone, and were strategically placed at crossroads, boundaries of villages, or on paths leading to important religious sites.

These locations were chosen for their visibility and accessibility, ensuring that the crosses could be seen and used by the greatest number of people, including pilgrims and travellers. The placement of these crosses at crossroads was particularly symbolic, representing both the physical and spiritual choices one makes in life, a theme deeply resonant with Christian teachings.

Wayside Crosses Severed as Waypoints

These early crosses were not just passive religious symbols; they were active parts of the community’s spiritual life. Pilgrims travelling to sacred sites would often stop at these crosses to pray, seeking guidance, protection, or solace on their journeys.

For many, these crosses served as waypoints on their spiritual and physical travels, offering a sense of direction and purpose.The establishment of wayside crosses also reflected the church’s efforts to sanctify the landscape, turning ordinary places into sites of religious significance.

A Wayfarers Cross in rural Dorset.
A Wayfarers Cross in rural Dorset.

In an age where superstition and pagan beliefs were still prevalent in rural areas, these crosses were a means of asserting the presence and authority of the Christian faith. By marking the countryside with the sign of the cross, the church sought to integrate Christian symbolism into the daily lives of people, weaving it into the very fabric of the landscape.

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In summary, the early beginnings of wayside crosses in medieval Europe represent a crucial period in the history of Christianity. These crosses were much more than mere markers; they were symbols of faith, tools for evangelism, and aids for pilgrims.

Their widespread placement across Europe’s landscapes not only signified the growing influence of Christianity but also played a significant role in shaping the religious identity and practices of the time.

Religious Significance

These crosses were not merely decorative elements in the landscape; they were potent symbols of devotion, pilgrimage, and spiritual guidance. For the devout, these crosses represented the ever-present nature of their faith, serving as constant reminders of Christian teachings and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

In the religious life of medieval communities, wayside crosses played a crucial role. They were often sites of prayer and reflection, where individuals, whether locals or travellers, could pause and contemplate their faith. For many, these moments of pause and prayer at the wayside crosses were an integral part of daily life, providing spiritual comfort and a physical connection to their religious beliefs.

Huckworthy Common Cross, old head, shaft and base, Starkey No.40 by the UC road, in parish of Sampford Spiney (West Devon District), Huckworthy Common at the junction where the open access land begins, on a grass bank where the road divides.
Huckworthy Common Cross, old head, shaft and base, Starkey No.40 by the UC road, in parish of Sampford Spiney (West Devon District), Huckworthy Common.

Furthermore, wayside crosses were commonly used as gathering points for small-scale religious ceremonies. In some cases, they were sites for outdoor masses or processions, particularly on significant days in the Christian calendar. These gatherings reinforced the communal aspect of the faith, bringing together people in shared worship and celebration.

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For pilgrims, wayside crosses marked the routes to sacred destinations, serving as guiding beacons on their spiritual journeys. The crosses offered a sense of direction and purpose, as well as spiritual succour to those undertaking these often arduous journeys.

Wayside Crosses

Each cross along the way was a milestone of progress, both physically towards their destination and spiritually in their personal quest for penance, enlightenment, or connection with the divine.

The presence of these crosses in the landscape also served as a visual testament to the widespread influence and reach of Christianity. In a time when literacy was not widespread, these visual symbols were crucial in conveying religious messages and themes to the populace.

The cross itself, as the central symbol of Christianity, represented the intersection of the divine and the earthly, a concept that was at the heart of the Christian faith. In addition to their role in individual and communal religious practices, wayside crosses also symbolised the sanctification of the natural world.

St Pratt's or St Protus' Cross, the old head and shaft of a wayside cross. Set on the east side of the road southeast of the village, where a public footpath goes off. Blisland parish. Grade II Listed
St Pratt’s or St Protus’ Cross, the old head and shaft of a wayside cross. Blisland, Cornwall, England. Grade II Listed. Image Credit: L Nott 

By erecting crosses in the countryside, the church sought to infuse the landscape with Christian symbolism, effectively claiming and consecrating the land in the name of the faith. This act of marking the landscape with crosses was a powerful statement of Christian presence and a means of integrating the faith into the everyday environment of the people.

Art and Architecture

These crosses, far from being mere religious markers, were often masterpieces of craftsmanship and design, reflecting the artistic styles and architectural trends of their respective periods and regions.

Wayside crosses were constructed using a variety of materials, most commonly stone, but also wood in some regions. Stone crosses, in particular, offered a canvas for elaborate carvings and intricate designs.

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The craftsmanship involved in these carvings was exceptional, with artisans often depicting biblical scenes, Christ’s crucifixion, saints, and other religious iconography. These carvings not only served a decorative purpose but also played a crucial role in educating a largely illiterate populace about Christian stories and doctrines.

The architectural styles of wayside crosses evolved over time, mirroring the broader trends in medieval European architecture. In the Romanesque period, crosses tended to have more simplistic and robust forms, with rounded arches and sturdy proportions.

Long Tom, or the Longstone, a wayside cross with an old head and shaft. Minions, Cornwall, England.
Long Tom, or the Longstone, a wayside cross with an old head and shaft. Minions, Cornwall, England. Image Credit: L Nott

As the Gothic style took hold, the crosses became more elaborate and slender, featuring pointed arches, intricate tracery, and a greater emphasis on verticality. In regions influenced by the Celtic tradition, such as Ireland and Scotland, wayside crosses often featured distinctive Celtic patterns, knotwork, and insular art motifs.

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In addition to their artistic and architectural significance, wayside crosses were also landmarks in the landscape, often situated at prominent locations such as crossroads, hilltops, or entrances to towns and villages.

Their placement and design were carefully considered to ensure visibility and accessibility. The height and scale of the crosses could vary significantly, with some being modest and others grand and imposing, depending on the intended impact and the resources available.

Social and Judicial Role

In many communities, these crosses were more than just markers of faith; they served as central points for social interaction and local justice. Placed at crossroads, village squares, and other public spaces, they were natural gathering points where people would meet, exchange news, and conduct communal activities.

In a judicial context, wayside crosses sometimes played a role in the administration of local justice. In some regions, they were used as places where local justices or magistrates would deliver verdicts or conduct open-air courts.

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This practice underscores the interweaving of religious and civic life in medieval times. The presence of a religious symbol at a judicial proceeding perhaps served to remind participants of the moral and divine aspects of the law.

Old Wayside Cross by Mill Lane, Hawsker, North Yorkshire, England. Image credit: Milestone Society

Moreover, wayside crosses were often used to demarcate boundaries, both physical and jurisdictional. They could signify the limits of a village or town, marking the point where the authority of one jurisdiction ended and another began. In disputes over land or property, the crosses served as reference points, providing a measure of order and stability in a time when formal maps and surveys were uncommon.

Social Gatherings

Socially, the crosses were focal points for communal events and celebrations. Processions, particularly those associated with religious festivals, often included stops at these crosses.

These events reinforced community bonds and shared beliefs, fostering a sense of collective identity and cohesion. The crosses thereby played a role in the rhythm of communal life, marking the passage of time through the year with seasonal religious and social gatherings.

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The positioning of wayside crosses at crossroads or other prominent locations also had a symbolic social function. Crossroads were seen as liminal spaces, places where different paths and possibilities met.

The placement of a cross at such a location can be interpreted as a reminder of the moral and spiritual choices facing individuals in their daily lives. This symbolism would not have been lost on the medieval populace, for whom religious and worldly concerns were often deeply intertwined.

Pilgrimage and Penitence

During the medieval period, pilgrimage and penitence were deeply ingrained in the Christian experience, and wayside crosses played a crucial role in these practices. For countless pilgrims, these crosses dotted along pilgrimage routes were not just markers but also significant spiritual waypoints on their journey to sacred destinations.

Redman Cross, the base of a wayside cross.
Redman Cross, the base of a wayside cross. Rosedale Abbey, North Yorkshire, England. Image Credit: Mike Rayner

In an era when pilgrimage was seen as a vital expression of faith, a means of seeking divine favour, or a form of penance for sins, wayside crosses provided essential physical and spiritual guidance.

The placement of wayside crosses along pilgrimage routes was strategic, offering pilgrims places to rest, pray, and reflect. These moments of respite and contemplation were key components of the pilgrimage experience, allowing travellers to meditate on their faith, the purpose of their journey, and their relationship with the divine.

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The crosses thus became integral to the pilgrimage landscape, imbuing the routes with a deeper religious significance and reinforcing the spiritual nature of the journey.

Moreover, wayside crosses often marked significant stages on the pilgrimage path or indicated the direction to important religious sites. They served as reassuring signs that pilgrims were on the correct path, both literally and metaphorically.

Devotion and Atonement

In an age where long-distance travel was fraught with uncertainties and dangers, these crosses were symbols of hope and guidance, assuring pilgrims of their continued connection to the Christian community and the protective gaze of their faith.

In terms of penitence, wayside crosses were focal points for acts of devotion and atonement. Individuals undertaking pilgrimages as a form of penance for their sins would often stop at these crosses to pray for forgiveness, seek spiritual strength, or perform acts of devotion.

Old Wayside Cross north of Fox Tor, Dartmoor Forest
Old Wayside Cross north of Fox Tor, Dartmoor Forest. Image Credit: Alan Rosevear

The physical act of visiting a wayside cross, sometimes involving long and arduous travel, was itself seen as a penitential exercise, a way of demonstrating remorse and a desire for spiritual renewal.

The significance of wayside crosses in the context of pilgrimage and penitence also extended to the wider community. Those unable to undertake pilgrimages themselves might visit local wayside crosses for prayer and reflection, engaging in a localised form of pilgrimage and penitential practice.

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Additionally, communities would gather at these crosses to bid farewell to departing pilgrims or to welcome them upon their return, further embedding these crosses in the fabric of medieval Christian life.

Wayside Crosses Decline and Damage

The decline and damage of wayside crosses, which were once prominent features in the landscapes of medieval Europe, can be attributed to a range of factors that reflect the changing social, religious, and political climates over the centuries.

While these crosses stood as symbols of faith and waypoints for pilgrims for hundreds of years, their prominence gradually waned, leading to their neglect, damage, and in many cases, disappearance.

One significant factor in the decline of wayside crosses was the Reformation, particularly in Northern Europe, during the 16th and 17th centuries. This period, marked by a profound shift in religious attitudes and practices, saw the removal or destruction of many religious symbols and artifacts associated with Catholicism.

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Wayside crosses, as conspicuous emblems of the Catholic faith, were often targeted. They were either destroyed as part of iconoclastic movements or removed to align with the new Protestant ethos, which frowned upon such overt religious displays.

Another contributing factor to the decline and damage of wayside crosses was the general neglect and ravages of time. With the waning of pilgrimage as a common practice, and as communities evolved or relocated, many crosses were left untended.

Exposed to the elements and without regular maintenance, they gradually succumbed to weathering and decay. In some cases, the knowledge and skills required to repair and maintain these ancient structures faded, leading to further neglect.

Abandonment of Wayside Crosses

Additionally, the political and social upheavals that Europe underwent in subsequent centuries often led to a disregard for these historical monuments.

Wars, territorial changes, and shifting boundaries sometimes resulted in the destruction or abandonment of wayside crosses. In other instances, urban expansion and the development of road networks led to the removal of these crosses, as they were seen as obstacles to progress or irrelevant relics of a bygone era.

Despite these challenges, there has been a growing recognition of the historical and cultural value of wayside crosses in more recent times. Efforts are being made in many regions to restore and preserve these structures.

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Conservationists and historians are working to document and repair existing crosses, while local communities are increasingly viewing them as important links to their historical and cultural heritage. However, the damage and loss suffered over the centuries mean that many of these once-common features have been irretrievably lost, leaving gaps in the historical and cultural landscape of Europe.

The decline and damage of wayside crosses were the results of a complex interplay of religious, political, and social changes. While they once stood as ubiquitous symbols of Christian faith across Europe, changes in religious practices, neglect, and the impact of historical upheavals have led to their deterioration and disappearance in many areas. Despite recent efforts at preservation, the legacy of these crosses remains a poignant reminder of the transient nature of religious and cultural symbols through history.