Manx Crosses And Runes: Early Christianity On The Isle Of Man

Cross House at Maughold, Isle of Man
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I went to the Isle of Man in search of Viking rune stones. I’d seen runes in Sweden the previous year, and wanted to explore them further. However it wasn’t long before I realised that the story was much more complicated than I thought. The Manx runes were part of a much bigger picture, encompassing the island’s early Celtic history and the coming of the Norse invaders. It is a story that is told through approximately 200 Manx crosses, or decorated gravemarkers, throughout the island. Some of these have rune markings; others have equally mysterious symbols.

The Unique Culture Of The Isle Of Man

But, first, there are a few things you need to know about the Isle of Man. For those who are not familiar with it, it is a small island in the Irish Sea with a chequered political history. Subject to invasions and power grabs, it was at various times ruled by the Scottish or the English. And at one point it was the centre of the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles, which also included many of the Scottish islands. Today the Isle of Man has a slightly anomalous status. It has its own government (the Tynwald), but depends on the UK for matters such as defence. However, it is not a part of either the UK or the European Union.

All of this means that the Isle of Man has a unique culture of its own. As you travel around the island you come across plenty of evidence of its earliest inhabitants and of the later Celtic settlers and Norse invaders (read more about the Historic Sites of the Isle of Man).

Cross House at Maughold, Isle of Man
Manx crosses in the churchyard at Maughold, Isle of Man

Early Christianity On The Isle Of Man

Christianity arrived early to the Isle of Man, at some time around the 5th century. It was probably introduced by St Patrick or his followers (you will sometimes hear the island referred to as St Patrick’s Isle). There was a brief hiatus in the 9th century when the Vikings invaded, bringing their pagan beliefs with them. But it wasn’t long before the Vikings adopted the local religion, and Christianity flourished again.

What this means is that there is an abundance of monuments from the early Christian period to be discovered. Not just Manx crosses, but also tiny chapels and gravestones inscribed with runes or oghams.

Manx Crosses And Oghams

Celtic crosses can be found across the British Isles, but there seems to be a particular abundance in the Isle of Man. And what makes the Manx crosses particularly interesting is the juxtaposition of Celtic and Norse traditions. The crosses are part of the early Christian heritage of the Isle of Man.

Gravestone at Maughold, Isle of Man
The classic Celtic cross – the design is still used for gravestones

In the very earliest times there were no churches but numerous keeills (small chapels that could accommodate a handful of worshippers). It was around this time that the tradition of erecting carved stone grave markers arose. The very first cross slabs had simple designs but later ones used the classic Celtic structure of a cross with a ring at the top. If they had inscriptions they would be written with oghams, the ancient Celtic alphabet (oghams may have had their origins in the pagan era, but they remained in use long after the arrival of Christianity).

Norse Runes And Mythology

The crosses changed their appearance when the Vikings arrived. For one thing, inscriptions were carved (often along the narrow sides of the stones) in runic letters. And for another, the stones incorporated pictures from Norse mythology. Although the Viking crosses are very different from the Scandinavian rune stones I encountered in Sweden, they have some of the same characteristic design features.

Cross at Andreas, Isle of Man
A fragment of a cross at Andreas shows the Norse hero Sigurd roasting the heart of a dragon (look closely and you can see him licking his finger!)

A particularly interesting stone is Thorwalds’s Cross, at Kirk Andreas, which includes both Christian and pagan traditions. One side shows an image of the god Odin being devoured by a wolf, and the other has Christian symbols including a cross, a fish and a serpent. A runic inscription down the side of the cross reads: “Thorwald raised this cross”.

Thorwald's Cross, Andreas, Isle of Man
Thorwads’s Cross – the god Odin is devoured by a wolf

Where To See Manx Crosses

Most of the crosses have been collected into churches across the island (sometimes they are in the churchyard, more often inside the church itself). Apart from the churches noted below you can also find collections of Manx crosses at Kirk Lonan, Braddan Old Kirk and Andreas. You’ll find both Celtic crosses (inscribed with oghams) and Norse crosses (with runes).

Kirk Maughold Church

An important early Christian site is the church at Maughold, not far from Ramsey. A covered Cross House in the churchyard contains more than 40 crosses. These include the oldest Manx cross slab, a stone with both ogham and runic characters, and a rare representation of a Viking ship. Inside the church is the 14th century Maughold Parish Cross, which bears the earliest known image of the “three legs of Man”, which is still the official symbol of the Isle of Man. And there’s more… the remains of three keeills in the churchyard and, just beyond it, the site of Iron Age hill fort.

Keeill at Maughold, Isle of Man
Remains of a keeill (early Celtic chapel) in Maughold churchyard. Note the site of an Iron Age hill fort in the background

The churchyard itself is full of notable Manx citizens (some of them marked with more modern Celtic crosses), bringing its history right up to date.

Kirk Michael

Kirk Michael, on the west coast, is a 19th century building, built on the site of a much older church. It has the largest collection of Norse stone crosses on the island, now moved inside the church to prevent weathering. Look out for the runes around the sides of some of the stones.

A particularly famous stone is Gaut’s Cross with its runic inscription and intricate design including twists and plaits.

Gaut's Cross, Kirk Michael
Gaut’s Cross includes characteristic Norse design features and runes are carved into the side

Jurby Church Heritage Site

St Patrick’s Church, in the far northwest of the island, has an impressive location with views of the sea and of the hills. Built on the site of an early keeill, it now forms part of the Jurby Church Heritage Site. There is a Viking burial mound in Jurby churchyard, and another a bit further away. And there are a number of crosses in the porch, some collected from other ancient sites in the area.

Manx Museum

You will also find a collection of Manx crosses and information about early Christianity in the Manx Museum in Douglas. And, finally, Manx National Heritage have digitised some of the island’s crosses so that you can view them online.

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4 thoughts on “Manx Crosses And Runes: Early Christianity On The Isle Of Man”

    1. The Isle of Man is great if you like history and “quirky” places. It’s also good for walking, with lots of countryside and a footpath that runs the whole way around the coast.

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