Ancient Stone crosses in Devon

Record of Devon Crosses

Crosses carved from stone are commonly used as memorials across Britain. However, in the remoter areas of England, ancient stone crosses with no clear memorial function are found not only in churchyards but also beside the road, often at junctions. Many of these monuments show evidence of deliberate damage in the distant past, and in some cases repair and restoration during the Victorian period. In Cornwall, several hundred ancient stone crosses have been identified, particularly on the high moors, and Andrew Langdon has published a series of books containing a full gazetteer. Mr E.N. Masson Phillips conducted a comprehensive survey of the stone crosses that survive in Devon; the survey was published in series of papers to the Devon Association in 1937 and 1938, with supplements added up to 1987.


A number of generalisations can be drawn from Masson Phillips’ records.


Firstly, the Devon crosses are quite different in style from those erected in Cornwall. West of the Tamar, the majority have circular features in the cross head, such as variations on the wheel-head, and have a Celtic feel to the overall design. In Devon the common design is the rectangular cross head with chamfering on the shaft and shoulders on the socket stone. It is not clear whether this illustrates a different cultural tradition or the different period in which the stones were erected in the two counties.

In both counties the majority of the surviving stones are in the upland areas – Cornwall, having a higher proportion of these areas, has more crosses. However, it is not clear whether this distribution reflects the survival of these monuments in areas that have been least disturbed by later development or the original favouring of these remote locations.

There are very few examples where it can be clearly demonstrated that the cross is in its original location. On the contrary, a large number are known to have been moved at least once, often having been “rescued” in the Victorian period. Many had been adapted for use as gateposts, bridges, lintels and troughs, so had obviously been removed some time before from their earlier positions. Since the local churchyard was seen as the safest and most appropriate place for a cross, several of these are designated as churchyard crosses, although the limited records suggest they were originally sited outside this consecrated ground. Since the stones are so heavy, most relocation seems to have been within the parish, though there are notable exceptions where stones have been transported from Cornwall to Devon.

The majority of the stone crosses are made of granite, a durable stone but difficult to engrave with detail. There is little evidence of decorative engraving or legends on most stones. However, some have simple crosses engraved on the face and quite a few have niches in the cross head, suggesting that a small statue or carved material was originally inserted there.

The deliberate damage generally involved smashing off the arms of the cross head, though the whole head was sometimes broken off intact. It is assumed that this was done after the Reformation, when the smashing of icons was encouraged. Some would have been broken during the period of the Civil War and Commonwealth. Some effort was made to preserve crosses that survived a functional purpose such as boundary markers and waymarkers; even when the head was smashed the stump was often retained. The Victorians added back the missing sections to what they found, and it was easier to add a complete new head, presumably by removing any residual material from the top of the shaft. After 150 years or aging it is difficult to judge whether sections match because of the skill of the Victorian stone mason or because they are the genuine reunion of the original cross. When the renovated cross has been adapted as a memorial (normally in a churchyard) it includes some record of the change, but in many instances the only information is anecdotal.

Some of the crosses seem always to have been at the roadside. The obvious Christian iconography has led to the conclusion that these wayside crosses were placed on pilgrimage routes, particularly between monasteries and holy sites. In other cases it is suggested that they mark church paths to guide parishioners or pallbearers to the mother church.

The sophistication of the crosses may indicate their relative age and even their function (Masson Phillips adopted a simple A, B, C, D designation for most of the crosses). The few examples of crosses with ornamental engraving, such as Copplestone, are pre-Conquest and had some memorial function. The more common crosses formed by simply shaping the end of a piece of moorland stone are medieval and may generally have been intended as prominent markers beside a roadside. The simple working may leave them misshapen or asymmetric. These are classified as Type A by Masson Phillips. The erect stones with well-defined rectangular cross heads may be 12th to 15th century and again used at the roadside but with a subsidiary religious function; the Maltese crosses which are more elaborate may be the later ones. Masson Phillips classifies those that are tall and slender as Type B and the more massive ones, thought to be later, as Type C. The more ornate crosses, including those with Lantern heads, pillared shafts and canopied niches may be 12th to 15th century and are Classified as Type D by Masson Phillips. These have a stronger Christian symbolism and may have been at shrines, rural preaching places or later absorbed into the churchyard of a new church. The modern crosses are almost all memorials; after World War I many villages adopted the style of the Ancient Stone Cross as the pattern for the marker above Rolls of Honour.


Here we can also make some logical extension to the classifications made by Masson Phillips.


In looking for patterns of distribution of the crosses it may also be useful to describe the overall appearance in terms of its profile. Although rather arbitrary it is independent of size and describes the proportions of the cross head and shaft. The term “regular” describes the commonest form, “broad” describes those where the face appears wider than it is deep, “slender” those where the shaft is relatively thin and “natural” those where the shape of the original boulder has influenced the shape. In the South Hams there are a group of “spurred” crosses with some ornamentation to the arms. The natural profiles are more primitive, generally having short arms, and it is tempting to regard these as the oldest form. Crosses with a broad profile look older than the regular profiles, whereas the slender profile appears to be associated with the youngest of the crosses. Natural profile crosses are all found around Dartmoor, as are the majority of the “broad” profile crosses. The slender crosses are more common to the east of Dartmoor; the spurred crosses in Erme Valley area.

The stone crosses on Dartmoor could have been carved relatively close to where they were erected but for those located off the moor considerable effort would have been required to transport them. It may be assumed that water transport would be to move them wherever this was possible, design and materials may be related to the river catchment in which they are found; sites along the coast, accessible to sea transport, would potentially show a different distribution pattern. This approach might also mean that the possibility of crosses being carved from stone on Exmoor (Sandstone/Sarcen material) or the church building stones of the coastal quarries of East Devon, might be observed. Indeed looking at the similarities and differences in the stone used for crosses and that used in the associated parish churches might be interesting in understanding the origin of the crosses.


Dartmoor and Devon Crosses

The largest number of Devon crosses is in and around Dartmoor and these monuments have attracted particular interest from local historians and walkers. Being close to plentiful supplies of granite and located so high up in the catchments that they may be no practical barrier between the various river systems, these crosses are easily considered as a single group. Harry Starkey updated and revised Masson Phillips’ material for this area in Dartmoor Crosses and some ancient tracks – revised edition 1989. More recently web sites at


have added more information on the Dartmoor Crosses.


Away from Dartmoor, Masson Phillips reported a significant number of ancient crosses surviving in the parishes of southern and western Devon. These “lowland” crosses have received less attention in recent times and so are considered in more detail here. These non-Dartmoor crosses have been categorised as either Central-Devon (the main Exe catchment), East Devon (the catchments around the Otter and Axe), North Devon (the Taw Torridge catchment) South Devon (the river valleys of the South Hams) and Coastal (places where transport of stone by sea would have been easy).

Distribution of Wayside Crosses.

Published studies of the stone crosses of Devon have generally not distinguished between the various category of cross when analysing distribution or style. This is, in part, because it is difficult to judge whether the stones in churchyards were intended for consecrated ground or have been relocated there. Furthermore, there is a general presumption that all the crosses have a primarily religious function and so sub-division between churchyard and crossroads is unimportant. A recurring theme in the description of the Dartmoor stone crosses is that they mark the main paths between the monastic institutions, and pilgrimage sites around the moorside.


However, a Devon-wide perspective suggests that the stone cross was used as a marker for several quite different purposes; in a Christian society the functional was also endowed with religious symbolism. It may be illuminating to take those stone crosses that seem to have been erected at the roadside and assess these without the complication of those that have a clear religious/preaching function in a churchyard or a market/preaching function in the centre of a town or large village. The wayside cross distribution map, based on the Donn map of 1765, shows the position of 160 stone crosses, socket stones, lone shafts etc that in the Masson Phillips surveys were not located in villages or towns (i.e. excludes churchyard and market crosses) and were not simple boundary stones. It also includes, in different colours, sites where Masson Phillips reported that the stone had been moved to a churchyard or house from elsewhere (47 sites) and sites where crossroad crosses have been recorded in old documents (34 sites). To assist in the assessment, the sites of the main Abbeys and monasteries in Devon are shown.


The distribution map shows no evidence that the wayside crosses are associated with the monastic institutions. There are no wayside crosses near the monasteries of east and north Devon and very few near those on the SE coastal area. Although there are many crosses in the corridor between Plymouth and Tavistock where several abbeys are located, the large number of crosses in the upper Teign valley does not correspond to any similar grouping of monasteries. This does not imply that the monks were not responsible for, or did not use some of the crosses as waymarkers, but there is no evidence here that they were the principle builders of the wayside crosses.


The greatest density of sites is to the NE and SW of the Dartmoor and in clusters around Exeter and Plymouth. There are no clear wayside crosses to the in Eastern Devon and very few in the North of the county. This suggests there is no direct link to the prosperity of parishes (East Devon would generally be wealthier than Dartmoor). Although there are crosses along the main highways, including the three main East/West routes through Okehampton, Moretonhampstead/Chagford and Ashburton, there are many more crosses on what are now minor roads and bridleways. Finally, there may arguably be a link with availability of granite; dispersion from quarrying areas in the Upper Teign and Bovey to the east and Roborough to the west would account for the two main distributions. However, this does not explain why some sites have stones and apparently similar parishes have none. One major factor maybe that in areas away from Dartmoor it was more normal to erect wooden crosses (the precursors of finger posts) and that the present distribution reflects the durability of the materials that happen to have been chosen in these parishes. However, the Teign and Exe valleys are well wooded, yet granite crosses survive here.


So, by process of elimination we are left with the case for the granite crosses being first a cultural choice for this region and the local distribution being functional; located where a marker was needed at a decision point on the journey. These markers would be more importantly on the minor routes where frequent use and other travellers would make the paths easier t find. Typical decision points are at the junction or crossing of routes to markets etc, paths to safe river crossings, preferred crossing points on a watershed and markers on featureless moorland. This leaves open the question of whether they were originally painted or whitewashed. Clearly some had detailed carvings inserted in the face of the cross and the tradition of dressing socket stones with garlanded gloves may recall a time when these monuments were much more prominent in the landscape. At present some are almost invisible as their lichen covered faces merge into the greenery of the Devon bank and encroaching trees; Limewashing these stone crosses would have been an obvious option for the medieval authorities, more used to painted stonework than we are today. .


Below is a detailed examination of one group of the stone crosses in Central Devon, taking into the discussion not only those that are clearly wayside crosses, but also those that are in churchyards.


Stone Crosses in the Exe Valley

The River Exe and its tributaries (the main ones being the rivers Creedy, Culm and Clyst) drain the land from the slopes of Exmoor in North Devon, the eastern side of Dartmoor and the western slopes of the Blackdowns. Although within this river basin there are many high ridges, which were moorland until modern times, most of the crosses in Masson Phillips’s survey were found in the valleys. This contrasts with the distribution on Dartmoor where most crosses appear to be out in the remote highland areas. Furthermore, there are more crosses in the southern, lower parts of the basin than in the remote, less populated parishes in the north.

The Exeter Highway Crosses                       Alphington Cross

A cluster of what are almost certainly wayside crosses lie close to the banks of Exe, either side of Exeter. There is no evidence for these having been erected close to a church or shrine. They are made from well-carved granite with symmetrical arms, often a niche in the head, chamfered shafts and shoulders on the socket stone – all Masson Phillips Type C, so dating to the medieval period. They are generally located within half a mile of the river or a tributary across an Exeter road; on the west bank at Alphington (two) and Upton Pynes (the one at Little Johns Cross may also be in this group); on the east bank at St Loyes, Stoke Canon (Burrow’s Cross) and Rewe (the one at Pinhoe churchyard may also be in this group). The strange cross at St Thomas is excluded from this set because of its shape. These Exeter crosses have all suffered some deliberate damage so one assumes were judged to be iconic; since Exeter was the focus for several Civil War battles there was plenty of opportunities for the iconoclasts to do their work, particularly since several have niches for small carvings. If we include the now lost Scarlett’s Cross on Stoke Hill, each of the ancient highways into the city would have had one cross; going clockwise from the Exe estuary, Alphington 1 and 2, Little Johns, Upton Pynes, Burrow’s, Rewe, Scarlett’s, Pinhoe and St Loyes. This would imply that there should be one on the Crediton road (maybe the lost one at St David’s) and possibly on the Topsham road. However, the distance from the city is different in each case and the sight-line to the cathedral variable. So overall there is no clear interpretation of these surviving crosses, though the probability is that they were erected by the ecclesiastical institutions in Exeter. It is tempting to see these as markers at key crossroads between the way to safe river crossings and a radial road from Exeter. Some of them are at natural boundaries (Little Johns and Pinhoe on a ridge crossing; Burrow’s Cross on the Parish Boundary). A possible explanation I favour is that they served as markers on the main routes out of the city and were at points were the highway needed some constant care e.g. on the approach to a small bridge or ford or on a steep hill/holloway where traditionally a hermit might be installed to collect alms and pray.

The Exeter City Crosses

A small number of unusual crosses survive or are recorded around the city. This includes the surviving ornate cross in St Nicholas Priory, and strange double cross in St Thomas. The crosses said to have stood at the West Gate (Toisa’s), near the East Gate (Carlos Cross in St Sidwells) and the St Ianes Cross in Gandy Street may fall into this group. Located either in or close to the city walls, it is likely their main function was devotional rather than physical guidance.


Crosses in the Southern Parishes of the Exe Valley                Newton St Cyres Cross

There is a further category of cross further out along the main highways from the city. These tend to be slender and may not all be of granite. Other than the red sandstone cross at Shillingford St George (found at Shillingford St Abbot) and Stumpy Cross (now removed to Silverton Park) these are now in churchyards at Shillingford St George, Kenn, Exminster, Newton St Cyres, Upton Pynes, Silverton and Bradninch (the one at Kennford was imported from Cornwall). Most are Masson Phillips Type B. It is difficult to judge what characterised the original locations of these, if it was not the churchyard. The surviving cross at Silverton churchyard is very ornate and that at Newton St Cyres had ornamentation (the sundial may have been a niche?) and they do not lie close to major decision points or barriers on the highway. Hence, one might speculate that these had more of a religious rather than a guidance function, though this may still have been at crossroads on isolated highways that climbed out of the Exe basin. The variety of stones suggests that quarries to the east of the Exe, and those with accessed by sea (Torbay or Lyme Bay), may have been used as the source of materials. This may give them features more in common with the stone crosses of Somerset and Dorset, than the granite forms of Dartmoor.

The Clyst Valley Crosses                   Broad Clyst Cross

A series of crosses survive in the parishes of the Clyst Valley, from Plymtree, through Clyst Hydon, Clyst St Lawrence, Clyst Honiton and Clyst St George to Broad Clyst (all Masson Phillips Type B). Although several are heavily restored, they are generally quite slender and in the case of Clyst St Lawrence very ornate. This latter seems too ornamented to have served as a guidepost and so preaching or other religious duty seems the most likely function. They may in fact have always been churchyard crosses (with the exception of Broad Clyst which was moved there), but it would seem strange that only these churches chose to erect then whereas elsewhere in the area there are none recorded. It is interesting to note that the churches in the Clyst valley have retained intact several of the niche statues, that have been removed or smashed in other parts of Devon. Maybe this valley was sufficiently off the beaten track to attract reformers or iconoclasts alike and retention of all types of stone memorial marks this. These crosses may also be made from stones quarried east of the Exe, including coastal quarries, and so may be more similar in style to Somerset and Dorset than Dartmoor.

Watershed Crosses                                    Windy Cross

At the edge of the Exe basin there are stone crosses close to the watersheds. Windy Cross, high on the Haldon Hills and situated at the head of a valley coming over the watershed from the Teign has all the characteristic of a wayside cross marking the best path, but is also a place to give thanks after a long climb. In many respects these may be regarded as outliers of the Dartmoor, granite style. Further along the watershed at Tedburn St Mary there is a similar cross and another at Cheriton Bishop where roads passing west go into the River Taw catchment.


Materials and components

The majority of the surviving stones are granite (Silverton Churchyard Cross and Shillingford St George Wayside cross are exceptions), even though the parish churches in the area rarely use this. The need for large, long pieces of faultless stone may have influenced the choice of moorland stones for the crosses rather than the stones available in small blocks from local quarries. The blocks of stone needed for the cross and the shaft are very heavy and would have been extremely difficult to move over and, especially up-hill. The presumption is that they were shaped at source (rather like the part-formed Dartmoor cross at Rippon Tor) and then moved downhill where possible. It is likely that streams and rivers were used to transport the stones on floats for the majority of the journey. Exmoor has no granite and so the stones are more likely to have originated on the eastern slopes of Dartmoor. Although a water-borne journey down the Teign, along the coast and up the Exe would appear rather circuitous, it would provide an easier route than dragging the stones across country by road. Smaller crosses such as the ridgeway stones may have come along the ridge above the Teign.


The exceptional stone at Shillingford looks like the stone in Torbay; it may be significant that Torre Abbey held Shillingford Abbots, so this may have travelled by sea and land from there. The slender crosses of the Culm and Clyst valleys may have used local stone from the quarries from which the church stone was won but the thick layer of lichen on most stones makes it difficult to determine the exact material. It is assumed that the detail in the shafts at Silverton and Clyst St Lawrence could not be achieved with granite

. Shillingford St George Cross – in red stone      Clyst St Lawrence Cross with carving


Crosses normally comprise a shaft with carved head which has a tenon joint into the recess of a socket stone. The two parts are generally of the same material. The stone has been shaped to form the head and tenon and the edges of the shaft are often chamfered and the socket stones have rounded edges and often a shoulder at each corner. This is probably the limit of detail carving that was achievable with granite in the medieval period. Niches, often round-headed have been cut in some stones and these may have contained more elaborate carvings in wood or a more easily worked limestone. The modern replacement parts have sharper edges and some have more intricately carved heads.


For a list of Ancient stone crosses that may survive in Devon, with an indication of which of these can be seen as photographs on Flickr, click on the highlighted text.



This page created by Alan Rosevear 5th May 2009.

Last Edited 26th June 2009.