The Gefrin Monument

By 1957 local interest in the excavations at Yeavering had been so great it was felt that the remarkable settlement being uncovered at Ad Gefrin should be brought to wider public attention. In March of that year a small Committee for the Permanent Marking of the Site was formed by The Northumberland and Newcastle Society, under the patronage of His Grace the Duke of Northumberland for the purpose of sponsoring some form of marking the site itself. Its chairman was Captain, the Honourable Claude Lambton of Westnewton, Wooler, and its first honorary secretary, Thomas J. Cahill of Reavell & Cahill, Architects & Surveyors, Alnwick. Membership included Mr J. Purvis, the owner of the land, representatives of the County Council, The City of Newcastle, Glendale Rural District Council, the Northern Architectural Association, The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne and the Ministry of Works. The latter was represented by Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator of Ad Gefrin.

At a meeting, held at Alnwick on the 16th March with the Duke in attendance, three proposals were advanced:

[1] An inscribed stone tablet set within the stone wall by the roadway. This was quickly discounted on the basis that it would rapidly become obscured by vegetation.

[2] A stone cross set by the roadside. The ‘ aesthetic and associative difficulties’ of a cross, which if decorated would be a fake, and if plain would more resemble a grave-marker or war-memorial, were felt sufficient cause for rejecting this proposal.

[3] A bronze or stone figure of an enthroned king. Hope-Taylor voiced the opinion that, rather than envisaging a figure in ‘authentic period costume … (i.e.) a suggestion of eminent Victorians in fancy dress’, that the figure might represent an ‘architypal king – a symbol of authority standing for throne, church and law.’

Henry MThe third proposal was widely welcomed, and it was but a short step to propose that if Henry Moore could be persuaded to accept the commission for of a figure in the style of his ‘Madonna and Child’ (commissioned for St. Matthews, Northampton) this, ‘would be the complete answer to the problem.’  Hope-Taylor of course, as an artist, was well placed to appreciate more than many, the power in Moore’s work, and would already have been familiar with Moore’s imposing biomorphic study, ‘King & Queen’ shown here. The sculpture was made in 1952/3. Casts of this work were to travel as far afield as California (The Norton Simon Museum of Art), Washington (Hirshorn Museum & Sculpture Gallery), Antwerp (Middleheim Museum) as well as the Tate but it is perhaps the cast obtained by Sir William Kendrick for his Glenkiln Sculpture Park in Dumfries & Galloway, and close to the Motte of Urr – a site which Hope-Taylor had excavated between 1951-3 – that may have brought this idea to the fore in his mind.

Once the committee had voiced their support for the idea, it was then revealed that Henry Moore had indeed already been approached; that he had responded positively. He had indicated that he was prepared to halve his usual fee, thereby reducing costs down to £1000, half of which was for the bronze casting. The committee felt that this might be raised by grants and public subscription, while the Duke entertained a confidential hope that he might be able to secure a member of the royal family to unveil the work.  Unfortunately this all came to nothing. At their second meeting, held in The Black Bull, Wooler on October 4th, the proposal to erect a sculpture was abandoned in favour of placing a monument at the site.

Three versions of the proposed monument designed by Cahill were put to the Committee at this October meeting, the chosen design estimated to cost around £400. Fund-raising began,  but as Sidney Sterk, of The Journal was to scathingly report to his readers, ‘It is sad to relate, therefore, that the blush of enthusiasm which suffused the cheeks of some county people following the discovery of the site in 1953, paled when it was proposed that the money should be raised to erect a memorial.’(The Journal, 28th Dec. 1963.) Indeed, Captain Lambton had to sheepishly admit to Sterk that, ‘The campaign was a flop. The cairn has cost in the region of £600, and the bulk of the cost has been met by Mr Cahill himself.

The three versions can be viewed by clicking the thumbnails below. These are the only surviving images from the original document.

The design was born of the fifties, and it is difficult to detect any echo of elements from the culture it celebrates in its design. The only concession to this, – the proposal to place a seat, modelled on the Anglo-Saxon ‘Frith Stool’ in Hexham Abbey within its arc – was swiftly abandoned.  However, as shelter against the prevalent north-westerlies that whistle through its ‘machine-gun’ slit high above, it offers thankful respite.

At its meeting in October 4th 1958, the text for the slate panel inscription had been delegated to a sub-committee consisting of the secretary, Mr Percy Hedley, and Brian Hope-Taylor. A first draft prepared by Hedley, proposed a rather clunky text; ‘OPPOSITE IS THE SITE OF GEFRIN WHERE LIVED THE SAXON KINGS AETHELFRITH (593-617), EADWINE (617-633), OSWALD (634-642), OSWIU (655-670) AND EGFRITH (670-685) AND WHERE SAINT PAULINUS CONVERTED KING OSWALD (sic) AND HIS FOLLOWERS TO CHRISTIANITY IN THE YEAR 627 A.D.’

This was honed by Hope-Taylor into the crisp legend it now carries. Cahill had also proposed that the monument stand on the south side of the road, but Hope-Taylor strongly disagreed. ‘This scheme demands site on the N side of the road’, he wrote, giving his justification as ‘a) to be illuminated by the sun; b) to allow view of Yeavering Bell, and c) to increase accuracy of location.’ He added that it should also have, ‘a step high enough to prevent it from becoming and unofficial ‘lay-by’ (Hope-Taylor Archive, RCAHMS, HT/37/25).

The background to the monument that stands here was all but lost. Its recovery is due in no small part to the kindness of  Hamish Dunn, Wooler, the Royal Commission of Ancient & Historical Monuments in Scotland, and K. Wilson of Historic England. The original sources lie within the Gefrin Trust Archive, the Hope-Taylor Archive, RCAHMS and PRO File No 10831/2