- Durham OnAir
Lost ancient symbol of Scottish nationhood could reside in North East
As an historic symbol of nationhood, it rivals the Stone of Destiny for importance in the ancient story of Scotland.
Yet almost six centuries since the Black Rood disappeared from historical record, uncertainty continues to surround its whereabouts.
Now a new book, due to be published later this year, offers a possible explanation for the fate of the artefact which gave its name to the Holyrood area of Edinburgh, on which the Scottish Parliament now stands.
Black Rood – The Lost Crown Jewel of Scotland includes a theory that the Black Rood could, in fact, be an Anglo-Saxon reliquary found in Durham Cathedral in the 19th Century, now known as St Cuthbert’s Cross.
The relic – fashioned from gold and believed to contain a fragment of the cross upon which Christ was crucified – was brought to Scotland by St Margaret, a Hungarian-born Saxon Princess of England, and wife of Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century.
Originally held in Holyrood Abbey, it was removed from Scotland by Edward I of England in 1296, along with the Stone of Scone and other important symbols of Scottish nationhood.
After being returned temporarily to Scotland in 1328, it was again removed by the English following the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, and held in Durham Cathedral until the Reformation of 1540, when it disappeared.
Through painstaking research, historian and author David Willem has, for the first time, charted a detailed history of the Black Rood, along with two other forgotten reliquaries – the Cross Gneth of Wales and Ireland’s Cross of Cong – both of which once symbolised the independence of those nations.
While many historians have given up on trying to trace the priceless object, Mr Willem presents a potential explanation for its whereabouts.
He said: “Once as famous as the Stone of Scone, the Black Rood was a gold and jewel-studded reliquary for a piece of the True Cross.
“Giving its name to the abbey and then the palace and now the parliament of Holyrood, the Black Rood was to help define Scotland as a kingdom which was at least the equal of England in the eyes of God, and in some ways superior to it.
“Gifted to Durham Cathedral after the Scots’ defeat at the 1346 Battle of Neville’s Cross, it disappeared in the 16th century and historians have largely given up on it.
“I’m not so sure that an object of such importance could simply vanish and, during my research, I began to look for clues as to its possible whereabouts.
“With such a scarcity of evidence, all an historian can do is hypothesise but there are some indicators which suggest it could be what we now know as the St Cuthbert’s Cross.”
The author, who has previously written a history of St Cuthbert’s Corpse, began researching the history of the Black Rood in 2019.
He said: “During the period of the Edwardian Plantagenets, the story of the Black Rood becomes impossible to follow.
“With Robert the Bruce destroying all Edward I’s achievements and aspirations in Scotland, it would have been impossible to honour the Black Rood as a symbol of England’s destiny to rule Scotland.
“All that is certain is that the Black Rood had been placed on display in Durham Cathedral by 1383, when it was noted there on the shrine keeper’s inventory.
He added: “There was also a local tradition, recorded 200 years later, that its presence in Durham had something to do with the English victory over the Scots at the 1346 Battle of Neville’s Cross which took place just outside the city.
“There is a few scenarios that could explain its trajectory through these years, but the original parity given to the Croes Gneth and the Black Rood by Edward I suggests an answer.
“In 1346, Edward III had committed to invading France in pursuit of his rights over the French crown and his territories there. In preparation for this audacious undertaking, he called up the Black Rood from his treasury to be kept by his side.
“The first battle of the invasion, at Crecy, was spectacularly successful, and with the counterattack by France’s ally King David II of Scotland defeated at Neville’s Cross, Edward III had achieved two dizzying victories in the space of two months.
“It seems likely that in celebration of these two victories Edward III divested himself of his grandfather’s twin reliquaries of the True Cross.
“The Black Rood was gifted to Durham to mark the victory at Neville’s Cross, while the Croes Gneth, in recognition of Crecy, became the founding relic of the Order of the Garter in what was to become St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.”