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Acca’s Cross

ACCA_Cross_insetimgTHE CROSS WHICH STOOD AT THE HEAD OF THE GRAVE OF ACCA BISHOP OF HEXHAM AD 709-732 WHO DIED AD 740

…So says the modern inscription on the plinth in the south transept of Hexham Abbey. On it is all that remains of a tall, intricately carved cross. It is worn and weathered, its inscription no longer readable. It lacks nearly a metre of the shaft and three parts of the cross-head, but what remains is a significant remnant from the 8th century that has played a leading part in the Abbey story.

Acca became the best loved of Hexham saints. During St Wilfrid’s later years, he was the older man’s loyal companion, eventually succeeding him as abbot and bishop. He had little of Wilfrid’s abrasive energy and tireless ambition. Acca’s godly work was mostly limited to Northumbria, but in that narrower setting he worked many wonders.

Acca journeyed with the ageing Wilfrid on his last visit to Rome. Later he told his friend Bede of their stay at Utrecht with the saintly Archbishop Willibrord, Wilfrid’s old pupil who was carrying on his work of converting continental heathens. For his part, Acca devoted himself to building the faith in Northumbria, bringing to completion Wilfrid’s great centre of Christian worship and learning at Hexham.

Bede left a glowing account of the work Acca did during the quarter of a century when he led the community at Hexham. He adorned the church with paintings, sculpture and rich hangings; he gathered sacred relics and built side-chapels to house them; he created a library of godly books; he brought from Kent a skilled teacher of Gregorian chant named Maban, to ensure that the music and liturgy of the church were as fine as any in Europe. Acca was both a first-class musician and a learned theologian.

In his later years Acca ran into difficulties. It seems that he was deposed about 732, perhaps for political reasons linked with the overthrow of a Northumbrian king at about the same time. Perhaps he was exiled, though when he died a few years later his remains were buried at Hexham. By that time his friend and biographer, Bede, was no more, so we have no reliable information about Acca’s later years. We cannot be sure whether he died in 737, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says, or 740, as a later chronicler maintains. We do not know what he did or where he went in the years after his deposition. Perhaps he travelled to the monastery of Whithorn and helped establish there a bishopric; or perhaps he visited the Picts, taking with him the Hexham cult of devotion to St Andrew and so giving Scotland its patron saint.

Nor can we can be sure when Acca was recognized as a saint, though it was probably not until four centuries after his death. When after 1113 canons sent by the Archbishop of York re-started Hexham as an Augustinian priory, they took a lively interest in the early history of their church. Prior Richard wrote enthusiastically of the splendid days of Wilfrid and Acca; Ailred, son of Eilaf, listed in The Saints of Hexham the early bishops and their miraculous deeds. They and other chroniclers told how these long-gone saints had arranged for the priory heavenly protection from Scottish armies by sending timely floods and mists.

Conveniently, the canons also rediscovered the ancient burial places of Acca and his fellow saints outside the eastern end of the church. Acca’s remains had been first brought into the church early in the 11th century; then, in 1155, the canons moved the bones of Acca and four other early bishops with ceremony and rejoicing to a decorated table near the high altar of their newly rebuilt church. Some time before this a Hexham chronicler had supplied Syrneon of Durham with a note about a grave believed to be Acca’s; there, he said, “two stone crosses decorated with marvellous carvings were placed, one at his head, the other at his feet. On the one at his head was an inscription stating that he was buried there.” This inscribed cross may be the one now re-erected in the south transept. However, some argue that the 12th-century writer was mistaken, and the supposed gravestone was in fact a preaching cross. Such crosses were often set up during the centuries after St Oswald’s first wooden cross at Heavenfield. Perhaps Acca’s grave was marked only by a small pillow-stone with a simple cross, like that now built into the west wall of the nave.

Some time later the cross was broken up. This may have been before 1349, when the eastern chapels were built, or it may have been at the Reformation. 19th- century antiquaries put the cross together again; they rescued the middle section from under those chapels when they were demolished in 1858, the lower section from Dilston where it had been hacked about to serve as a lintel over a farmhouse door, and the two top pieces from the foundations of a warehouse near the Market Place site of St Mary’s Church. For a time the reunited fragments were displayed at Durham before returning in 1936 to Hexham Abbey.

Pre-October 2014 there stood beside Acca’s Cross a section of another cross, known as the Spital Cross since it once stood near the house on the site of the medieval Hospital of St Giles. The Spital cross-shaft has on its back and sides a vine-scroll not unlike that on Acca’s Cross, but on its main face is carved a Crucifixion scene: Christ hangs on the Cross with a halo about his head; on the left a soldier is stabbing him with a spear, on the right another may be holding a sponge.  The Spital Cross can now be seen in the Monastic Workshop, part of The Big Story Exhibition in the new Visitor Centre.

Both crosses deserve close study. Centuries of exposure have robbed the carving of clear-cut sharpness, and no trace remains of the colour that once enriched them; but there is still evidence of the skill and devotion of the craftsmen who shaped them. On the larger cross in particular they traced a wonderfully intricate vine scroll; swirling and all- embracing, the vine breaks into a delicate interlace to encircle leaves and fruit. It is a reminder both of the Mediterranean and Roman roots of the faith Wilfrid brought to Hexham, and of Christ’s words in John 15: “I am the vine, and you the branches. He who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing.”

When Wilfrid first set men to work on St Andrew’s Church, his Northumbrian followers knew nothing of alien craftsmanship in stone. Acca’s Cross is ample proof of the skills they acquired half a century later, and of their joy in using their hands for the service of God.

Text: Tom Corfe.