At the time it seemed the ideal solution. For eight years, Nick Evered has had a piece of carved Anglo-Saxon stone in his sitting room (it came with the house). “It’s attractive,” he says, but not the sort of thing he would go out and buy; and he could do without the responsibility of looking after it, insuring it and showing it to the occasional visiting scholar. Selling it seemed a good idea. But when he handed the stone over to Bonhams in London – where it is due to be auctioned on Wednesday – he had no idea what a storm the Anglo-Saxon specialists would blow up.
Shaped like a staddle stone, lot number 286W is covered in snake-like carvings of beasts and foliage, and is part of a free-standing cross that once stood to commemorate St Pega, England’s first known female hermit. The Evereds’ home, St Pega’s Hermitage, in Peakirk, Northamptonshire, is on the site of the saint’s cell. She died in AD716, and in the middle ages a chapel there was dedicated to St Bartholomew, her brother Guthlac’s patron saint. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the chapel saw a variety of uses, from a cobblers to a parish hall, until it and an adjacent cottage were taken over by communities of Anglican nuns. They left in 2001, and the complex, with its fragment of cross, became a grade-2 listed residence, which Evered and his wife bought. He didn’t know how much the specialists cared about it. That was about to change.
Professor Rosemary Cramp, from Durham University, is leading a project to catalogue all surviving Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture. As it happens, she and Joanna Story, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, are in the process of recording Northamptonshire – hence a visit the Evereds recently received from a geologist in Cramp’s team. St Pega’s cross, says Story, is a typical piece from the important Peterborough school of Anglo-Saxon art, and one of very few sculptures that can be linked to a place whose significance in Anglo-Saxon times is known. Graham Jones, an Oxford University researcher and student of early Christian saints, says the stone is “part of the core historical heritage of the country”.
So what is it doing in a saleroom – from where it could in theory end up anywhere in the world, and, as academics most fear, disappear from public view? Bonhams established it was not part of the listed building, which would have prevented the sale: the church had simply sold it with the house without restrictions, and it’s not physically attached. The Treasure Act protects finds such as the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard. But the act applies to metals, not limestone.
The best that we can hope, says Story, is that the buyer will keep the cross locally and make it accessible. However, Peterborough museum is unlikely to be able to afford it. The stone has a guide price of £7,000 to £9,000, but telephone bids have already exceeded that estimate. Evered, who finds himself cast as the villain, says he had no idea of the level of interest in the stone, “was never selling it for the money”, and has inquired about withdrawing it from the sale. But to do so could lead to a consignment fee of more than £9,000.
Cramp, meanwhile, says she has worked hard to “stop a market in these monuments from being created”. So far she has been successful. Could Pega’s be a cross too far?
In Monday’s G2 I [Mike Pitts above] reported that, to the consternation of archaeologists and historians, an Anglo-Saxon stone carving was to be sold yesterday by Bonhams in London.
The carving is part of a cross from Peakirk, Northamptonshire, a monument to St Pega*, England’s first female hermit, which fell into the hands of a couple called the Evereds when they acquired a former chapel and its outbuildings eight years ago. It wasn’t regarded as part of the listed building; neither was it covered by the Treasure Act. So the fear was that it could disappear from public view or even go abroad.
But on Tuesday evening Bonhams withdrew the item. Mike Heyworth, director of the Council for British Archaeology, had written in protest to the saleroom. (“I’m sure the Guardian article helped,” he says.) The Church of England, in the person of Janet Gough, director of its cathedral and church buildings division, had also complained to Bonhams on Tuesday, writing that “we consider the legal status of this piece to be unclear.”
At the moment it isn’t exactly clear what’s happened to it, either, although archaeologists are hopeful that the cross will eventually find its way to Peterborough Museum. A Bonhams spokesman suggested that a private treaty deal may have occurred, in which the seller comes to a direct arrangement with a buyer; very likely someone who would donate it to the museum. The seller, Nick Evered, would not comment yesterday, although he hardly sounded like a man who had just won the lottery.
*Mentioned in: Black, J. R., 2007, ‘Tradition and Transformation in the Cult of St. Guthlac in Early Medieval England’ The Heroic Age, Issue 10
Historic Saxon cross’ future a mystery
MYSTERY surrounds the future fate of an historic Peterborough artefact after it was withdrawn from going under the hammer.
The late Anglo-Saxon stone section of a cross shaft, which dates back to 11th century AD, previously had a prominent place at St Pega’s Hermitage, in Peakirk, near Peterborough.
Although the Hermitage is a listed building, the rare piece of the city’s extensive Anglo-Saxon heritage was not covered by the status and the building’s owners decided to put it up for auction.
But before the hammer could even be raised – let alone fall – at Bonhams auctioneers in New Bond Street, London, yesterday the lot was withdrawn.
Instead, the owners of the stone, which valuers expected to raise between £7,000 and £9,000, have begun negotiations with an unnamed private bidder.
A spokesman for Bonhams auctioneers said: “It has been withdrawn for possible private treaty discussions. So, now it’s a case of waiting to see what the seller wishes to do.
“We are involved in the situation in that we are advising our client. I suspect that it might be sorted quite quickly, but it could take up to a week.
“In a case like this we are here to advise the seller. It’s one of those situations where we have to be discreet about potential buyers.”
However, news of the withdrawal from the auction has been met with a cautious response from Peterborough City Council and leading academics, who hope the artefact can remain in the city.
Anglo-Saxon historian, Dr Avril Lumley Prior, of Sherborne Road, Peterborough, is part of a campaign involving several academics who want to see the stone put in Peterborough Museum.
She said the stone is part of a Peterborough school of Anglo-Saxon art from the late 10th to early 11th centuries.
Dr Prior said: “We have been running a campaign to stop the cross from being sold off. We feel we would lose a part of our heritage if it was sold. I feel the best place for it would be Peterborough Museum where everybody can see it.
“It’s great that it’s been withdrawn from auction but obviously we now want to know where it could be going.”
When news of the scheduled auction broke last week, the city council said it hoped to raise the funds to bid for the item and re-house it at either the city’s Cathedral or Peterborough Museum.
However, a spokesman for the city council today distanced themselves from the sale of the stone.
The spokesman said: “This is an interesting development with regards to the future of the cross. We hope that this will mean it is safeguarded and that it can remain in Peterborough.”
One of Time Team’s 2007 excavations found a possible hermitage. To find such an early example is unusual as most early hermitages have disappeared under the foundations of subsequent ecclesiastical buildings:
…speculation that it might have been the site of an early Christian hermitage – which, if true, would be a very significant discovery as virtually all such structures have been lost, often destroyed by the monasteries and churches that were built on such sites.
And the tantalising suggestion of the existence of an early Saxon Christian hermitage here produced an unexpected outcome to Time Team’s efforts.
C.A. Markham, (1901), The Stone Crosses of the County of Northamptonshire :95