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The Runic Ringerike Tombstone of St Paul's

Updated on June 17, 2015
Lithograph of the carving on the St. Paul's Tombstone.
Lithograph of the carving on the St. Paul's Tombstone. | Source

In 1852, something extraordinary was discovered hiding in plain view in the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. A stone panel was found and was subsequently dated to the early 11th Century [1].

Nearly a thousand years old, it was astonishing to find this tombstone in such good condition considering the ever-moving progress and development of England's capital city.

Believed to have come from a stone sarcophagus or casket, it soon became apparent how precious this find was. The stone was decorated with runes and a Ringerike style design, seldom seen out of Scandinavia.

The St. Paul's Tombstone.
The St. Paul's Tombstone. | Source

The central decoration of the slab depicts a stylised four-legged beast, tangled up with another creature. The scene has been described as a reproduction of the lion and snake motif found on the Jelling Runestone in Jutland, Denmark.

Whilst this might be the correct identification, the image makes me think of a stag being pulled down by a pack of hunting dogs or wolves, as if depicting a hunting scene.

The beast seems to have clawed feet and sharp teeth, so perhaps it is even some sort of dragon?

What do you think the scene depicts?

See results
This colourful "lion and snake" scene is from a reproduction of Gormsson's rune stone, painted in the bright colours that would have featured on the original.
This colourful "lion and snake" scene is from a reproduction of Gormsson's rune stone, painted in the bright colours that would have featured on the original.

The stone matches limestone that was quarried near the city of Bath, 115 miles west of London.

It would have been painted in bright colours when it was made. Traces of paint pigments were found on the stone that tell us it would have been red, black, and white.

Along the left side of the panel, runes are inscribed that read:

"Ginna and Toki had this stone set up"

The runes themselves would be emphasised with red paint, the colour chosen for it's magical and sacred properties; red being the colour of life-blood.

It is hypothesised that Ginna may have been the widow, and Toki the son, of the dead man, whose own name is now missing from the slab [3].

Detail of the runic inscription found on the St. Paul's Tombstone.
Detail of the runic inscription found on the St. Paul's Tombstone. | Source
Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson's rune stone, in the Ringerike style, is located in Denmark.
Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson's rune stone, in the Ringerike style, is located in Denmark. | Source

So What's it doing in London?

Whilst we can never know for sure, it is likely that the stone was erected by the grieving family of Norse settlers who followed Cnut the Great.

Cnut, better known as King Canute, was ruler of Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden. His Empire grew when, following years of battle and dispute, he became King of England, where he ruled from 1016 until 1035.

This period marked a really big transition in British history, as the Heathen gods of the Norse and Anglo-Saxons were being pushed aside by the arrival of Christianity. Cnut himself was Christened, and took the name Lambert. It is quite possible that he converted to gain power and supporters. Still, he was happy for his skalds to include references to the Heathen gods and way of life in poetry recording his deeds.

During this period, we see many documents including an interesting blend of Heathen and Christian references, and the St. Paul's Tombstone is another way this mix appears; Heathen art and runes, placed in a Christian burial ground.

The act of erecting a stone to a deceased loved one is something that has been done for centuries, and in marking graves in this modern age, we are just continuing a tradition that our ancestors carried out long before us.

Flesh withers, but stone remains. It is such a shame that this man's name has been lost from the runic inscription.

St Paul's Cathedral, London.
St Paul's Cathedral, London. | Source

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[1] H. Hamerow, D. A. Hinton, & S. Crawford, The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology - ISBN - 978-0199212149

[2] P. Johnson, Runic Inscriptions in Great Britain - ISBN - 978-1904263401

[3] Museum of London

© 2015 Pollyanna Jones


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    • profile image

      ernie wisner 

      4 years ago

      its a serpent and spike stag. Ill bet if the body is still under the stone its a young man in that grave. hard to miss it in the lithograph.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The Danes ran through Mercia like a dose of salts at the time Aelfred ruled Wessex, and installed a puppet king. After the Treaty of Wedmore when eastern Mercia was parcelled out to the Danelaw Aelfred had his son-in-law Aethelred (not the 'Unready') installed as Ealdorman in Western Mercia. Aelfred's daughter Aethelflaed was known as 'the Lady of Mercia' and set about fortifying it against the Danes. Although they played havoc in Western Mercia the Danes didn't settle. It was only in Knut's time you saw any Danes west of Stafford as settlers, although they'd still be very much in the minority. 'Inherited' memories went back a long way.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you Alan, I will look out for those. I've seen clues with place names in the Midlands (Wednesdbury, etc) although these tend to be Anglo-Saxon rather than Norse. There is a bit of history with the Norse making it as far as Wootton Wawen and some sort of uneasy peace being made with regards to borders at that point. Not too far from here, but it seems most of the Norse sites are to the north as you say.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Enjoy the tour, Pollyanna. It'll be bracing if nothing else (like Skegness, there's another Norse ending, -ness: 'skegg' means 'beard', a 'ness', from Norse 'naes' is a nose or promontory in the case of a landmark).

      In my area near Middlesbrough we have Normanby, Osmesby, Nunthorpe, Lackenby, Lazenby, Yearby, Pinchinthorpe within a ten mile radius of where I lived at Eston. Inside the church at Kildale (over the moor from Guisborough) is a hog-backed gravestone. The vicar might let you in to see it as the church is usually locked.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      I'm certainly going to need to plan some visits to find as many of these as I am able.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Within what was the 'Danelaw' (as I said above) there are many examples. In small churchyards or within the body of the churches you'll see 'hog-back' tombstones, sometimes you'd be able to see runes on them. In Cumbria in what was the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde where Norsemen settled after being forced out of Ireland, or moved from Man, there are Celtic crosses with Norse panels, some of which might display runes, depending on when the crosses were erected. Norsemen continued to use runes after the Roman alphabet was adopted in Scandinavia.

      They were more easily carved than words in Latin. Runes were also found at Coppergate in York on various everyday items. Yorkshire and Lancashire (Deira) were areas settled by both Danes and West Norse (Norwegian and Icelandic, on the coast as at Scarborough) along with the East Midlands, East Anglia and Essex as far as the Lea Valley. The 'watershed' of carving was the turn of the 10th-11th Century, as at St Gregory's Minster on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors near the A170 Helmsley-Scarborough road where Roman lettering was used on the sun dial over the door.

      (Look at a map of England, where the name endings -by, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft and -dale are predominant. These indicate high levels of Danish /Norse settlement where the incidence of runic finds is likely).

    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Many thanks, Carolyn! It's an interesting one. There are a few runic relics dotted about the UK. I find this one fascinating as it seems somehow "out of place".

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      5 years ago

      Hi Polly, I really enjoyed this one. I wasn't aware of a Runic inscription on any English church, although I have seen some inscribed crosses looking very much like Celtic crosses in he churchyards of old AS Churches. To me it looks like stag, which could make it a hunting scene, but it almost looks like it's in the spirit realm with the swirls coming out of the horns and around it symbolizing that it's ethereal. I don't know if there's precedent for that interpretation, but that's what I think of when I look at it! I didn't see a head for a snake unless I missed it. For a second I was thinking Sleipnir with 6 legs, but looking closer it didn't look like extra legs... Anyway, I shared before but am sharing again :-)

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is another interesting hub, Pollyanna. I always enjoy reading your historical articles. I think that investigating the meaning of historical artefacts is intriguing and fascinating.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      5 years ago from United Kingdom

      That is fascinating! I don't know much of London's history from that period, but this piece really caught my eye as it seemed so unusual. Thank you so much for posting all of that information, and for bringing more clues together. I take it then, we can assume that the wife was English, if Ginna was indeed the man's spouse?

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      It has to be an enigma if you interpret the find literally . The Ringerike style of ornamentation stems from Norway but its use was applied over a hundred years (estimated) between AD 980-1090 - ref: Peter Foote and David M Wilson, 'The Viking Achievement', 1970, 1974, 1979 (Book Club Associates).

      You mentioned the style was used on Harald Gormsson's memorial to his father Gorm 'the Old' at Jellinge in eastern Jutland. Harald 'Blue-tooth' re-interred his father and mother in Christian fashion, having had them dug up from their burial mound. Knut (Knud to the Danes) had many followers from Norway and that part of London came under what at one time was the 'Danelaw' (territory east of Watling Street, the old Roman road that traversed south-east to north-west from Rochester via London to Chester. Agreed AD 878 at Wedmore between Aelfred 'the Great' and the self-styled Danish king of East Anglia Guthrum, the boundary shifted later in the 9th to the Lea Valley to keep the Danes out of London and when Knut became king of England in 1016 the Danelaw boundary held. A Dane could only settle in London if his wife was English. The man may have been Dane, Norse or Svear (Swedish), as many followed Knut's father Svein Haraldsson, 'Forkbeard', from AD 1002 onward to secure the Danegeld payments made by Aethelred 'Unraed' until 1014 when Svein came to conquer and claim the throne.

      The man must have been important. Few would have merited a stone decorated in this fashion within the bounds of 'Lunden Burh' (the City of London). Knut had several Danish earls, some he fell out with who came back when reconciled to him. Some like Thorkel 'Havi' (Thorkel the Tall) who went back to Denmark and took up with the Jomsvikings based at Jumne (Wolin in Poland).

      There's a whole raftful of possibilities, Pollyanna.


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