A guest article by Colin Coulson
St. Mary’s church at Lastingham, North Yorkshire, is remarkable on a number of counts. The crypt below – said to be the only complete crypt in Britain – was built by St. Stephen between 1078 and 1086. It contains decorated stone fragments which go back to the eighth century.
The first church here served the monastery founded by St. Cedd in 659, and it is from that early period that we find Lastingham’s greatest enigma. You see, it wasn’t easy to convert the English to Christianity. Pope Gregory the Great issued some very novel instructions in order to make it happen. “Do not destroy pagan temples, but convert them to Christian use so that the people will feel more comfortable coming there.” “If the people insist on sacrificing an animal, let them do it – just so long as they sacrifice it to God.” Both of these are to be found in a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus, who had come to England with St. Augustine. The letter is dated 601 and is quoted extensively in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. All sorts of ‘softeners’ were employed to make people more comfortable with Christianity. Pagan deities, such as Brigid, suddenly became Christian saints. Wells, probably the home of pagan water spirits, were maintained but re-named after prominent Christians – St. Helen’s Well, St. Hilda’s Well, and so on. Bede records that even the great Christian Spring festival bears the name of a pagan goddess, Eostre.
In Lastingham crypt, there is a door lintel said to be from St. Cedd’s monastery.
This lintel is made of oak. Now, what does that mean? Was it a Christian ‘softener’ for local pagan people? Or was oak used simply because it is a strong, durable building material? There’s no way of knowing. But then, at one corner, we find … an acorn! And that is much less ambiguous.
The Lastingham question doesn’t end there, however. There is neither cross nor any other Christian symbol on this lintel. So was it crafted by St. Cedd’s builders at all? Or is it from a pagan temple which Cedd converted to Christian use?
We’ll probably never know. St. Cedd died of plague here in 664 a.d., and is buried to the right of the crypt altar. Sadly, he took the story of the Lastingham lintel with him.