Faithful cross, gate of heaven

Today is Good Friday, the day which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  For today’s blogpost, I’ve decided simply to post and translate some Anglo-Saxon texts dedicated to the Holy Cross: a hymn, a poem, and two prayers.  As my research is all about how texts were adapted and reused in different contexts, in each case I give two examples of the same words used in different places.

Crucifixion Ar60.52v
The one faithful tree amongst all the trees of the wood.  London, British Library Arundel MS 60, fol. 52v.

A hymn to the Cross

Cruxfidelis VespDxii.123r
London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian D. xii, fol. 123r

Crux fidelis inter omnes: arbor una nobilis. nulla silua talem profert fronde flore germine dulce lignum dulces clauos dulce pondus sustinet;

Faithful cross, the one noble tree amongst all.  None in the forest bears wood so sweet in leaf, flower or seed.  It carries sweet nails and a sweet weight.

‘Crux fidelis’ is part of Venantius Fortunatus’ hymn ‘Pange, lingua’, one of a group of hymns written to celebrate the bringing of a fragment of the True Cross to Poitiers in the year 569.  This hymn was well known in Anglo-Saxon England, was prescribed in the Regularis concordia (a tenth-century guide to monastic living and worship) for Good Friday; this copy is found in an eleventh-century hymnal from the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury.


Cruxfidelisquote VespAi159v
London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. i, fol. 159v

… Ille equidem est fructus tuus piisimus · dulce lignum · dulce pomum · dulces clauos · dulce pondus · dulce onus sustinens·  Tu felix sola sustinuisti talentum mundi …

Indeed, he is your most holy fruit, sweet wood, sweet fruit, sweet nails, sweet weight, bearing a sweet burden.  You happy one alone bore the price of the world …

As I show in the final part of Chapter 3 of my thesis, ‘Crux fidelis’  was influential upon the prayers used in the western European church: little phrases were borrowed from it and used to build new prayers.  In the eleventh century, the Canterbury monk and expert scribe Eadwig Basan added some extra prayers to an eighth-century manuscript, the Vespasian Psalter, including this one.

A poem on the Cross (literally)

Rod wæs ic aræred.    Ahof ic ricne cyning,

heofona hlaford.    Hyldan me ne dorste.

Þurhdrifan hi me mid deorcan næglum—    on me syndon þa dolg gesiene,

opene inwidhlemmas.    Ne dorste ic hira nænigum sceððan.

Bysmeredon hie unc butu ætgædere.    Eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,

begoten of þæs guman sidan,    siððan he hæfde his gast onsended.

Feala ic on þam beorge    gebiden hæbbe

wraðra wyrda.    Geseah ic weruda god

þearle þenian.    Þystro hæfdon

bewrigen mid wolcnum    wealdendes hræw,

scirne sciman,    sceadu forð eode,

wann under wolcnum.    Weop eal gesceaft,

cwiðdon cyninges fyll.    Crist wæs on rode.

Hwæðere þær fuse    feorran cwoman

to þam æðelinge.    Ic þæt eall beheold.

The Dream of the Rood, ll. 44-58.

I was raised up as a cross, I lifted the great king, the lord of the heavens.  I did not dare give way.  They drove me through with dark nails; wounds were seen on me, open gashes.  I did not dare to harm any of them.  They dishonoured us both together.  I was all drenched with blood, which dripped from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit.

I experienced many things on that hill that were of cruel fate.  I saw the God of Hosts suffer sorely.  Darkness covered the ruler’s body with clouds, its shining brightness; shadows went forth, dark under the clouds.  All creation wept, told of the king’s fall.  Christ was on the cross.

But brave men came from far away to the prince.  I saw it all …

In Anglo-Saxon England, the image of the faithful cross was explored in a far more literal way.  A manuscript of Old English poems and homilies kept in the Italian town of Vercelli contains a work now known as The Dream of the Rood (manuscript online here), in which the speaker dreams of seeing a great cross, covered in gemstones and dripping with blood, which speaks about how it was once a tree, but was cut down in order to become the cross of Christ.  The cross could have fought back against those who hurt him, but it stood firm against them, bringing about his own Lord’s death.  It urges the listener to be ready for the day of judgement.  Or, as I summarised the poem once (for a medieval limerick competition at the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies):

I once dreamed of a gold-covered oak,

That bled gemstones and treasure, and spoke:

‘I was cut down by foes

To hang Christ, but he rose,

And one day he’ll come back for his folk’.


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Only a small number of Old English poems are preserved in more than one extant manuscript.  But The Dream of the Rood goes one step further: a few lines of it are inscribed in the runic alphabet on a stone cross found at Ruthwell Church near Dumfries, south-west Scotland.  Like the cross of the poem, this was dishonoured – in a seventeenth-century act of iconoclasm – but, also like the cross, has since been rediscovered and raised up again, and is now the focal point of the village church.

I lifted up the great king, the lord of the heavens; I did not dare give way.  Unknown men dishonoured us both together. I was drenched with blood …

Christ was on the cross. But brave men came from far away to the prince: I saw all that alone …


Prayers for the Hours on the Cross

Leofric None Har2961.40v
London, British Library Harley MS 2961, fol. 40v

Domine iesu christe qui hora diei nona in crucis patibulo confitenti latroni intra męnia paradisi transire iussisti. te suppliciter confitentes· peccata nostra deprecamur deleas · ut post obitum nostrum paradisi nobis gaudia introire gaudentes concedas· qui uiuis·

O Lord Jesus Christ, who at the ninth hour of the day, on the gallows of the cross, urged the confessing thief to cross over into the joys of paradise, we, humbly confessing, beg that you may blot out our sins, so that after our death you may grant us to enter the joys of paradise rejoicing.

This prayer is one of a series of prayers for the monastic hours, one of the case studies that I wrote about in Chapter Two of my thesis.  Each prayer recalls the sufferings of Jesus on Good Friday, allowing the speaker to map Christ’s day onto his or her own.  The prayers appear to have been created for the Carolingian private prayerbooks, but some of them were later extracted for use in liturgical prayer in the monasteries (as is the case in this manuscript, the Leofric Collectar). This prayer is for None, at around 3pm.


AdHorasNone Gal.Axiv.107r
London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, fol. 107r

 … Min drihten hælend crist þu þe on rode galgan ahangen wære 7 þone scaþan þu onfenge þe on þe gelyfde on þa fægernesse neorxnawonges gefean . 7 hine mid þe feran lete . þu wære rice cyning þeah þu on rode hangadest . ic þe eadmodlice mine synna andette . 7 ic bidde þe for þinre micelan mild heortnesse þæt ic mote æfter minre forð fore neorxnawonges gatu [agan].

My Lord Saviour Christ, you who were hung on the gallows of the cross and received the criminal who believed in you into the beauty of the joy of paradise, and let him go with you: you were a powerful king even though you hung on a crossI humbly confess my sins to you and ask you, by your great mercy, that I may reach the gates of paradise after my going hence.  (Major alterations in plain type.)

This copy is an Old English translation of the full set of prayers for the hours, in the early eleventh-century Galba Prayerbook.  As I discussed in a post on that manuscript a year ago, the translated version expands the Latin a little here and there.  The ninth hour is no longer mentioned; the liturgical prayer for a group of people (‘we, humbly confessing …’) becomes a prayer for one person alone; and the pathos is deepened with a few extra details – Christ lets the criminal go with him into the beauty of Paradise, and, in a phrase without any basis in the original, he is a powerful king even though he hung on a cross.  And the speaker prays not only to enter heaven, but more vividly imagines reaching its very gates.

An early 11th-century tombstone from the church of St Mary, York; now in the nearby church of St Clement

Prayers to Christ on the Cross

AdoroTe Ar155.172r
London, British Library Arundel MS 155, fol. 172r

Domine iesu christe adoro te in cruce ascendentem . Deprecor te . ut ipsa crux liberet me ab angelo percutiente · Alia . Domine iesu christe adoro te in cruce uulneratum . deprecor te ut ipsa uulnera sint remedium animę meę . Alia . Domine iesu christe adoro te in sepulchro positum . deprecor te ut ipsa mors sit uita mea aeterna …

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you climbing on the cross; I ask you that that cross may free me from the piercing angel.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you wounded on the cross; I ask you that those wounds may be a remedy to my soul.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you placed in the tomb; I ask you that that death may be my eternal life …

This prayer ultimately derives from a much longer prayer originating in the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon or Carolingian prayerbook tradition, made up of fifteen petitions, each beginning ‘Domine Iesu Christe, adoro te …’ , beginning from the creation of the world and going up to the last judgement.  As discussed again in Chapter Three of my thesis, part of this prayer was used for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday in the liturgy of the Regularis concordia, a tenth-century guide to English monasticism; and this part was later rewritten and remixed in a number of different manuscripts.  In the Galba Prayerbook, they were translated; in the Portiforium of St Wulfstan, they were used as the basis of two complex programmes of devotion to the cross.  Here, in Arundel 155, they were beautifully written and glossed in Old English.


Say yis knelande befor ye crucifix ilk day arise and yu sal se ye 3ates of heuen apyne in ye owre of yi dyinge.

Domine iesu christe adoro te in cruce uulneratum deprecor te· ut ipsa uulnera remedium sint anime mee. Domine iesu christe· adoro te in sepulcro positum deprecor te ut ipsa mors sit uita mea …  (York, Minster Library Additional MS 2, fol. 177r)

Say this kneeling before the crucifix each day, arise, and you shall see the gates of heaven open in the hour of your dying.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you wounded on the cross; I ask you that those wounds may be a remedy to my soul.

O Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you placed in the tomb; I ask you that that death may be my life …

‘Adoro te’ wasn’t just popular in the Anglo-Saxon era.  Recently, I have been looking at some much later prayerbooks, like the one quoted above, the fifteenth-century Bolton Hours, which is kept in the library of York Minster.  All those centuries later, pious laypeople were praying to Christ on the cross in these words, so that the gates of heaven might open for them.

High- to late-medieval enamelled book cover, now in the Yorkshire Museum in York.  YORYM: 2002.479.1

Works used:

Muir, Bernard James, ed.  A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book (BL MSS Cotton Galba A.xiv and Nero A.ii (ff. 3-13)).  HBS 103.  Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1988.


Edited 14/04/17 13:00 to add limerick

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