the cross

Elise’s Pillar stands within eyesight of the ruined Valle Crucis Abbey north of Llangollen. In the ninth century, this site lay near the boundaries of the Powys cantrefi (regions) of Penllyn and Iâl, the original home of the Cadelling kings including Cyngen. The cylindrical-shaft standing cross of at least three meters, originally erected on an existing Bronze Age burial mound in an area of ancient strategic significance, must have been an impressive sight. Inscribed crosses of its kind are rare in Wales but well documented as a later Mercian design.

The pillar occupies slightly higher ground a few metres from a major east-west route, not far west of the monumental earthwork Offa’s Dyke that marked the Mercian border. Archeologist Nancy Edwards suggests that in addition to its propaganda purpose, the pillar may have overlooked a gathering place and inauguration site for Powys rulers. In the early ninth century its striking surroundings, especially Horseshoe Pass and Eglwyseg Mountain, were remote and wild.

The Pillar of Eliseg, a ninth-century memorial cross, stands near the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey. The cross head has been lost; only the shaft or pillar survives. “Valle crucis” means “the valley of the cross” in Latin; its name may derive from the much older cross that commemorated the family of Cyngen, king of Powys from 808 to 855, and may have marked a well-known gathering place. Was the pillar once called Croes Elisedd, the Cross of Elisedd?

The site offered exceptional advantages: an open but secluded area with abundant natural resources that could shelter a large group of travelers—merchants, clerics or an army—only a few hours’ walk from the border. Its surrounding hills gave visual command of the pillar’s location and almost all the adjacent span of Offa’s Dyke and another early earthwork, Wat’s Dyke, running roughly parallel slightly to its east; each hill was also mostly visible from the other heights, according to archeologists Patricia Murrieta-Flores and Howard Williams. A band of people crossing the border would be fully visible from hilltop lookouts, where beacon fires could pass a warning west into Powys.

The Pillar of Eliseg as it may have looked originally, based on the appearance of other early crosses. Image courtesy of Dr. Aaron Watson.

When Cyngen raised the cross—after 823 and before 854—Mercia was in political turmoil, and Powys may have been flexing its strength. It was an opportune time to proclaim the king’s struggle and triumph and to honor his ancestors. The pillar’s text, now too weathered to read, is uniquely long and descriptive for a memorial cross. Its language is colourful, even poetic, in narrating the deeds of Elisedd and Cyngen and in asking the passerby to read it aloud and bless the soul of Elisedd. Educated in Latin, the text’s writer knew Powys history and genealogy and may have held a privileged position in Cyngen’s court. His clear, shapely lettering was deliberately archaic and carefully drawn for the stonemason’s chisel to incise, and he used vivid phrases that evoke contemporary Powys poetry and show considerable feeling for his territory of Powys and its ruler. The writer, apparently a man of importance in Powys, added his own name to the inscription.

The Elise’s Pillar text connects Cyngen with a local saint and with powerful earlier rulers who fought English enemies. Its genealogical claims appear to refute the Historia Brittonum—a ninth-century compilation of history and folklore attributed to the monk Nennius in the neighboring kingdom of Gwynedd—which describes Cyngen’s line as incestuous and heretical. Clearly Cyngen’s claims are intensely political, but their exact significance is now unclear.

Cyngen’s standing cross may have challenged the territorial ambitions of the Gwynedd king Merfyn or his son Rhodri; by mid-ninth century Gwynedd, not Mercia, was emerging as the greatest threat to an independent Powys. It may be that Elise’s Pillar was one of the weapons deployed in Cyngen’s battle for a sovereign Powys.

— excerpted from Awen, 2020

next: the stanzas