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The Prosperous Crozier and it’s Inscription

The Prosperous crosier is one of the most important artefacts surviving from medieval Ireland. It is not only the oldest securely dated complete crosier from Ireland and Britain but also one of the oldest in Europe. Thus, as a particularly early example of an ecclesiastical staff of office, it holds an important position in the art and archaeology of the early medieval Christian Church.

The crosier was discovered during turf-cutting in a bog near Prosperous, Co. Kildare, around 1839 and soon after was purchased from the finder by the Jesuits of Clongowes Wood College. This was at a time before any national or public museums existed in Ireland and it has remained in the care of the Jesuit order in Ireland since then, with the exception of being temporarily exhibited in Dublin on a number of occasions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It first came to wider attention in 1851, when an account of it, with accompanying small sketches, was presented to the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. In 1984 the crosier was sent to the Ulster Museum for conservation, where it was also exhibited.

The shape of the crosier, like most Insular crosiers, is based on a shepherd’s crook, symbolising the pastoral role of the Church in looking after its flock. Measuring 1.34m in height, the Prosperous crosier is the tallest of the surviving early medieval Irish crosiers, some of which are less than 1m tall. Another notable fact is that it is of a single phase of manufacture, with the minor exception of one replacement binding strip and its repaired breakage. Indeed, many of the other surviving crosiers, such as the Bachall Dhamhnaid, were partially redecorated and sometimes reconstructed in the later medieval period. The Prosperous crosier therefore provides a clear idea of what crosiers looked like in early medieval Ireland.

It consists of a wooden core of yew onto which its metal mounts were nailed. All of the metal elements are made of copper alloy, probably bronze, and consist of both wrought and cast pieces. Its shaft was covered in three sections of plain metal tubing that were sealed with long binding strips and which are decorated with incised ornament in the form of key patterns, interlace and Latin crosses. The sections of tubing are connected to each other by cast biconical knops, each of which was decorated with eight chased copper-alloy plaques featuring a key pattern, some of which are now missing. There are four biconical knops in total on the shaft, spaced evenly along its length. At the lower end of the crosier is the ferrule or foot, which changes from round to octagonal in section and is decorated with four inset chased copper-alloy plaques featuring alternating interlace and key patterns. Intriguingly, just before the terminal end of the crosier there are two rows of human heads, orientated in opposite directions. While now very worn, each of the rows consists of eight individual heads.


Some of the more interesting decoration, however, is at the upper end of the crosier. The head of the crosier is curved like a shepherd’s crook, but unusually includes an additional knop as well as the usual pendant drop at its extremity. It is covered with two curved metal plates, which are held together by an inner binding strip, similar to those on the shaft, and by an outer cresting. The crest is mainly decorated with a row of eleven birds and features thirteen evenly spaced circular perforations. At the base of the crest an animal, perhaps an otter, clasps a fish in its jaws, while at the top of the crest there is another animal that is less easily identifiable. Also fixed to the top of the crest is a movable fitting featuring a human head that faces forward towards the drop. The details of this head are far clearer than those on the foot of the crosier and it can be identified as a bearded male. The purpose of the two projections on either side of the head, one of which is now broken off, is not entirely clear, but they may represent hair. The intact example is decorated with dot and circle motifs, however, perhaps suggesting that the projections are not supposed to represent naturalistic features.

Paul Mullarkey has made the interesting suggestion that the fitting may be for the tethering of the crosier in an upright position, which would explain the purpose of the projections. The biconical knop and the pendant drop at the terminal are of one piece. The knop is relatively plain, with the exception of two beaded borders, while the sides of the drop are also decorated with beaded borders and an incised interlace pattern. The main area of decoration is the front of the drop, which was originally brightly ornamented with glass and champlevé enamel. Unfortunately, these have suffered loss and damage, some of it possibly as a result of the time spent in the bog. The drop features a blue domed glass stud, below which is an enamelled Greek cross within a circle. Two projecting circular settings on either side of the drop now lack their glass studs. Most of the rest of the front of the drop is decorated with enamel cells in a geometric pattern. These cells were filled with yellow enamel, traces of which remain, against an original background of red enamel, which would have given the front of the drop a colourful appearance. On the underside of the drop there is a roughly scratched inscription, which is secondary to the crosier. This inscription, which is in Latin, has recently been deciphered by the second author as follows (illegible letters in square brackets):




(i.e. ‘of/belonging to St Mary’s, Dublin’).


The attribution of this crosier to St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin is a significant breakthrough in terms of its history and provenance. While Eugene O’Curry (1861, 338) originally stated that there was reason to believe that it ‘was once the crozier of St Mary’s Abbey, Dublin’, he did not expand on this and his statement has not been commented upon since. On the basis of the reading of the inscription by the authors, it now seems clear that O’Curry’s comments were based on his own unpublished evaluation of the inscription. Up to now it may have been presumed that the crosier had belonged to some nearby early ecclesiastical site in County Kildare. St Mary’s, which was a significantly wealthy abbey, was originally founded as a Benedictine monastery in 1139, changing soon after to the Cistercian rule, and was dissolved in 1539. The inscription is probably late or post-medieval in date, and is perhaps contemporary with a replacement binding strip. As the crosier is older than the abbey’s foundation date, it must have originally belonged to a different ecclesiastical site before being transferred to St Mary’s. The date of the crosier has been a matter of some debate amongst scholars of early

Irish art, and suggested dates range from the early ninth century to around the year 1000. The most recent scholar to discuss its dating has been Ruth Johnson, who argued for a date in the tenth century on the basis of the key and interlace patterns, which are also found on motif-pieces from tenth-century Dublin and on stone sculpture from the Isle of Man. This year an opportunity arose to date the wooden core of the crosier as part of a project funded by the Royal Irish Academy. The wooden core has been independently identified by both Susan Lyons and Ellen O’Carroll as yew, which appears to have been the preferred species used for crosiers. The wooden core was sampled by Paul Mullarkey and Maeve Sikora of the National Museum of Ireland and was radiocarbon-dated in Queen’s University Belfast. The results are as follows:

1094±37 BP, calibrated to AD 897–926, AD 942–989 (1 sigma) and AD 880–1021 (2

sigma), giving us a likely date in the tenth century.

The absolute dating of this crosier is significant in helping to establish a firm chronology for early Irish crosiers. It also has far-reaching implications for the dating of Irish metalwork generally, particularly in relation to the enamel decoration on the crosier, which in other contexts is usually dated to the eighth or early ninth century. A tenth-century date also makes sense, however, if the crosier is of Dublin origin. The archaeological record is of considerable help in this regard. Specifically, the ornament on the crosier, including the interlace on the drop, the meandering key patterns on the knops and ferrule, and the key patterns on the binding strips, find remarkably close parallels with motif-pieces recovered in the NMI excavations at High Street in Dublin (O’Meadhra 1979, cat. Nos 28, 31, 42, 49). It is generally accepted that motif-pieces were the products of early medieval metalworkers, and the comparisons are so close that they strongly suggest that the Prosperous crosier was made by a Dublin workshop. To add further weight to the argument, a copper-alloy mount decorated with red enamel and dated to the tenth century was also recovered in the High Street excavations. While there is no stratigraphic record for the High Street excavations, which were carried out in the 1960s, the earliest phases appear to date from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. A later tenth-century date also ties in with the relative date of the Manx crosses, on which a meandering key pattern similar to that on the knops of the crosier is found.


While the questions regarding its date and manufacture have been reasonably well answered, the question of the crosier’s original home and the reasons for its deposition in a bog in County Kildare remain. Numbered among the early medieval foundations that St Mary’s Abbey possessed at the time of the Dissolution were the rectories of Drumcar, Co. Louth, Skreen, Co. Meath, Staholmock, Co. Meath, and Portloman, Co. Westmeath (White 1943, 17–19, 22). While the crosier may have come from any of these early church sites in Leinster, an early ecclesiastical site in the Dublin region seems more likely, given the probable location of its manufacture. It may be noted that the abbey also held the grange and vill of Ballyboghill (Baile Bachaille), Co. Dublin, which was associated with the Bachall Ísu. The Bachall Ísu was Ireland’s most prominent relic, a crosier said to have belonged to both Christ and Patrick and the symbol of authority for the abbots of Armagh. While both the Bachall Ísu and land at Ballyboghill were given to Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin by the Anglo-Normans in 1180, Ballyboghill was also granted to St Mary’s by the archbishop of Armagh around 1174 or 1175. There is no record of St Mary’s having possession of the Bachall Ísu and it appears to have remained at Christ Church until its deliberate destruction in 1537/38. It may have been similar circumstances that brought about the transfer of the Prosperous crosier to St Mary’s, as Anglo-Norman benefactors were less likely to have regard for the ancient traditions of the Irish church.

The iconoclasm of the late 1530s during the Reformation in Ireland, which led to the destruction of the Bachall Ísu, may have been a reason to send the crosier out of Dublin for its protection. Indeed, while the date of the breakage of the Prosperous crosier is unknown, it may have happened at this time. St Mary’s Abbey also held land in County Kildare, including the vill of Tuburrogan (Toberogan) and the rectory of Fassagh Reban in the middle of the county, and the vill of Leixlip in the north of the county. A journey between its landholdings at Leixlip and Toberogan may well have skirted the Bog of Allen. Although the precise reasons for its deposition in the bog will never be known, it may have been for its concealment, or possibly in order to dispose of it. Indeed, other early medieval Irish crosiers have been recovered from both bogs and rivers.

While not as spectacular as some of the later crosiers, such as those surviving from Lismore, Co. Waterford, and Clonmacnoise Co. Offaly, the Prosperous crosier should be celebrated for its very early date, its remarkable completeness and its more modest craftsmanship. The lack of precious metals used in its decoration and its more basic level of craftsmanship suggest that the ecclesiastical site to which this crosier once belonged was not significantly large, but perhaps of moderate size and wealth. Nevertheless, the crosier was important enough to be kept for centuries, before it was eventually buried in a bog. The crosier’s tenth-century date and its attribution to a Dublin workshop and religious site as set out in this article are significant. While the Prosperous crosier may be interpreted as a potent symbol of the Christianisation of the Viking population of Dublin, it could also merely represent the location of a workshop within the region that was capable of producing such a piece. Indeed, the fact that the crosier was produced in the Insular style and tradition and shows no Scandinavian influence suggests that it was not produced for the Vikings of Dublin themselves.



Courtesy of JSTOR


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