The small church of St John the Evangelist [NY 069 390] in the village of Crosscanonby near Allonby is among the earliest Christian sites in Cumbria.
Its most remarkable feature is a complete Roman arch in the chancel thought to have been been ‘borrowed’ from Roman Maryport.
St John the Evangelist is around three miles from Alauna, a castrum or fort on a bluff just north of the modern town.
It is thought that the grand structure originally formed one of the entrances to the commandant's quarters. A pair of niches in the arch are original and would have held statues of the gods, or perhaps of the emperor.
A Roman altar was unearthed in the churchyard, carved with a dedication to Acilianus, prefect of the 1st Cohort of the Dalmations, who served at Maryport.
The church also stands less than a mile from Roman Milefortlet 21, one of a number of small forts along the Solway Coast section of the Hadrianic frontier.
Two former Roman roads pass nearby including the road from Alauna to Papcastle (Derventio), and from Maryport to Carlisle (Luguvalium). Historic maps also indicate the likely presence of a Roman Road hugging the coast – roughly following the line of the present B5300.
It is thought that there has been a church on the site at least from the turn of the ninth century, incorporating Roman masonry. However, a late Victorian vicar, Rev WJ Marsh, wrote that the Celtic saint St Kentigern (known affectionately aa Mungo) may have visited Crosscanonby in around 600 AD. If true, this may indicate the church is very early indeed. The presence of Roman infrastructure - and the fact that St Ninian's Whithorn is just over the water in Dumfries and Galloway - would certainly lend credence to this theory.
The present building dates from AD 1130, with the south aisle added in the thirteenth century. It was restored in 1880, during which several sculptured stones were found built into the fabric of the church.
Close to the entrance of the Church is a tenth century 'Viking' hogback stone.
Images © John Connell, and used with permission.