This enigmatic monument stands alongside St Andrews Church in the centre of Penrith. It takes its name from a legendary giant, known as Ewan Caesarius or Sir Owen Caesar, who was said to have hunted boar in the nearby Inglewood Forest. His ‘grave’ is not, in fact, a single feature but a collection of six individual monuments: two Anglo-Saxon cross-shafts and four hogback tombstones. All six are probably of 10th century origin and were originally not grouped together. The crosses look similar to others in various parts of what is now the English county of Cumbria, although their upper portions have long since vanished. The hogbacks are carved representations of Scandinavian houses and are a type of monument formerly associated with Viking burials. Current opinion now sees them as indigenous to Britain, the earliest examples possibly originating in Northumbria among Anglo-Saxon craftsmen influenced by contact with Norse settlers.
Nobody knows when the Giant’s Grave was assembled but a medieval date seems almost certain. References in antiquarian literature show that the present arrangement of the stones certainly pre-dates the modern era. An excavation in the 16th century found what were described as ‘the great long shank bones of a man, and a broad sword’. These items are no longer extant, but the presence of a weapon seems to argue against a Christian burial. When the bones were unearthed, their large size was seen as confirmation of the legend of the giant huntsman of Inglewood. In the 18th century, when St Andrews Church was rebuilt, the entire composite monument was moved from what was presumably its original setting to be re-erected in its current position.
The identity of Ewan Caesarius is unknown. Some people think he may have been based on a real historical figure connected with the area around Penrith. One favoured candidate is Owain ab Urien, a hero of the 6th century, whose father was the renowned King Urien of Rheged. Storytellers in Wales subsequently drew Owain into the Arthurian romances where he eclipsed his father as the most famous hero of the North Britons. The Welsh Arthurian tales featuring Owain presumably relate to one or more northern tales, circulating in the Anglo-Scottish borderland in the 12th century, in which he appears as the father of St Kentigern. Whether the Arthurian romances prompted the northern stories, or vice versa, is hard to say.
Urien’s famous son is not the only candidate in the search for Ewan Caesarius, nor necessarily the most plausible. Several namesakes from a different era, from the 10th-11th centuries, are also worthy of consideration. These later Owains were rulers of Strathclyde, the last surviving kingdom of the North Britons. At the height of their power, the Clyde kings held sway as far south as the River Eamont which skirts the edge of Penrith. One of the Strathclyde Owains fought on the losing side at the great battle of Brunanburh in 937; another tasted victory at Carham-on-Tweed in 1018, as an ally of the Scots against the English. Either of these two warlords could be the historical figure behind the fabled giant of Inglewood Forest whose bones allegedly lie in St Andrews churchyard. Alternatively, the legend of Ewan Caesarius might have no historical foundation at all.
W.G. Collingwood, ‘The Giant’s Grave’ Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society, 2nd series, 23 (1923), 115-28
W. Hutchinson, The history of the county of Cumberland (Carlisle, 1794) [refers to the 16th century excavation of the Giant’s Grave at pp.328-34]
J. MacQueen, ‘Yvain, Ewen and Owain ap Urien’ Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society 33 (1966), 107-31