Early English Saint, Bishop of Lindisfarne
Sometimes known as 'Saint Cuthbert Incorrupt'
Born c635 Died 687
Feast Day on the 20th of March
The Life of Cuthbert
Although there have been claims that Cuthbert was born in Ireland and was the son of an Irish king by the name of Muriahdach1, it appears most likely that he was born in Britain. He was probably orphaned at an early age and raised by a foster-mother named Kenswith in the neighbourhood of the monastery of Mailros.
Mailros, or Melrose as it is now known, is today located in southern Scotland but during the seventh century it was formerly within the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin which was absorbed by Northumbria certainly by the year 638 when king Oswald captured Edinburgh. Quite what this tells us about Cuthbert's origins is unclear - the name Cuthbert (Old English for 'of shining renown' or something similar} may well have been a name he adopted on entering holy orders - he could well have been either 'British' or 'Anglo-Saxon' by birth.
As a young boy he was employed as a shepherd, tending the flocks on the hillsides around Mailros and was therefore likely of a very humble origin. There were of course, the usual signs of greatness to come; one of his young friends admonished him for indulging in the frivolity of childhood games, and urged him to more serious matters advising him that the "Lord has appointed you to be a teacher of virtue even to those who are older than yourself." (Bede) And when Cuthbert's knee became swollen it was cured by an angel, and Cuthbert himself is said to have changed the winds by prayer, and brought home safely some ships belonging to the local monastery.
The significant moment in Cuthbert's life came in the year 651 when, whilst out watching his sheep, he had a vision of Saint Aidan ascending to heaven surrounded by angels. It was this vision that inspired Cuthbert's vocation to become a monk at Mailros.2
There are however, some indications that Cuthbert did not immediately become a monk but may have first turned to the life of a soldier. Between the years 634 and 655 Northumbria was under the constant threat of raids and invasion at the hands of Penda of Mercia; Penda was busy trying to take Bamburgh in 651 and it was not until his defeat at battle of the river Winwaed in 655 was some semblance of peace achieved. Cuthbert may well have been amongst those called on to defend Northumbria during those years 3 and that it was not until the final defeat of Penda that he entered the monastery at Mailros where where Saint Eata was the abbot and Saint Boisil the prior, and began a life devoted to holiness and learning.
Some time later Cuthbert left Mailros with Eata to found a new monastery at Ripon where he served as guest master. Around the 661 He returned to Mailros in protest after the imposition of the Roman Usage at Ripon. Cuthbert was therefore at Mailros when it was struck by plague; Cuthbert survived, but Boisil did not, and Cuthbert was appointed as prior in his place.
In 664 the Synod of Whitby took place, at which the Northumbrian Church decided to fall in line with the 'Roman Usage' and abandon the 'Celtic Usage' that they had previously inherited from the Irish monks that had first evangelised the nation. But given the strong Irish flavour of the Northumbrian Church, not everyone was happy with this decision - Colman the Bishop of Lindisfarne returned to Iona with a party of dissident monks and the body of Saint Aidan to boot, and much grumbling remained
Despite his previous preference for the 'Celtic Usage', Cuthbert accepted the decision of the Synod, and therefore appeared as the ideal candidate for for the delicate mission of bringing everyone into line with the new rules. And so Cuthbert was appointed by Eata, the bishop of Lindisfarne, to the post of prior at Lindisfarne, specifically to ensure conformity amongst the monastic community.
Cuthbert appears to have been successful at his appointed task and remained at Lindisfarne until the year 676, when he decided to seek an even more solitary and contemplative life and obtained permission to leave Lindisfarne and take up the life of a hermit. Therefore he left Lindisfarne and established himself either at the nearby St. Cuthbert's Island 4 or at St. Cuthbert's Cave near Holburn on the mainland.
But wherever the location of his first retreat, it proved insufficiently isolated for Cuthbert's tastes and he removed himself to Farne Island, where, after driving out the evil spirits, he lived a life of great austerity. Of course he wasn't entirely alone on the island; to judge from the later accounts of his life he enjoyed an almost constant stream of visitors who came to witness his many miraculous acts and avail themselves of his gift for prophesy.
In 684 a synod of bishops held at Twyford summoned by Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, called on him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne 5; Cuthbert was reluctant to give up his solitary life but was eventually persuaded to do so and was consecrated at York at Easter, 685 by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of six other bishops. For the next two years Cuthbert served as the bishop of Lindisfarne, but during the Christmas of 686, after receiving a premonition of his own death, Cuthbert resigned his see and returned once more to Farne Island.
It was there, in the early hours of the morning on the 20th March 687 that he finally died, but nor before he had exorted the attendant monks to "Study diligently, and carefully observe the Catholic rules of the Fathers, and practise with zeal those institutes of the monastic life which it has pleased God to deliver to you through my ministry".
The Cult of Saint Cuthbert
Cuthbert was buried at the monastery on Lindisfarne, where his tomb rapidly gained the reputation as a source of miracles. Nine years after his death the decision was made to transfer his body to a more prominent position near to the altar in the church at Lindisfarne. On the 20th April 698 the monks opened his grave and "found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour".
This was taken as a clear sign of sanctity and gave a significant boost to the cult; within two years of this event an anonymous monk of Lindisfarne wrote an account of his life, and the Venerable Bede was moved to write not one but two lives; the first in verse composed around the year 716 and a later prose Life written in about the year 721. Cuthbert was canonised and he became the premier saint of Lindisfarne, in whose honour the Lindisfarne Gospels were created and for a century and a half his shrine became the focus of worship at the monastery. 6
Saint Cuthbert's travels
In the year 866 the brothers Ivarr the Boneless and Halfdan landed in Britain with their 'Viking Great Army' and swept through much of England taking York in the year 867 and bringing the ancient kingdom of Northumbria to a bloody end. In the year 875 the monks of Lindisfarne reluctantly decided to abandon the island for fear that the Danes would turn their attention further north.
They fled taking with them all the precious treasures of their order; the Lindisfarne Gospels as well as the relics of Cuthbert and sundry other saints. They spent the next seven years wandering about the country, travelling through Strathclyde and Ireland seeking a place of safety for their precious cargo.
By 883 the political situation had changed; whilst the Danish Vikings had firmly established themselves at York, (which they rechristened as Jorvik ) the old fortress of Bamburgh had become the centre of an English enclave, the Lordship of Bamburgh which offered some prospects of stability. Thus the community of Lindisfarne returned to Northumbria (or what was left of it) and and settled at Chester-le-Street.
Towards the end of the tenth century the situation changed again; in the 960's Edinburgh fell to the Scots and the province of Lothian slipped from the grasp of the Lords of Bamburgh and began to threaten to push their authority further south.
The monks temporarily retreated to the relative safety of Ripon, taking Cuthbert with them. The story goes that on their return to Chester-le-Street, the monks found that Cuthbert's coffin simply refused to be moved and after a few day's worth of fasting and prayer Cuthbert appeared in a vision to a monk by the name of Eadmer with the instructions that his remains should be taken to a place called 'Dunholm'.
As it happens Cuthbert had selected a location just a few miles away from Chester-le-Street where the river Wear flowed through a steep wooded gorge. There the river curved around a peninsula of high ground that was surrounded by the gorge on three sides and formed a natural defensive position. It was there in 995 that began constructing a white church, which was completed in 998. A settlement grew up around the church which became a town and thus the city of Durham was born.
Ironically, whilst William I was busy 'Harrowing the North' in 1069, his body was moved once again to protect it from Norman depradations, this time back to Lindisfarne. It was returned once William had finished bludgeoning the north into subsmission. As it happens the new Norman lords of England were keen to demonstrate their affection for Saint Cuthbert and built a fine new cathedral at Durham, which is where in 1104 a new shrine was constructed behind the high altar to hold his remains.
Once again the body of Saint Cuthbert was found to be incorrupt, and this time it was reinterred with the head of Saint Oswald, which had earlier been placed with Saint Cuthbert's body for safety. Which is why Cuthebert is often portrayed as holding Oswald's head in his hands. 7
Saint Cuthbert's Land
"Cuthbert was the most tremendous presence in the north"
From the ninth century onwards, England between the Humber and the Forth, the old Northumbria of Cuthbert's time, was fought over by the kings of Wessex and Jorvik, subject to the encroachments of the Scots, invaded by the Danes more than once and generally speaking, politically unstable.
The one elememt of continuity and the one person that really mattered was Saint Cuthbert. The strip of territory between the Tyne and the Tees was known as Saint Cuthbert's Land, its bishops closely connected with, and often related to the northern 'kings' of Bamburgh. No one who had any pretence to authority in the north could afford to ignore Saint Cuthbert, and whoever sought to rule came to pay their respects to Cuthbert.
When Athelstan marched north enroute to do battle with the Scots in 934, he broke his journey at Chester-le-Street to visit the shrine.
He came bearing gifts, to whit;
gold and silver church plate, ecclesiastical vestments ... a cross of gold and ivory, luxury manuscripts, bells, candelabra, drinking horns chased in gold and silver, golden arm-rings, banners, a quantity of cash and a big landed estate at Wearmouth
When Cnut came to conquer England almost a century later, Simeon of Durham recorded how he came to pay his respects to Saint Cuthbert and walked the last six miles to the shrine to demonstrate his humility. And as we have seen, the Normans built Cuthbert a fine new cathedral and continued to support and promote his cult.
Of course there were other northern saints and cults that mattered; Saint Wilfrid at Ripon or Saint John of Beverley for example, but it was Cuthbert that enjoyed pride of place. Which incidentally, made the bishops of Chester-le-Street and later Durham very rich indeed.
In fact right up until the time of the Reformation Saint Cuthbert's shrine was the premier place of pilgrimage in the north. It was then that Henry VIII sent three commissioners to exhume the body in 1537, and a slightly later account of their discoveries reported that;
After the spoil of his ornaments and jewels they approached near his body, expecting nothing but dust and ashes: but, perceiving the chest he lay in strongly bound with iron, the goldsmith broke it open, when they found him lying whole uncorrupt with his face bare, and his beard as of a fortnight's growth, and all the vestments about him as he was accustomed to say mass.
But whilst Henry's might have provided further evidence of Cuthbert's sanctity, it didn't stop them plundering what ornaments and jewels they could get their hands on, and like all old saints, Cuthbert passed into distant memory as the old shrine was broken up and the veneration of saints actively discouraged.
The tomb of Saint Cuthbert
At Durham Cathedral today there is a tomb that bears the following inscription;
Borne by his faithful friends from his loved home of Lindisfarne here, after long wanderings, rests the body of St Cuthbert in whose honour William of St Carileph built this cathedral church and at his side lies buried the head of St Oswald King of Northumbria and martyr, slain in battle by the heathen whom he so long defied.
In 1827 this tomb was re-opened to reveal a series of coffins and inside the earliest of these coffins lay a skeleton wrapped in silk. With the skeleton was another adult skull (which would be Oswald's), some embroidered stoles and a gold pectoral cross inlaid with garnets. The designs of these items matched the descriptions of those recorded when Cuthbert was re-interred at the newly built cathedral in 1104. The pectoral cross and stoles were removed and are now to be seen at the Durham Cathedral museuem, whilst the bones themselves were replaced in the grave.
However not everyone believes that this tomb really holds the body of Cuthbert. There is a tradition that the the real body of Saint Cuthbert was secretly removed by Benedictine monks during the Reformation and buried elsewhere, and that they maintained the secret location down the generations. Whereas the coffins and various items are undoubtedly Cuthbert's, it may well be that his body had been removed and the remains of someone else substituted.
After all Cuthbert's body was, by all accounts, previously 'incorrupt', and what was found in 1827 was clearly not. Either the age of miracles has passed or somewhere else lies the true body of Cuthbert, imcorrupt and awaiting the day of judgement.
1 In the twelfth century Libellus de Ortu St. Cuthberti, written by a Northumbrian scribe, with the assistance of an Irish bishop by the name of Eugene.
2 The vision is dated to the year 651, because that was the year that Saint Aidan died.
3 As Penda was a pagan this may well have been considered suitable employment for a pious Christian.
4 A tiny islet lying between Lindisfarne and the mainland.
5 They actually wanted Cuthbert to fill to be Bishop of Hexham, but due to hsi relucatance to leave Lindisfarne, Eata agreed to move from Hexham to Lindisfarne.
6 Of course the promotion of Cuthbert was greatly helped by the fact that the relics of Saint Aidan the founder of Lindisfarne and the 'Apostle of Northumbria' had earlier been removed to Iona.
7 They also found a seventh-century manuscript of Gospel of Saint John; now in the possession of a Jesuit College, but on loan to the British Library.
The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Saint Cuthbert at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04578a.htm
The Venerable Bede The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindesfarne (721) From the Medieval Sourcebook at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-cuthbert.html
The Patron Saints Index entry for Saint Cuthbert at http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/saintc25.htm
The Saint Cuthbert's Guild http://www.stcuthbertsguild.com/saint.html
Jacobus de Voragine The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints at http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/golden178.htm
John Butcher A Brief Life and History of St.Cuthbert from the Melrose Historical Society - Bulletin No. 5 at http://www.melrose.bordernet.co.uk/mha/5/cuthbert.html
Richard Fletcher Bloodfeud (Penguin Books, 2003)
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
St Cuthbert's Tomb at http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla0www/c_tour/point15.html
St Cuthbert the Wonder-worker at http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla0www/c_tour/stcuth.html
The Pectoral Cross of St Cuthbert http://www.cushnieent.force9.co.uk/cuthbertcross.html