Celebrating Milestones (1): the Feast of St. Cuthbert, 20th March 2015

~ Remembering a beloved northern saint –––~

This feature introduces a new blog series, Celebrating Milestones, which pays tribute to, revives, or otherwise recalls, key events in the life and history of the Cathedral, or of ecclesiastical history in general.  Blogs may perhaps have a national or international flavour.  Reference will often be made to the Cathedral’s Collections of printed books, manuscripts, and other artefacts.  We hope these new explorations of the Cathedral’s place in history, and the wider picture of church art and history, prove both interesting and inspiring…

A Lindisfarne luminary: remembered thirteen centuries on

This Feast day commemorates the death of St. Cuthbert (b. c.635) on Farne Island on 20th March 687, and celebrates his remarkable life.  This blog post explores some aspects of the cult of St. Cuthbert which began to thrive after his death, and the miraculous quality of his legacy.

Grace in miniature: the St. Cuthbert Gospel

This is the oldest extant European book in its original binding, reputedly produced at the Wearmouth-Jarrow scriptorium in the late 7th century (soon after Cuthbert’s death), the work of a local craftsman.  It is also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, due to the book’s two centuries’ sojourn, from 1769 to 2012, at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit College in Lancashire; it was purchased by the British Library in 2012 for £9 million.  A beautifully scribed Latin copy of the Gospel of St. John, it has miniature dimensions of 5.3 by 3.6 inches – a ‘pocket-book’, ideal for the pilgrim; indeed it was probably intended to be conveyed in a special protective covering, due to the dearth of clasps on the binding.  This Gospel-book would provide inspiration, and perhaps reaffirm the weary traveller’s faith in his spiritual quest.

When Cuthbert’s coffin was relocated to the high altar at Lindisfarne in 698, this Gospel book was put inside; however in 1104 – when the new Cathedral, built in Cuthbert’s honour and furnished with shrine, reached fruition – the book was taken out.

Beautifully preserved fragments of the oak coffin constructed for St. Cuthbert’s translation to the high altar on Lindisfarne in 698 – it was carved with the twelve apostles (© Durham Cathedral Library)

The dark red leather binding, of goatskin surprisingly well-preserved, bears the hallmarks of the flourishing tradition of Insular art: beautifully distinctive, engraved interlacing and scrollwork adorn the front cover.  These designs were filled in with three different pigments.  The pages are made of vellum (fine calf-skin) and, whilst not illuminated, the gracefully rounded uncial script – common in the 4th to the 8th centuries, here with an Italian influence – is extremely pleasing to the eye.

It would appear that the St. Cuthbert Gospel was sequestered in the coffin to protect its contents from harm; this was of particular benefit on the community’s seven years’ perilous journeying with the coffin and relics, from Lindisfarne across the north to Ripon, Chester-le-Street, and Durham, after Viking attacks on the island in 793.  Some force, indeed, successfully kept the company safe.

Travel and transcendence: the cult of St. Cuthbert

It is perhaps difficult to grasp in today’s hectic, progressive society, where science and rationality hold such sway, the deep significance which saints held in the lives of ordinary people in the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval eras.  Indeed, a great mystique surrounds St. Cuthbert which has, like his relics, endured the passing of many centuries.  The enthusiasm for saints was especially pervasive in the 11th and 12th centuries: people from all walks of life were captivated by, and found succour in, personal devotion.  Many were prepared to travel far in order to fulfil their spiritual yearnings.  The experience of privation on a pilgrimage was richly rewarded by what a modern writer has evocatively described as ‘the spectacle and mystery of the gold- and jewel-encrusted reliquary shrines’ (Marner, p. 23).  The perils of travel made for a pious aim, with the glowing shrine a spiritually uplifting fruition.

In 698, eleven years after his death, Cuthbert’s remains were disinterred at St. Peter’s church, Lindisfarne, so that the bones might be cleaned and relocated for greater prominence and to encourage reverence.  Cuthbert’s body was discovered still ‘incorrupt’ (Marner, p. 22): this ‘sign of great purity and holiness’ (Crumplin) saw the dawn of a new, powerful cult – the miracle of a dead body preserved in this way suggested saintliness, being as it was beyond rational human experience.  As the astonishing tidings swept England, an incredulous abbot had to see the ‘as-sleeping’ body for himself.  Sequestered Lindisfarne rapidly became a special focus for pilgrimage, and prospered accordingly.  The monastery also showed great intellectual promise.

St. Cuthbert’s cult was, from the outset, characteristically luxurious and spectacular.  It may be that this pomp served to illustrate the great reverence, the spiritual fulfilment, Cuthbert inspired.  Pilgrims brought lavish gifts to ornament and enrich the shrine: jewels and vestments, plate and coins – and books – galore.

A breathtaking pectoral cross, crafted with garnets set in a white Mediterranean shell and discovered in Cuthbert’s coffin by James Raine in 1827. This exquisite ornamentation – if ever Cuthbert wore it – celebrated his saintliness and, in its beauty of craftsmanship, was also the beauty of faith (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Was Cuthbert’s potential wearing of the pectoral cross somewhat at variance with his preference for an austere way of life in order to be closer to God?  For more information on the pectoral cross and its significance, please see our Treasures Unveiled (3) feature.

The concept of relics, however, is perhaps distasteful, macabre even, to twenty-first century sensibilities; attitudes are more temporal and so often less attuned to sainthood and veneration.  The bones of Venerable Bede (673/4–735), the head of St. Oswald (603/4–642), a tooth of St. Margaret of Scotland (603/4–642), plus hair and diverse personal effects of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), St. Godric of Finchale (c.1070–1170) and other saints, ‘most of it displayed in reliquaries of crystal, ivory, or silver-gilt’ (Stranks, p. 33)… therefore make for an odd collection, more disquieting than mystical.

Nonetheless, perhaps the idea of spiritual healing has a resonance for many ordinary people today…  The shrine offered space for lame and ill pilgrims, of low or high station, to find repose and to pray to St. Cuthbert for healing.

Wearing words of wisdom: Cuthbert’s spiritual power

Symeon of Durham (fl. c.1090–c.1128), an early 12th century monk, wrote an interesting   account of the settlement ceremony for St. Cuthbert’s body in the shrine newly built in his honour, on 29th August 1104.  He described how a Gospel-book (of St. John) in a sort of leather satchel was discovered in the inner coffin, and proudly shown to an audience by Bishop Flambard (c.1060-1128) as he preached.  Archbishop of York William Fitzherbert (d. 1154), cousin of Hugh de Puiset (c.1125-1195), experienced the ‘good luck charm’ first hand, as a sacristan placed the ‘satchel’ over his head – however the book contained within it was not the St. John Gospel but a Life of St. Cuthbert, showing Cuthbert’s burgeoning spiritual influence.  Furthermore, it seems to have been customary for distinguished pilgrims to be allowed to ‘wear’ the St. Cuthbert Gospel-book around their necks in the ‘satchel’.

A page from the Venerable Bede’s prose ‘Life of Cuthbert’, Cathedral MS A.IV.35 (late 12th C.), with spectacular illuminated initial. The colours appear as fresh as if just painted. In all likelihood it was produced at Durham’s own scriptorium, situated in the cloisters’ north range (© Durham Cathedral Library)

Texts as healing

Indeed, such Gospel-books were often prized as a sort of good luck charm, people believing they would ensure safety and good health.  Indeed, John’s iconic opening sentence, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, were frequently recited or worn around the neck.  There is a tale from John of Salisbury (c.1120-1180) which is testament to St. Cuthbert’s healing abilities: it seems Cuthbert rid a man of his illness by laying the gospel text upon him.  This widespread faith in the miraculous properties of ‘wearing’ Gospel texts, or Saints’ bones, was controversial, but compelling.  Hagiographies, like manuscripts of St. Cuthbert’s Life (see image above), also, were deemed therapeutic to body and soul.

Cuthbert’s enduring grace…

Events following Cuthbert’s death seem veiled in spiritual mystery – written sources from the period speak of his exertion of influence from beyond death, in the selection of his burial place.  Apparently, on a hill named Dun Holme, his coffin would not budge, and the monks interpreted the inertia as a sign Cuthbert wished to rest in Durham.

There were two further openings of the coffin – in 1537, by the royal commissioners of Henry VIII, seeking Crown aggrandizement; and in 1827, by librarian James Raine (1791-1858) in a spirit of conservation and intellectual curiosity.  In 1537, over seven centuries after his death, the body was extant… only as late as 1827 was it discovered in decay.  One could perhaps go so far as to say that Durham City is founded on this spectacular miracle…

Enshrined on a spine: a remarkable image of St. Cuthbert adorns the fore-edge of Cathedral MS A.IV.35. This edge-painting is seldom seen on mediaeval books (© Durham Cathedral Library)


References and further reading:

  • Adam, David.  Fire of the north: an illustrated life of St Cuthbert.  SPCK, 1993
  • Brown, David (ed).  Durham Cathedral: history, fabric, and culture.  Yale University Press, 2014
  • Brown, Julian T (ed.).  The Stonyhurst Gospel of Saint John.  Roxburghe Club, 1969
  • Colgrave, Bertram.  Two lives of Saint Cuthbert.  Cambridge University Press, 1940
  • Fowler, J. T.  On an examination of the grave of St. Cuthbert in Durham cathedral church.  J. B. Nichols, 1900
  • Gameson, Richard.  Manuscript treasures of Durham Cathedral.  Third Millennium, 2010
  • Marner, Dominic.  St. Cuthbert: his life and cult in medieval Durham.  British Library, 2000
  • Raine, James.  Saint Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of his tomb in Durham Cathedral, in the year MDCCCXXVII.  Geo. Andrews and J. B. Nichols, 1828
  • Rollason, D. W. (ed.).  Cuthbert, saint and patron: lectures given in the Prior’s Hall, Durham, February 1987.  Dean and Chapter of Durham, 1987
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