Saturday, 19 September 2009

Character in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series: Cuthbert

St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (c. 634–20 March 687) was an Anglo-Saxon monk and bishop in the Kingdom of Northumbria which at that time included, in modern terms, north east England and south east Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. Afterwards he became one of the most important medieval saints of England, with widespread recognition in the places he had been in Scotland. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of Northumbria. His feast day is 20 March.

Banner depicting St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, from Durham Cathedral

Firth of Forth

Cuthbert was of Northumbrian origin, probably from the neighbourhood of Dunbar at the mouth of the Firth of Forth in modern-day Scotland.

St. Aidan

While still a boy, employed as a shepherd, one night he had a vision of the soul of Aidan being carried to heaven by angels and thereupon went to the monastery of Old Melrose and became a monk (651). Soon afterwards, however, he became a soldier for several years.

Melrose Abbey

Achievement of fame

Cuthbert at prayer in The Little Lives of the Saints, illustrated by Charles Robinson in 1904.

After his return to the monastery, his fame for piety, diligence, and obedience quickly grew. When Alchfrith, king of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became its praepositus hospitum or visitors' host.
Alchfrith, however, returned to Melrose. Illness struck the monastery in 664 and while Cuthbert recovered, the prior died and Cuthbert was made prior in his place. He spent much time among the people, ministering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles.
After the Synod of Whitby, Cuthbert seems to have accepted the Roman customs, and his old abbot, Eata, called on him to introduce them at Lindisfarne. This was an ungrateful task, but Cuthbert disarmed opposition with his loving and patient nature.
His asceticism was complemented by his charm and generosity to the poor, and his reputation for gifts of healing and insight led many people to consult him, gaining him the name of "Wonder Worker of Britain". He continued his missionary work, travelling the breadth of the country from Berwick to Galloway to carry out pastoral work and founding an oratory at Dull, Scotland complete with a large stone cross, and a little cell for himself, at a site which subsequently became a monastery then later the University of St Andrews. He is also said to have founded St Cuthbert's church in Edinburgh.

A close-up of the twelfth century painting of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Hermit's life
In 676 he adopted the solitary life and retired to a cave.

Inner Farne Island

After a time he settled on one of the Farne Islands, south of Lindisfarne, and gave himself more and more to austerities. At first he would receive visitors and wash their feet, but later he confined himself to his cell and opened the window only to give his blessing.

Common Eider Duck (Cuthberts Ducks)

While on the Farne Islands, he instituted special laws to protect the Eider ducks and other seabirds nesting on the islands; these may have been the first bird protection laws anywhere in the world. Consequently, eider ducks are often called cuddy ducks (Cuthbert's ducks) in modern Northumbrian dialects.

Lindisfarne (Holy Island)

Election to the bishopric of Lindisfarne
In 684, Cuthbert was elected bishop of Lindisfarne, at a synod at Twyford (believed to be present-day Alnmouth), but was reluctant to leave his retirement and take up his charge; it was only after a visit from a large group, including king Ecgfrith, that he agreed to return and take up the duties of bishop. He was consecrated at York by Archbishop Theodore and six bishops, on 26 March 685. After Christmas, 686, however, he returned to his cell on Inner Farne Island (two miles from Bamburgh, Northumberland), which was where he eventually died. He was buried at Lindisfarne, and his remains later transferred to Durham Cathedral.

Folio 27r of the Stonyhurst Gospel. Text shown is Jn 6:35-39a


Cuthbert in The Little Lives of the Saints, illustrated by Charles Robinson in 1904.

Legend had it that when Cuthbert's burial casket was opened eleven years after his death, his body was found to have been perfectly preserved. This apparent miracle led to the steady growth of Cuthbert's posthumous cultus, to the point where he became the most popular saint of Northern England. Numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession and to intercessory prayer near his remains. The noted 8th century author Bede wrote both a verse and a prose life of St Cuthbert around 720. He has been described as "perhaps the most popular saint in England prior to the death of Thomas Becket in 1170."
In 875 the Danes took the monastery of Lindisfarne and the monks fled, carrying with them St Cuthbert's body around various places including Melrose. After seven years' wandering it found a resting-place at Chester-le-Street until 995, when another Danish invasion led to its removal to Ripon. Then the saint intimated, as it was believed, that he wished to remain in Durham. A new stone church—the so-called 'White Church'—was built, the predecessor of the present grand Cathedral.

A piece of public artwork in brass called the Journey, showing the coffin of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne being carried by 6 monks, eventually to Durham.

In 1104 Cuthbert's tomb was opened again and his relics translated to a new shrine behind the altar of the recently completed Cathedral. When the casket was opened, a small book of the gospels, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches, now known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, was found. It was also discovered that his vestment was made of Byzantine "Nature Goddess" silk, indicating the extent of the silk trade at this time. His shrine was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but, unusually, his relics survived and are still interred at the site (although they were also disinterred in the 19th century, when his wooden coffin and various relics were removed). When the coffin was last inspected on 17 May 1827, a Saxon square cross of gold, embellished with garnets, in the characteristic splayed shape, used later as the heraldic emblem of St Cuthbert in the arms of Durham and Newcastle universities, was found.

The Cross of St Cuthbert features as the principal charge on the coat of arms of the University of Durham, granted in 1843, and many of its constituent colleges. The University of Newcastle upon Tyne, formerly King's College in the University of Durham, features St Cuthbert's Cross on its arms, originally granted in 1937, too. St Cuthbert's Society, a college of Durham University is named after him and is located only a short walk from the coffin of the saint at Durham Cathedral. The Society celebrates St Cuthbert's Day on or around 20 March with a magnificent feast. "Cuth's Day", the annual college day, is celebrated in the epiphany term with music, entertainment, festivities and drinking.
St Cuthbert is also the namesake of St Cuthbert's College in Epsom, New Zealand, which celebrates St Cuthbert's Day on 20 March as a day of school celebration. The school's houses are named after important locations in the life of the Saint: Dunblane (Yellow), Elgin (Green), Iona (Purple), Kelso (Blue), Lindisfarne (White) and Melrose (Red). St Cuthberts High School, a Roman Catholic school in Newcastle upon Tyne is names after the saint. St Cuthberts day was at one time celebrated with mass, and the school prayers still include reference to their patron Saint (always ending "St Cuthbert pray for us". The school crest features a bishops crook in reference to St Cuthberts time as a bishop, as well as ducks, reflecting his love of the animals.
St. Cuthbert's Co-operative Society opened its first shop in Edinburgh in 1859, and expanded to become one of the largest Co-ops before amalgamating with the Dalziel Society of Motherwell in 1981 and being renamed Scotmid. Its dairy used horse drawn delivery floats until 1985, and between 1944 and 1959 employed as a milkman one Sean Connery, who later went on to fame as James Bond.


Many churches are named for Cuthbert.
Orthodox Community in Chesterfield, England has taken St Cuthbert as their patron.
Crinoid columnals extracted from limestone quarried on Lindisfarne, or found washed up along the foreshore, which were threaded into necklaces or rosaries, became known as St Cuthbert's beads.

Crinoid Columnal ( St. Cuthert's Beads)

In Northumberland the Eider Duck is known as the Cuddy Duck, after St Cuthbert who protected them on the Farne Islands. They still breed in their thousands off the Northumberland Coast.

Map of the Hwicce

St Cuthbert and the haliwerfolc
During the medieval period, St Cuthbert became politically important in defining the identity of the people living in the semi-autonomous region known as the Palatinate of Durham. Within this area the Bishop of Durham had almost as much power as the king of England himself, and the saint became a powerful symbol of the autonomy the region enjoyed. The inhabitants of the Palatinate became known as the haliwerfolc, which roughly translates as "people of the saint", and Cuthbert gained a reputation as being fiercely protective of his domain. For example, there is a story that at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346, the Prior of the Abbey at Durham received a vision of Cuthbert, ordering him to take the corporax cloth of the saint and raise it on a spear point near the battlefield as a banner. Doing this, the Prior and his monks found themselves protected "by the mediation of holy St Cuthbert and the presence of the said holy Relic." Whether the story of the vision is true or not, the banner of St Cuthbert was regularly carried in battle against the Scots until the Reformation, and it serves as a good example of how St Cuthbert was regarded as a protector of his people.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely illustrated and comprehensive summary of St. Cuthbert material. But surely the map of the Hwicce is an error? Perhaps you meant to include a map of the Palatinate of Durham, or of Northumbria at an earlier period?

    Wishing you a happy Saint Cuthbert's Day, upcoming on March 20th