St Cuthbert: The Saint Who Tried (and Failed) to Live in Obscurity
“The saint who tried (and failed) to live in obscurity
St Cuthbert retired to an island and would only open his window to give blessings”
“Catholic Herald” (London), 29 August 2014
“St Cuthbert was a monk, bishop and hermit associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne. After his death he became one of the most important medieval saints of northern England and is regarded as the region’s patron saint.
Cuthbert is believed to have been born to a noble family on the Scottish Borders in the mid-630s, about 10 years after King Edwin’s conversion to Christianity in 627. The kingdom’s politics were violent, with episodes of paganism, and Cuthbert’s primary task was the spread of Christianity.
The earliest biographies of Cuthbert record many miracles and he never gave up travelling from village to village in order to spread the Gospel. When Alchfrith, king of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became guest master. He then became prior in 664. He spent most of his time among the people, ministering, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching and performing miracles.
As a missionary he travelled from Berwick to Galloway and eventually founded an oratory in Dull at a site which eventually became the University of St Andrews. He is also thought to have founded St Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh.
Cuthbert retired in 676 and eventually ended up at Inner Farne Island, off the Northumbrian coast, where he gave himself up for a life of austerity.
At first, he received visitors but he eventually confined himself to his cell and only opened his window to give a blessing.
In 684 Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham but was reluctant to leave retirement. Yet he was consecrated at York by Archbishop Theodore and six bishops on March 26 685. After Christmas in 686 he returned to his cell on Inner Farne Island where he died in March 687. He was buried the following day at Lindisfarne and his remains taken eventually to Durham.
Following his death numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession. Most famously Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was inspired in his fight against the Danes by a vision he had of Cuthbert. Later Cuthbert became a symbol for the Royal House of Wessex, who were greatly devoted to Cuthbert, who became an important political symbol.”
“Cuthbert (c 634-687) was raised in the traditions of Celtic Christianity. Although he subscribed to Roman ways after the Synod of Whitby (664), he remained an exemplar of a less triumphal, more inward form of religion than that represented by the dominating personality of St Wilfrid, the Pope’s henchman.
“Above all,” wrote the Venerable Bede, “Cuthbert was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort.” There can be no question of Cuthbert’s holiness. But whereas he is traditionally presented as a shepherd boy, it is clear from the stories told about him that he lived on easy terms with royalty and aristocracy. Cuthbert’s name is Anglo-Saxon, and he was probably born in the Lothians.
At 15 he entered Melrose Abbey, later moving to Ripon, only to be expelled when King Aldfrith of Northumbria fell under the influence of the Romanising Wilfrid.
Melrose Abbey, c. 1800
Back at Melrose, Cuthbert succeeded as prior in 664. In the tradition of Irish monastics, he travelled around the country preaching. Fiercely ascetic, he would stand in the freezing sea to pray.
Subsequently he became prior at Lindisfarne, where, obedient to the decision at Whitby, he performed the difficult task of introducing Roman rites and customs.
The Holy Island of Lindisfarne
“When he was fatigued with the bitter taunts of his opponents,” it is recorded, “he would get up and without a sigh of vexation adjourn the chapter. The next day, as though he had met with no opposition, he would repeat his arguments until by degrees he had them brought round to his way of thinking.”
From 676 Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the small, rocky island of Inner Fane, although at the end of his life he served briefly as bishop, first at Hexham, then at Lindisfarne. By this time, though, ecclesiastical power in Northumbria had moved south to York.
Cuthbert died on Inner Fane, and over the next century a cult developed around his undecayed remains at Lindisfarne. When the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne in 793 his body was removed to Norham, on the river Tweed. During the ninth century his reputation spread as far as Germany.
From 875 to 883 Cuthbert’s corpse was taken on a series of peregrinations, no doubt with the aim of raising funds for the community established in his name. His cadaver was variously reported to be at the mouth of the Derwent, at Whithorn in Galloway and at Crayke near York.
Then for more than a century the body was at Chester-le-Street until it was again moved in 995, first to Ripon, then to Durham, where in 1194 it was accorded an honoured place in the new cathedral.
The Shrine of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in Durham Cathedral
Cuthbert’s magnificent shrine was destroyed at the Reformation; his memory, however, has proved more durable.”
“The Gospel Book of St. Cuthbert is arguably one of the most important surviving medieval manuscripts, and it is a cause for celebration that it has been secured by the British Library in a purchase from the collection of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. The procurement was funded by a number of major grants of public money as well as many smaller donations from the public at large. It is appropriate, then, that the book has been digitised in full and made available free-of-charge to all on the British Library’s website, as part of a project to inform and educate a broader audience about the book’s importance.
Cuthbert was born c.635, and lived his adult life as a monk in various foundations in the north of England, becoming most closely associated with Lindisfarne (where he was prior and later bishop) and Inner Farne (where he spent most of his later life as a hermit until his death on 20th March 687). The Gospel Book that takes his name is of obvious codicological importance: it dates from the late seventh century and is the earliest intact European book in existence, ‘the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out’, with the original binding enclosing the text of St. John’s Gospel, likewise unaltered since it was produced.
Yet also, just as in the medieval period, it is the association with St. Cuthbert that lends this book its particular fascination. It was placed in Cuthbert’s tomb at Lindisfarne when it was first opened in 698, and remained alongside the body of the saint until the tomb was opened again at Durham Cathedral Priory in 1104, an event witnessed by the chronicler Symeon of Durham. The book was found, according to a thirteenth-century inscription in the book, ‘near the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb’.
The tomb had been moved out of Lindisfarne in the eighth century, and the body and book together were carried by the community of monks around northern England, then to Chester-le-Street and eventually to Durham. The wanderings of the Gospel Book continued after the destruction of the tomb in the sixteenth century: it was donated to the English Jesuit community at Liège in the eighteenth century, was briefly misplaced while on loan to the Society of Antiquaries in the early nineteenth century, and has eventually come to rest at the British Library (where its new classmark – Add. MS 89000 – scarcely hints at the book’s importance).
When Cuthbert’s tomb was first opened in 698, it was found that ‘the skin had not decayed nor grown old, nor the sinews become dry…but the limbs lay at rest with all the appearance of life’. The incorruptability of a body was crucial evidence in the canonization process, and (whether accurate or not) such accounts are repeated over and again in medieval hagiographies. Holy books, too, were imbued with similar properties of indestructability: according to Symeon, the Lindisfarne Gospels (also at the British Library) were washed overboard during a voyage across the Irish Sea but were found miraculously unharmed on the shore. Few librarians nowadays would be willing to trust the safety of their collections to the intervention of a guardian saint!
“This Pectoral Cross was removed from the coffin of St Cuthbert on the last occasion that it was opened on Thursday 17th May 1827. Made of gold the stones are garnets. The cross was discovered deeply buried amongst the robes on the breast. A portion of the silk cord, twisted with gold, by which it had been suspended, was found upon the breast. A tradition, however, says the bones were not St Cuthbert’s these having been removed to safety in another part of the cathedral some time between 1542 and 1558. But the cross may well still have been his, placed with another body as a “ruse”.”
Apolytikion in the Third Tone:
WHILE still in thy youth thou didst lay aside all worldly care and didst take up the sweet yoke of Christ, O godly-minded Cuthbert, and thou wast shown forth in truth to be nobly radiant in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Wherefore, God established thee as a rule of faith and shepherd of His rational flock, O converser with Angels and intercessor for men.
Kontakion in the First Tone:
HAVING surpassed thy brethren in prayers, fasting, and vigils, thou wast found worthy to entertain a pilgrim-angel; and having shone forth with humility as a bright lamp set on high, thou didst receive the gift of wonderworking. And now as thou dwellest in the heavenly Kingdom, O our righteous Father Cuthbert, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.