St Cuthbert the Wonder-worker

St Cuthbert's Pectoral Cross

The Life of St Cuthbert

Cuthbert was born in 635 near Melrose in Scotland of humble parentage. As a boy, he tended sheep on the hills in that area. In the year 651, while watching his sheep, he saw a vision. St Bede in his Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne describes what Cuthbert observed thus:

"On a sudden he saw a long stream of light break through the darkness of the night, and in the midst of it a company of the heavenly host descended to the earth, and having received among them a spirit of surpassing brightness, returned without delay to their heavenly home."

Next morning, he found that St Aidan - founder of the Priory of Lindisfarne and a man of great holiness - had died at the very moment of his vision. At this point, so St Bede claims, Cuthbert gave up being a shepherd and decided to enter the Celtic monastery of Melrose in order to train as a monk. There he soon became known for his piety and learning. In due course, he went to Ripon to help found the monastery there. Expelled when he refused to accept the Roman monastic traditions urged upon him, Cuthbert returned to Melrose where he was appointed Prior in 661.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby decided in favour of the Roman monastic traditions. Cuthbert accepted that decision. He was then appointed Prior of the great monastery of Lindisfarne, in order that he might introduce the monastic changes to that house. The fact that he himself had been trained in the Celtic tradition and was now conforming to the new order helped him to persuade the monks at Lindisfarne to accept the change themselves. Cuthbert remained Prior a Lindisfarne until 676, when he retired to the nearby island of Inner Farne in order to live the life of a hermit.

Here Cuthbert spent his time in prayer and contemplation having only the seals and sea birds for company. However, he reluctantly agreed to accept appointment as Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. Despite this reluctance, he threw himself energetically into his new role travelling widely and converting people to the Christian faith. Two years later, though, he retired from the post of Bishop and returned to his island hermitage where he died in 687. Cuthbert's body was carried back to Lindisfarne and buried there, in accordance with his wishes.

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The Legend of St Cuthbert

In 698, Cuthbert's tomb was reopened and it was discovered that his body had not corrupted in any way. He was then reburied, this time in an oak coffin covered with simple, but beautiful carvings. The remains of this coffin can be seen in the Cathedral museum. Almost immediately, his tomb was associated with miracles. Indeed, these were so numerous that Cuthbert became known as the Wonder-worker of England. As a result of these miraculous occurrences, he was canonised.

During the Viking raids of 875, the monks of Lindisfarne fled for safety. St Cuthbert had ordered that, if the monks ever left Lindisfarne, they should take his remains with them. Obedient to this instruction, they carried away his body, together the monastery's other great treasures such as the head of St Oswald and the Lindisfarne Gospels. For seven years the monks wandered around the North of England and Southern Scotland. Then, in 883, Cuthbert's body was laid to rest in a church at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. However, just over a century later, owing to fears of fresh Viking raids, his body was removed to Ripon where it remained for a few months. Then, whilst being carried back to Chester-le-Street, another miracle occurred. During a rest at Durham, tradition says that Cuthbert appeared in a vision to the monks charged with carrying his body. He indicated to them that he wished his final resting place to be at Dunholme - the location of which they discovered by overhearing a milkmaid say that it was the place where her lost cow had strayed.

This site - Durham Peninsula - also had the benefits of being both easily defended and having ample supplies of fresh water. So, here St Cuthbert's remains were finally laid to rest, first in a rough wooden chapel, then in a fine Saxon stone church. The church, which was called the White Church, was dedicated in 998. However, in 1093 the Norman conquerors began to dismantle the White Church and to replace it with the present magnificent Cathedral. Cuthbert's remains, together with the head of the warrior king St Oswald, were placed in a specially built shrine in the new Cathedral in 1104. At this time - when Cuthbert had been dead for over 400 years - his coffin was opened again, and his body was found to be still uncorrupted.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Durham was one of the most important pilgrimage centres in England, and Cuthbert its most famous saint. In 1540, during the Reformation, King Henry VIII sent commissioners to destroy Cuthbert's shrine. A later account of what then happened, states:

"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."

The monks were allowed to bury him in the ground under the dismantled shrine. This tomb was reopened in 1827, at which time a skeleton, together with another adult skull - presumably that of St Oswald - was found. The skeleton was swathed in beautiful but decayed robes and was wearing a gold pectoral cross inlaid with garnets. A photograph of the pectoral cross which is in the Cathedral museum can be seen above. The designs of these items matched the descriptions of those found in 1104. However, some have argued that the real body of St Cuthbert had been secretly removed by Benedictine monks during the Reformation and buried elsewhere. St Cuthbert's feast day is 20th March.

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