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Melrose Historical Association - Bulletin No. 5

A Brief Life and History of St.Cuthbert

by John Butcher

These notes are taken from 'The Life and Death of St.Cuthbert ' by C.J. Stranks, published by S.P.C.K. in 1964. The main primary source of his commentary is Bede's ' Life of St Cuthbert'. Various other primary sources were consulted on the history of the body and relics of the saint. It is obvious that Stranks has deeply held belief in the miracles, visions, incorruptibility of the body and the potency of relics which in addition to a severely Christian life and works were the attributes of a saint. Other Christian commentators on the lives of saints are more cautious in their acceptance of these attributes as supernatural in nature. The editor uses the ancient name Mailros for the abbey sited at Old Melrose, of which no significant trace now remains.

photo: Gattonside.

Cuthbert, saint to be, was born in 643 into a highly placed Anglo-Saxon family, sheep-farming near Channelkirk at the head of Lauderdale Even in childhood he had a vision of a man on horseback who told him a cure for the his lameness. When eight years old Cuthbert was sent to live with foster-parents, and probably to attend bishop Aidan's school for gifted youths on Lindisfarne. On a visit to the River Tyne his prayers caused the wind to change so that a party of monks being swept to sea on rafts were returned to safety. The monks were probably engaged in salmon fishing. At the age of 15 Cuthbert was enlisted in king Oswald's army for the defence of Bamburgh Castle against a Mercian raid. His visions continued as did his duties as a shepherd. Tending flocks by night he saw a vision of angels ascending with a soul of great brightness. Next day he learned that Aidan, his mentor, had died. He resolved to become a monk and in 651 was received at Mailros by abbot Boisel. His asceticism in drink and food enhanced his reputation for holiness. Later he went with bishop Eata to Ripon to found the monastery there, where Cuthbert was the Guest Master.

In 660 Eata and his monks returned to Mailros in protest at the Roman practices imposed upon the convent at Ripon. An epidemic illness struck the convent of Mailros. Cuthbert recovered but his abbot, Boisel, died. Cuthbert was appointed prior of Mailros. He accepted the decisions of the Synod of Whitby of 664 though several fellow clerics did not and returned to Iona. As prior of Mailros he made prolonged missionary journeys. One of these was to the double monastery of Coldingham where Aebbe, sister of king Oswald, was abbess. On another occasion he was seen to spend the night in prayer immersed to the arm-pits in the sea. He may have sought the trance-like state induced by deep chilling, hypothermia, a dangerous practice.

In 669 Eata was made bishop of Lindisfarne and Cuthbert went with him as prior. Cuthbert continued his missionary journeys, preaching and performing miracles. With difficulty he persuaded many Celtic monks to submit to the Synod of Whitby. In 676 he retired to seek solitude on the Farne Islands.

In 684 Cuthbert was appointed bishop of Hexham. He accepted with great reluctance and immediately exchanged sees with Eata, bishop of Lindisfarne. As foretold by Boisel, abbot of Mailros, later Saint Boswell, Cuthbert was consecrated bishop of Lindisfarne at Easter of 685. He continued his evangelical activities and the miracles of wisdom and healing with the added burden of episcopal duties but after Christmas of the next year, 686, he resigned and retired to his hermitage on the Farne island, never to return alive to Lindisfarne.

On the 20th of March, 687, he died and was buried on Lindisfarne. Ten years later, in 698, monks moving the body found it still fresh and uncorrupt, a certain sign that Cuthbert was a saint. Continuing miracles were associated with his body.

In 793 the very first of 200 years of Viking raids destroyed the Lindisfarne monastery entirely except for the tomb of St. Cuthbert. In 875, under threat of these Viking raids, St. Cuthbert's body was removed from Lindisfarne to begin its travels around Northumbria. Halts were made at Mailros, at Durham, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Contrary to legend it did not journey to Ireland. In a respite from its travels his body rested for 110 years at Chester-le-Street. In 995 Danes again ravaged Northumbria and forced the monks tending his coffin to move it to Ripon. Only two months later they left Ripon and journeyed north.

East of Durham the cart carrying the saint's body stuck fast in the mud of the road. After three days of fasting and prayer St.Cuthbert revealed that he wished his shrine to be at Dunholme, a place unknown. Then it was learned that a great crag in a loop of the River Wear was the place of the dun cow, lost and found, Here at the east end St.Cuthbert was buried exactly where the dun cow had been found at rest, and here was built the present Durham Cathedral Pilgrims to the shrine attested miracles and each All Saint's Day the body was revealed, yet incorrupt.

In 1104, with the present Cathedral almost complete, monks inspecting the coffin found St.Cuthberts's body still entire and incorrupt, lying on its right side as if asleep. He was re-buried behind the high altar. The Chapel of the Nine Altars into which the Shrine of St.Cuthbert projects was built in 1235 and in 1372 the shrine was re-built with marble and gilt alabaster at the great cost then of 200.

The Dissolution of 1534 brought the Commissioners of Henry VIII to discover and dismantle the saint's mummified body which was then re-buried where the shrine had formerly stood. In 1827 the saint was again disturbed. Three coffins and a large collection of human bones were found. A skeleton with St.Cuthbert's cross upon its breast lay within a coffin held to be that in which St.Cuthbert's body had been carried from Lindisfarne almost a thousand years before. A new coffin was provided for his reburial on the same spot. In 1899 the grave was again opened when expert examination of the skeleton proved it to have been mummified and in all probability to be that of St.Cuthbert. The bones were replaced and the grave of the saint sealed as now with a great stone of blue marble inscribed CUTHBERTUS.

Next: Mailros Abbey, Old Melrose, and its historical setting