Cuthbert & His Bones


The wanderer in search of Anglo-Saxon remains will find themselves, sooner or later, drawn to the county of Durham by the attraction of that pleasant old historian Bede, who wrote his famous books at Jarrow, on the Durham side of the Tyne, and died there in the year 735 A.D., which shall be related to in the next chapter. One of these books deals with life of Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who, after his death in 687 A.D., became a sort of patron saint of Durham Cathedral, where you may still see his tomb; and the story of this extraordinary man, and of the subsequent adventures of his bones, is one which deserves to be remembered.

Cuthbert was born in the wild country north of the Tweed, some seventy years or so after the death of Ida, the first King of the region, and while still a child showed a marked tendency to wander about alone or to sit by himself in silence, thus indicating that he was destined for the monastic life which, strange to say, made such a wide appeal to the early English.

One day when he was sitting at the roadside nursing his knee which had become swollen owing to a sprain, a traveller who chanced to ride by advised him to put a bread poultice on it; and the boy having done so, and having thus obtained relief, came to believe that the traveller had been an archangel, and that he himself was under the special care of heaven.

Later on he wandered southwards, and once while he was tending a flock of sheep on the north bank of the Tyne, near its mouth, where now stands North Shields, he happened to see five vessels, aboard which were several monks, fighting against a westerly gale to reach the opposite shore (at South Shields) where their monastery was situated; whereupon he at once went down on his knees, in spite of the jeers of a crowd of pagan villagers, and prayed that the wind might drop. This it did, the monks coming safely to shore; and again Cuthbert perceived that he had been concerned in a miraculous occurrence.

Shortly after this, he set out northwards to ride to Melrose, in the Lowlands, where there was a monastic settlement; but while resting, very hungry, in a deserted hut, he discovered a parcel containing meat and bread, apparently hidden by some other user of the shelter, and believing that this was a gift personally made to him by an angel, he thankfully ate the meat and gave half the bread to his horse.

Having arrived at Melrose, he was at once enrolled as a monk, and was allotted the task of receiving strangers. Here, one morning, there came a traveller who asked for breakfast, but hurried on his way again before Cuthbert had finished feeding him, leaving behind him, however, by the way of gratuity, three of his own loaves of white bread. When the young monk found these loaves on the table, and the stranger gone, he sampled one of them, and, declaring that it surpassed the lily in whiteness, the rose in smell, and honey in taste, perceived that yet another angel had paid him a visit, and that the loaves were the food of Paradise.

Once while staying near the sea at Coldingham, he was seen by his fellow monks to go down at night to the beach, and to spend many hours in the water, which, in itself, was astonishing enough; but their amazement may be imagined when in the grey dawn they saw two otters approach him from a neighbouring stream and rub themselves against his feet, while Cuthbert, who could always do anything he liked with animals, talked to them and gave them his blessing. The monks, it is said, nearly died of fright.

At length, after spending many years at Melrose, he went to the monastery of Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast; but, later, desiring to live the life of a hermit, he established himself in absolute solitude on Farne Island, some miles/kms to the south but in sight of Lindisfarne. Here he built himself a hut of stones and turf, and therein lived so godly a life that for months at a time he did not wash, nor even remove his leathern gaiters.

This island, which lies nearly two miles/3.2km out to sea from Bamburgh Castle, is one of nearly thirty little isles grouped close together, and contains a few acres/ha of ground partly covered with grass, and surrounded by basaltic rocks, which rise on the west side to a height of some eighty feet/29m, but on the east side slope down to the water. It was on this latter side that the hermit meds his habitation, and here he lived from 675 to 685 A.D.

He sowed a little patch of barley on this island from which the sparrows kept their distance at his special request; and he built a shelter on the beach wherein the monks who visited him might take cover from rain and storm. Once he caught some crows picking straw from the roof of this shelter; but having admonished them, he very kindly allowed them to build their nests nearby, and not only were they seen to ask his pardon in a most pitiable manner, but never again did they steal his straw. Indeed, two of them brought him a lump of hog`s lard as a peace-offering, and with this Cuthbert was wont for a long time to clean his visitor`s shoes. Even the sea obeyed him, for one day, when he was in need of a beam of wood for a hut he was constructing, the waves brought him one of just the necessary size, and deposited it at low tide close to the spot where it was required.

At last King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, impressed by Cuthbert`s unconsciousness miracles, came personally to the island, and, after many entreaties, persuaded him to accept the bishopric of Lindisfarne, although the austerities which he had practiced had now made a hopeless consumptive of him at the age of not much more than 50 years. shortly afterwards, however, in May, 685 A.D., this monarch made an expedition into Scotland, and was ambushed and killed at Dunnichen near Forfar; and Cuthbert`s miraculous powers were once more displayed by the fact that just at the hour of disaster, while the good bishop was in Carlisle and was admiring an old fountain erected by the Romans, he suddenly muttered some words which afterwards were interpreted as having foretold the King`s death.

Thereafter, in January, 687 A.D., Cuthbert returned to cough his life away in the bitter cold of his little, storm-swept island; and there one spring morning, after a gale had cut off the island for five days, he was found dying on the beach, having been too weak to move or to take any sustenance for several days, with the exception of an occasional nibble at an onion. The news of his death, which occurred on 20th March, 687 A.D., was signalled to Lindsfarne by the waving of two torches; and presently the monks came chanting and lamenting to fetch his body, which they buried with much pomp in a stone coffin under the pavement of their church at Lindsfarne.

Here the body rested until 698 A.D., when it was dug up, and, being found to be well preserved, was clothed in rich robes and placed in a wooden coffin decorated with religious figures. Some two centuries later the Danish menace caused the monks of Lindisfarne to leave their island, and, before going, they opened the saint`s coffin, placed inside it the decapitated head of St. Oswald, the King of Northumbria slain in 642 A.D., which was another of their holy relics, and also a few other revered bones, and thus carried their whole sacred collection away with them.

Having travelled across England to Workington on the Cumberland coast, they placed the coffin on a vessel with the idea of conveying it to Ireland, but a storm drove them to the Scotch side of the Solway Firth, where the coffin was safely landed. A fine copy of the gospels, however, had fallen into the sea during the gale, but this was fortunately washed up later on the sands at Whithern in Galloway, and is now safe in the British Museum.

Wandering on, the monks came at length to Chester-le-Street, six miles/3.7km north of Durham, and here new robes of silk were placed about the bones, while a rich stole bearing the name of Queen Aelfled, second wife of Edward the Elder, and that of Bishop Frithstan of Winchester, was added to the collection about 915 A.D. The coffin remained here till 995 A.D., after which it was taken for a while to Ripon; but in the same year, while in the sparsely inhabited neighbourhood of the later Durham, it suddenly became so heavy that the monks, weary of their search for a suitable place to settle, were led to believe that here was the spot the saint had chosen for his final resting-place.

A wooden church was therefore built to receive it on the headland of rock in the loop of the River Wear, where now stands Durham Cathedral, and in 998 A.D., a larger building of stone was erected. This was swept away when the present edifice was constructed in 1092 A.D., and nothing now remains of it; but Cuthbert`s coffin, in which the bones had been robed in new silks in 1104 A.D., was placed in a tomb behind the high altar of the cathedral, and though the shrine erected over it was destroyed at the Reformation you may still see in the surrounding flagstones the marks made by the knees of countless pilgrims who knelt there in prayer.

In 1827 the coffin was opened, and the bones of the saint were found to be closely wrapped in these robes of silk, while the Winchester stole lay amidst them, wonderfully preserved. Cuthbert`s own cross, made of gold and set with stones, and a little portable altar of wood and silver were found in the coffin, and also the ivory comb he had used. The skull of St. Oswald was there, too, and the great gash in it which had killed him was clearly to be seen.

The bones and the skull were buried again in the saint`s tomb, but in 1899 they were once more inspected, and it was then observed that Cuthbert`s breast-bone showed clear signs of tuberculosis. It was seen, too, that there was a mark upon one of the bones, which was able to be identified as that caused by a bad abscess; and it was recalled that Cuthbert, according to Bede, had suffered from just such an abscess which was said to have bitten to the very bone.

Today you may examine and  marvel at the vestments and objects taken from the coffin, and also the fragments of the coffin itself, in the library of Durham Cathedral; but if you would fully appreciate them and the drama of Cuthbert`s life you must go to Bamburgh Castle, possibly on a wild winter`s day, and look across the tossing waves to the little island drenched with spray where he spent so many years and where in the end he died.