Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: The Remarkable Life of a Mediaeval Best-seller

By Katharine Tiernan

Any visitor to the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in Durham will be drawn to the tomb of Cuthbert, the great saint of the north in whose honour the cathedral was built. His shrine is in the most sacred place in the cathedral, immediately behind the high altar. Originally hung with an ornate canopy, his tomb is now covered with a simple block of stone with his name, Cuthbertus, inscribed upon it. 

The visitor may ask, who was this Cuthbert? How did a seventh-century monk from a remote corner of Northumberland come to be at the heart of one of the most powerful and influential cults in mediaeval England?

Title Page - Bede's Life of St Cuthbert

Part of the answer to these questions lies at the other end of the cathedral, in the Lady Chapel. In these more secluded surroundings our visitor can find another tomb, that of the Venerable Bede. Bede was thirty-nine years Cuthbert’s junior, and the two men never met. But without Bede, Cuthbert might be nothing more than a vague legend, like many other saints of the period, and the great cathedral at Durham might never have been built.

The story begins with a young Anglo-Saxon warrior, who at the age of seventeen took the decision to enter a monastery. Cuthbert’s monastery was close to the old Roman settlement of Trimontium, now Melrose in the Scottish Borders. At that time it was part of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The year was 651, and the Christian faith had only recently arrived in the kingdom.

Cuthbert spent the rest of his life as a monk, but not in seclusion. He was an evangelist for the new religion and was also involved in the bitter power struggle which was to take place between the original Celtic Christianity of Northumbria and the nascent power of the Roman Church. In the latter part of his life he became a hermit on Inner Farne for eight years, bearing witness to the austere values of the Celtic tradition. While he was there, his fame as a wise man and miracle worker started to spread. As the Roman Church under his contemporary, Bishop Wilfrid, grew in wealth and power to rival the state, Cuthbert embodied the alternative values of the Northumbrian Church. When Wilfrid eventually fell from power, the King himself sailed to Inner Farne to implore Cuthbert to return to lead the Church as Bishop of Lindisfarne, which he eventually agreed to do. He went from the solitude and contemplation of a hermit’s life to the busiest job in the Church.

Cuthbert was already regarded as a saint by the time he died in 687. But the final proof of his sainthood was discovered eleven years after his death. The Lindisfarne monks wished to move his relics into the church for veneration, and opened his coffin, expecting to find a skeleton. Instead, they found his body incorrupt, the grave clothes fresh.

This was sensational proof of Cuthbert’s sanctity. Lindisfarne was to become a major pilgrimage centre and the monks decided a record of his life and miracles was needed. A Life was compiled by one of the monks of Lindisfarne, now known as the Anonymous Life. It must have been widely copied and circulated, and a copy reached Bede, a monk in St Peter’s monastery at Monkwearmouth.  He clearly felt a strong affinity with the saint’s story. In 716, when Bede was in his early forties and already a distinguished scholar, he composed a version of the Life in Latin verse.  Impressed, the Lindisfarne brothers begged Bede to write a new and more comprehensive prose life of the saint. He undertook the task with his customary scholarly rigour.  In his Preface to the Life Bede tells us that he ‘has passed on nothing to be transcribed for general reading that has not been obtained by rigorous examination of trustworthy witnesses’. Of particular importance was a monk named Herefrith, who was with Cuthbert when he died. Bede quotes verbatim Herefrith’s account of the days leading up to Cuthbert’s death, and the death itself.

19thC Image of St Bede

The new Life was a great success. It is not difficult to see why. Although it is in some ways a conventional hagiography designed to give proofs of Cuthbert’s sainthood, it is also full of human interest and lively description. Bede loves a good story. He gives us a clear idea of Cuthbert’s character, and some of the miracles described are endearingly mundane – when the brothers forget to bring over a suitable plank to construct his latrine on Inner Farne, God obligingly arranges for a suitable piece of wood to be washed up on the shore.

Some of the stories have become iconic, for example the tale of St Cuthbert and the otters, reported by one of the monks. He saw the saint leave the monastery where he was staying late at night and followed him, curious. He saw Cuthbert go down to the sea where he remained all night in prayer, standing in the icy waters. When he left the sea at dawn, two sea otters followed the saint out of the water and dried his feet with their fur. The watching monk was overcome with guilt at having spied on the saint and fell at his feet to beg forgiveness.

Cuthbert Praying in the Sea

Bede completed his Life of Cuthbert in 721. He went on to include an abridged version in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published ten years later. Bede’s monastery, St Paul’s, was one of two Benedictine monasteries at Monkwearmouth established in the Roman tradition. It was a thriving centre of scholarship and culture with a busy scriptorium. It was here that the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin bible, was produced as a gift for the Pope. We can be sure that once completed, the Life of Cuthbert would have been copied many times and circulated to churches and monasteries in the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as well as Northumbria and further afield in Frankia and Italy. It was a true mediaeval best-seller.

This wide distribution was essential to the survival of the work. A hundred and fifty years later the Viking invasions destroyed the monastic culture of Northumbria. The monks and nuns were an easy target for pagan raiders who had no compunction in looting the monasteries and enslaving their inhabitants. The written word had no value for the Vikings. The monastic libraries with all their books, deeds and records were destroyed; St Paul’s at Monkwearmouth became a roofless ruin. In 875, with the Danes now in command of York and heading northwards, the monks took the coffin containing the incorrupt body of the saint, together with the illuminated Gospels created in his honour, and left Lindisfarne.

 Seven years later, in 882, they established a new monastery at Chester-le-Street after the miraculous intervention of the saint enabled them to make terms with Guthred, the Danish king of York. The cult of St Cuthbert, together with its lands and possessions, survived. It continued to attract pilgrims, not least from the royal house of Wessex.  We are not told whether a copy of Bede’s Life had been popped into the coffin alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, but certainly copies would have still existed elsewhere in parts of the country which had escaped the brunt of the Danish invasions.

Chester-le-Street was the only surviving monastery in the north of England for close on a hundred years. Although the Community diligently preserved the Lindisfarne traditions associated with the cult, monastic discipline started to slip. Monks married and had families, and the senior positions in the Community became hereditary, with each family holding a portion of the lands owned by St Cuthbert. The monastic reform movement of the tenth century which sought to end such practices was confined to the southern half of England, which enjoyed more stability than the north. For the Community the main aim was survival.

By the end of the tenth century, renewed threat from Danish armies led the Community to move again, this time to a promontory above the River Wear. Uninhabited at the time, it was cleared with the loyal help of the local population and the saint’s new shrine was established at Durham. It proved to be an excellent choice and highly defensible.

Cuthbert Welcoming Visitors

However, 1066 saw the arrival of a new and different threat to the Community: the Normans. The threat this time was less physical – the Normans were, after all, Christians – but ideological. The Normans regarded Anglo-Saxon culture, including their saints, as backward and inferior.  As the Normans started to take over the English Church, they often replaced Saxon saints with their own continental saints. Although St Cuthbert’s incorrupt body gave him claim to special status, King William was not convinced. On a visit to Durham he demanded that the Community open the coffin before him and threatened to kill all the senior clergy if it proved to be a fake. However, during a mass for All Saints’ Day, which was to be followed by the opening of the coffin, the King was visited by a terrible heat and fever. He leapt up, called for his horse and galloped out of the city. He was never to return to Durham. The Community was reprieved – for the time being.

Sometime after this incident King William appointed a Norman to the bishopric at Durham. The man was Walcher, a cleric who had been a canon at Liege, one of the great centres of learning in mid-eleventh century Europe. What view would he take of Cuthbert’s claims to sainthood? Walcher was an educated man with access to monastic libraries. Before he came to Durham he read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and his Life of Cuthbert.  They convinced him of the exceptional status of the saint and in turn, he convinced the King of the importance of the cult. Its future was secured – thanks to Bede.

There were to be changes, though. Having read Bede, Walcher knew that Cuthbert had been a celibate monk and that the original guardians of the shrine had been celibate monks also. Walcher’s plan was to oust the married canons and found a Benedictine monastery at Durham whose monks would be the new guardians of the saint.

Astonishingly, Bede was to play a role here too. A few years earlier, the prior of Winchcombe Abbey, a Saxon man named Aldwin, had acquired copies of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the Ecclesiastical History for the monastic library. They had an electrifying effect on him. The chronicler Simeon of Durham records:

He understood from the History of the Angles that the province of the Northumbrians had previously been peopled with numerous bands of monks, and many troops of saints … .these places, that is, the sites of these monasteries, he earnestly desired to visit, although he well knew that they were reduced to ruins, and he wished, in imitation of such persons, to lead a life of poverty.

Aldwin travelled north and with two companions set up camp in the ruins of St Paul’s Monastery. His single-handed revival of northern monasticism caught on, and others came to join him. By the time Walcher was planning to establish a monastery at Durham, there were local monks ready to help him.

Before Walcher could realise his plans he was murdered in a feud with the local Northumbrian nobility. The bishopric went to another Norman cleric, William St Calais. The new bishop energetically followed through on Walcher’s plans. Not only did he successfully found the new monastery, he went on to initiate the construction of a new cathedral in St Cuthbert’s honour to replace the existing Saxon church. The magnificent cathedral and the shrine of St Cuthbert would become the leading pilgrimage destination in the country. Bede’s Life of Cuthbert gained new popularity with lavishly illustrated versions appearing. The best-seller was back – and the fame of the saint it chronicled. 

Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, trans. Bertram Colgrave Christ the King Library
The Age of Bede, trans. J.F. Webb, ed. D.H Farmer Penguin Classics
Simeon’s History of the Church of Durham Llanerch


Katharine Tiernan is a writer, teacher and passionate nature-lover. She grew up close to the dramatic coastline of North Northumberland and continues to draw inspiration from its history and landscape. She is currently working on a series of historical novels based on the legacy of St Cuthbert and his Community. Her first novel Place of Repose: A Tale of St Cuthbert’s Last Journey was published by Ningaui Press in 2013. Following its publication Katharine went on to hone her writing skills with an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) at Newcastle University.

Her latest novel, Cuthbert of Farne: A novel of Northumbria’s warrior saint, published by Sacristy Press, traces Cuthbert’s life and spiritual journey against the background of his turbulent times.
Katharine lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with a view from her writing desk across the Tweed estuary to Lindisfarne.

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  1. Thank you so much for this. Very interesting. I've met a few people who walked St Cuthbert's Way and now I want to!

  2. Thanks Jo. Definitely give St Cuthbert's Way a go, a great walk with some special moments. Mary Low's guide, 'St Cuthbert's Way: a pilgrim's companion' is recommended reading!

  3. Excellent. Cuthbert's story is part of Britain's. And where would we be without dear old Bede?!


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