Saint Cuthbert was a clergyman in the English region of Northumbria who was active in the 7th century. He was a supporter of the Synod of Whitby (c. 663/664), which chose the Roman church traditions over local Celtic Christian customs, and he became the Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. His time as bishop was relatively short, and he died in 687. Yet, even in death, his legend and reputation were in no way finished growing.
Cuthbert was already considered a miracle-worker in life and his tomb at Lindisfarne quickly gained a reputation as a hotspot of miraculous power. His good deeds and list of reported miracles (which continued to increase after his death) speedily made Saint Cuthbert one of the most venerated saints from Britain. The location of Cuthbert’s tomb in Lindisfarne, however, would come under great danger just over a century after the saint’s death. In 793, Lindisfarne was sacked during one of the earliest Viking raids against England. Alcuin, writing to King Athelred of Northumbria that very year, expressed the shock experienced by the locals upon hearing the news: “Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert spattered with the blood of the priests of God, despoiled of its ornaments; a place more venerable than all in Britain is given as prey to pagan peoples” (Alcuin’s Letter to King Athelred, c. 793, ed. D. Whitelock, 1955).
Although Lindisfarne had been attacked and pillaged, the remains of St. Cuthbert were apparently undamaged, and the bishopric continued to function and see to the spiritual needs of the locals. Yet, unbeknownst to the bishop and clergymen of Lindisfarne, Northumbria had its worst days yet to come. The Viking raids became much worse in the next century, and by the 850s the Scandinavian raiders, for the first time, began staying in Britain during the winters instead of sailing home. England’s worst nightmare came true when a ‘Great Heathen Army’ of Vikings arrived in 866, and this mighty force defeated the kings of Northumbria by 867. Over the next several years the Viking forces traveled through various kingdoms in England, battling and conquering large swaths of locals. Yet, only around 875 and 876 did it become apparent that the Vikings were not just present in England to simply conquer and plunder, but also to personally settle the land. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 876 claimed: “That year, Halfdan divided up the land of Northumbria; the raiders became tillers of the land as well” (ASC 876). It was around that time when Bishop Eardulf and the clergymen of Lindisfarne packed up their things—among which was St. Cuthbert’s body—and decided to wander through safer regions of England until they could find a more secure headquarters for their bishopric.
St. Cuthbert’s remains had quite the journey, and it would be over a century before the late saint was once more laid to rest in a permanent region. As the story goes, Bishop Eardulf wandered with the saintly remains for around seven years, venturing through areas such as Cumberland and Galloway, until the former Bishop of Lindisfarne set up a temporary headquarters at Chester-le-Street around 883. With the exception of a short trip to Ripon, the body of St. Cuthbert stayed in Chester-le-Street for the remainder of the 9th century and most of the 10th century. In 995, however, the clergymen in charge of the body of St. Cuthbert were suddenly stuck with inspiration on where to place their holy cargo—Durham. Over the course of several years, a new shrine was built for St. Cuthbert, and it was finally completed around 999. Except for a short trip back to Lindisfarne in the time of William the Conqueror, the remains of St. Cuthbert have been housed in Durham since the end of the 10th century. His tomb and remains are currently at Durham Cathedral, although some conspiracy theorists are convinced that monks hid the holy body of St. Cuthbert during the reign of King Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547), and replaced it with a random cadaver.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Scene of St. Cuthbert performing a healing miracle from BL YT 26, ff. 53v-54, [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).
- Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.