It is said that St Cuthbert was the most revered saint in northern Europe before Thomas Becket was killed by the four knights in Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December in 1170. Cuthbert must have been a remarkable man for no other reason than Britain’s greatest treasure (in my opinion!) was written for ‘God, St Cuthbert and all the saints of the island’. This was, of course, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and they were written and decorated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, before 720. St Cuthbert was buried with great pomp according to the custom, and in his coffin were placed not only the St Cuthbert Gospel, but also a small portable altar and his pectoral cross above right. This delicate little jewel was made of gold and garnets, and is in remarkably good condition.
Viking attacks made the monks move from Lindisfarne, and they took the Lindisfarne Gospels with other books and St Cuthbert’s coffin with them. The White Church at Durham was put up by the successors of those monks when it is said that St Cuthbert’s coffin stuck and refused to move any further. This church was replaced by the Norman Romanesque building, started in 1093. Amazingly that building took only 40 years to complete. This was because much of the work was done off site. The magnificently decorated huge stone columns had their patterns cut into them away from the church building, and they were assembled in the cathedral, each pattern fitting neatly in to the one above. This is explained here. The best view of the cathedral must surely be from the railway, and it is a wonderful sight as the train slows down into the station to view the cathedral on its high hill opposite.
St Cuthbert’s Shrine itself is very plain and simple now, with a greenish stone slab and at floor level. A description of it as it was indicates that previously it was made of gilded marble. There were four spaces at the base where pilgrims could kneel to venerate the saint. The shrine was covered by a precious cloth (see below for a board painted according to a description of this cloth; this board now hangs over the tomb) and on special days this cloth would have been lifted so the coffin itself could be seen in all its glory.
It was not only his many miracles that mean that St Cuthbert was so revered. The story goes that when his coffin was elevated to the altar and it was opened, St Cuthbert’s hair had grown, there was flesh on his body and his joints were still flexible.
In fact, this continued right up until the Reformation when Henry VIII’s commissioners in around 1539 came to smash faces on tombs and strip the church of its treasure. An eye witness gives this account: Dr Ley, Dr Henley and Mr Blythman brought with them a goldsmith who, when he had taken off the gold and silver and precious stones, climbed up to a chest strongly bound in iron. The goldsmith took a hammer and smashed open the chest. St Cuthbert was ‘lying whole with his face bare and his beard as if it had a fortnight’s growth’. In smashing the shrine the goldsmith said that he had broken one of the saint’s legs. He was told to throw the bones down, but replied that this was impossible because they were still joined.
St Cuthbert is not the only saint here. Bede, often known as the Venerable Bede, is regarded by many as the father of English history. He was born in around 672–3, and lived and worked around Monkwearmouth (now Sunderland) and Jarrow. He entered the monastery at Monkwearmouth when he was seven, and was taught by Benedict Biscop, and later by Ceolfrith, the Abbot of the twin foundation. Bede wrote over 60 books, including a little of his own life contained in a chapter at the end of his Historia Ecclesiastica, (a history of the church in England).
We do still have a book that is said to have been owned by Bede. This is a sixth-century Greek and Latin manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s called the Codex Laudianus and is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Latin is on the left and Greek on the right. It is written in Uncials, similar to the St Cuthbert Gospel, but these letter-forms are not as fine.
Bede died on Ascension Day in 735 and was buried at Jarrow. It is likely that Bede’s remains were transferred to Durham in the eleventh century. His tomb was looted in 1541, but it is thought that the contents were probably interred in the Galilee chapel at Durham where his tomb now stands.