Celts to the Creche: Day 6
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
c634-March 20, 687 AD
On this 6th day of our Advent journey with the Celts to the Creche, we join St. Cuthbert on this pilgrimage. Cuthbert was a 7th c. Bishop of Lindisfarne who is the patron saint of Northern England. He was known for his gentle strength, wisdom, skillful speaking, prayerful life, and devotion to Christ.
Early Life: Cuthbert grew up in southern Scotland, near Melrose Abbey. It is said that on the night that St. Aidan (day 1 of Celts to the Creche) of Lindisfarne died, that he saw a vision of Aidan’s body being carried to heaven which led him to sense a call to become a monk.
His calling: Soon after that vision, Cuthbert became a monk and entered Melrose Abbey under the direction of its prior Boisil whom Cuthbert admired.1 In the late 650’s, he and his Abbot Eata transferred to Ripon Abbey and they then returned to Melrose where Boisil died of the plague about 664. About 665-700 Cuthbert went to Lindisfarne as abbot.
After the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, Cuthbert helped transition Lindisfarne from the Celtic to the Roman way. While serving as Abbot, he would often sense the need for solitude to renew his spirit and would take a little boat several miles away to one of the isolated Farne islands. It is interesting that he would not visit with anyone who came to see him while there.
He might open the window to speak with someone who showed up, but when the Abbess of Whitby, Ælfflæda (who was the second abbess of Whitby and succeeded Abbess Hilda) wanted to meet with Cuthbert, he left his little cell and met her at the Isle of Coquet.
Bishop of Lindisfarne: Cuthbert retired in 676 to permanently live on the Isle of Farne as a hermit.
He was called (begged!) out of retirement by King Ecgfrith and a band of other leaders to become the Bishop of Lindisfarne. He reluctantly accepted this call and was ordained by Archbishop Theodore and six bishops at York on Easter Sunday, March 26, 685, but less than two years later at Christmas he decided he had enough of a good time and moved back to his little hermitage on the Inner Farne.
Place of Resurrection: Cuthbert predicted his own death and he died on the Inner Farne on March 20, 687. He was buried at Lindisfarne, but to protect his remains from the Viking onslaught to the area in the mid-800’s, his sarcophagus was carried by the monks of Lindisfarne throughout Northumbria.
His body rested at the church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street for a long while, but Cuthbert’s final resting place was Durham Cathedral, where his body still remains. His burial is intriguing. It is said that when his sarcophagus was opened eleven years after he died that his body was incorrupt. He looked like he was asleep and his limbs were still flexible. His vestments still looked new.
In 1104, Cuthbert’s tomb was opened once again and a small book of the Gospel of John, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches, now known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel, was incredibly found! Even the original goat leather Celtic design red bookbinding was still intact.
Formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, it was purchased in April 2012 by the British Library for $14.3 million (9 million British Pounds).2 It is available to view online through the British Library’s website.
Also found in his casket was a set of early 10th century vestments placed by King Æthlestan while on a pilgrimage to Cuthbert’s shrine at Chester-le-Street. These vestments were made of Byzantine silk with a stole decorated with Anglo-Saxon embroidery. Also, in his coffin, a stunning gold, garnet, and shell pectoral cross was found on his body. In addition, Cuthbert’s personal portable altar table covered in silver was discovered in his coffin. It is recorded that also a comb, scissors, and a chalice made of onyx with a gold lion was in the coffin.
Cuthbert’s very simple wooden coffin carved with primitive looking angels along with some of the coffin relics can be viewed in the Open Treasures area of Durham Cathedral. It is recorded that at the Dissolution of the Monasteries that Durham Priory was dissolved about 1539/1540 and the gold, silver, and gemstone shrine of Cuthbert in the Cathedral was torn asunder by a goldsmith and others sent by Henry VIII. One cannot help but wonder if Cuthbert was relieved that his ostentatious shrine was now more fitting for him.
We know of St. Cuthbert through The Venerable Bede’s Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne written in verse after 705 which he later revised and a prose life between 710 and 720AD.3 Bede’s works on Cuthbert were likely composed based upon an original Life of Cuthbert by an anonymous monk at Lindisfarne that Abbot Eadfrith commissioned in honor of Cuthbert’s life. 4
Lindisfarne Gospels: The Lindisfarne Gospels were likely produced in honor of St. Cuthbert by a monk named Eadfrith, who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 and died in 721. Eadrith designed, illuminated, and penned the Lindisfarne Gospels. Current scholarship indicates a date around 715-721 for the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. However, some think that Eadfrith produced them prior to 698, in order to commemorate the elevation of Cuthbert’s relics in that year.
The original Lindisfarne Gospels are housed in the British Library as one of their most treasured pieces. The Lindisfarne Gospels are available online from the British Library. The pages of this remarkable book can be viewed page by page.
Still popular in the 20th and 21st Centuries: In 1987, on the anniversary of Cuthbert’s Resurrection Day in 687 the magnificent early 8th century Anglo-Saxon illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels was displayed in Durham Cathedral. This sacred gospel book was most poignantly laid upon Cuthbert’s shrine for a short while.5
In 2013, Durham Cathedral once again hosted the Lindisfarne Gospels on loan from the British Library and of course the much loved St. Cuthbert was at the forefront of these festivities.
St. Cuthbert’s Way, a beautiful 62 mile hike from Melrose Abbey in Southern Scotland to Lindisfarne Island is a popular walking path through the hilly terrain of the Scottish borders.
Pilgrims from all over the world flock to Durham Cathedral, Lindisfarne, and Melrose Abbey to be in the presence of the places of St. Cuthbert, this gentle wise Celtic Bishop who still touches lives 1300 years later.
In June 2017, archaeologists digging on a rocky promontory on Lindisfarne discovered the ancient stone foundation likely resting on the original wooden foundation of either Aidan’s or Cuthbert’s church.
Feast Day March 20
Cuthbert might say to us this 6th day of of Celts to the Creche, in the midst of this overwhelmingly busy and sometimes crazy Advent season, seek some solitude. Perhaps find a sacred place that can be your personal “Isle of Farne.” Renew your spirit and remember why we are on a pilgrimage to the creche at Bethlehem.
Prayer: O Spirit of the Living God, remind me to rest, to find some sacred quiet in Your presence. Amen.
1 Blackwell Encyclopaedia, 131.
2 British Library Press. British Library Acquires the St. Cuthbert’s Gospel.
3 Bonner, 24.
4 Brown, Lindisfarne Gospels, 65.
5 Ibid, 139.
A Few Resources:
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Bonner, Stancliffe, and Rollason, David. St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to 1200. Woodbridge,UK: The Boydell Press, 1989.
Breay, Claire and Bernard Meehan, eds. The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John. British Library Publishing, 2015.
British Library. Turning the Pages. Lindisfarne Gospels.
Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
________. The Book and the Transformation of Britain, c.550-1050. London: British Library, 2011.
________. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
________. The Painted Labyrinth: the world of the Lindisfarne Gospels. rev. ed. London: British Library, 2004.
“Cuthbert” by Alan Thacker and “Lindisfarne” by John Blair in Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, and Scragg. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford:Blackwell, 1999.
Duckett, Eleanor. The Wandering Saints of the Early Middle Ages. London: The Catholic Book Club, 1959.
Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.
Foot, Sarah. Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c.600-900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.
Historic Scotland. Melrose Abbey online.
____________. Melrose Abbey, rev. ed. n.p., 2005.
Hume, Basil. Footprints of the Northern Saints. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1996, 2006 reprint.
Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.
Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.
Keys, David. Archaeologist’s Dig Reveals Ancient Lindisfarne Church. Church Times, July 7, 2017
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
Mayr-Harting. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, Pa.: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 3rd ed. 1991.
Mitton, Michael. The Soul of Celtic Spirituality in the Lives of Its Saints. Mystic, CT: Twenty Third Publications, 1996.
Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.
___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.
___________.Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.
Rollason, David. Early Medieval Europe 300-1050: The birth of western society. Edinburgh: Pearson, 2012.
Sadgrove, Michael. Durham Cathedral: The Shrine of St. Cuthbert. Norwich, UK: Durham Cathedral and Jarrold Publishing, 2005.
____________. A Pilgrim in Durham Cathedral. Norwich, UK: Jarrold Publishing, 2006.
Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.
Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.
The St. Cuthbert’s Gospel: Looking Pretty Good at 1, 300. NPR April 20, 2012.
Tristram, Kate. The Story of Holy Island: An illustrated history. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2009.
Weightman, M. Scott. Holy Island. UK: Claughton Photography. n.d.
Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.