Celts to the Creche: Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne

Eadfrith’s illumination of the Gospel writer Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Photo from The British Library

Celts to the Creche: Day 7

Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne

-721 AD

On this 7th day of our journey towards Bethlehem with the Celts to the Creche, we ecounter Eadfrith  who was  Bishop of Lindisfarne in the Celtic tradition from 698-721.

The historian Symeon of Durham recorded that Eadfrith was a pious and worthy Bishop who was particularly fond of his predecessor St. Cuthbert  (see Celts to the Creche, day 6).

Bishop Eadfrith is best known as being the scribe and illuminator of the gorgeous Lindisfarne Gospels that he lovingly and painstakingly produced in honor of Cuthbert.

Bishop Eadfrith was the scribe and illuminator of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Photo from The British Library

Eadfrith as Scribe and Illuminator of the Lindisfarne Gospels: In the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS. Nero, D. iv.) there occurs a note at the end of the gospel of St. John (f. 258) and translated by Mr. Skeat:

‘Eadfrith, bishop of the Lindisfarne church, was he who at the first wrote this book in honour of God and St. Cuthbert and all the saints in common that are in the island. And Ethilwaed, Bishop of the people of the Lindisfarne island, made it firm on the outside, and covered it as well as he could. And Billfrith, the anchorite, he wrought in smith’s work the ornaments on the outside. And Aldred, an unworthy and most miserable priest, glossed it above in English.’

At the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel (f. 88 b) is a shorter entry:

‘Thou living God, be mindful of Eadfrid, and Ædilwald, and Billfrid, and Aldred, sinners; these four, with God’s help, were employed upon this book.’

This notice, though written in the tenth century by Aldred the glossator, is very strong evidence that the foundation work of this remarkable manuscript is due to Eadfrith. These Gospels were beautifully written in half-uncial letters on vellum using Jerome’s translation of scripture. Eadfrith likely produced the Lindisfarne Gospels between 715-720 AD.

Colophon page in which Aldred later adds the various ones who were part of the the Lindisfarne gospels production. Photo from The British Library

Eadfrith Memorializes St. Cuthbert: Eadfrith played a major part in establishing Cuthbert’s cult after his relics had been moved to the altar of the monastery church on Lindisfarne on  March 20, 698, on the eleventh anniversary of Cuthbert’s death. It is possible that this transfer of his relics was done as part of Eadfrith’s installation as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

After Cuthbert’s death in 687, Eadfrith had one (or perhaps several) of the Lindisfarne monks compose the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert in about 705 AD or some scholars say in the year after Cuthbert’s death.  A bit later, the historian and scribe The Venerable Bede of Jarrow Abbey was  commissioned by Eadfrith to rework the Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert. It is quite likely that Eadfrith  supplied further  information to Bede  about Cuthbert. This revision was a short poem. Later Eadfrith then commissioned Bede to write a prose version of Cuthbert’s life.

Bede’s verse life of St. Cuthbert, copied about 995 AD. Photo from  The British Library

While serving as Bishop, Eadfrith not only produced by hand the Lindisfarne Gospels  to honor the memory of Cuthbert, he also restored Cuthbert’s hermitage chapel on the island of the Inner Farne. Eadfrith was a very industrious Bishop who beautifully and magnificently honored his predecessor.

Eadfrith and Cuthbert’s Relics Go Traveling: At Eadfrith’s death in 721, he was succeeded by by Æthelwald, who had been the Abbot and priest of Melrose Abbey. When Lindisfarne was abandoned in the late ninth century, Eadfrith’s remains along with Cuthbert’s in his wooden coffin were among those taken on the community’s long wanderings throughout Northumbria. These remains eventually found a new home at Chester-le-Street, where they remained for a century.

St. Mary and St. Cuthbert’s Church, Chester-le-Street

In 995 the relics of both Cuthbert and Eadfrith  were translated first to Ripon Monastery for a short visit and then onto Durham Cathedral where Cuthbert’s wooden coffin and some of the original relics can still be seen.

Cuthbert’s Coffin that can be seen in the excellent Treasures of Cuthbert exhibit at Durham Cathedral. Photo from Durham Cathedral World Heritage Site. I saw this coffin in 2007 and in October, 2017.

 Following is an interesting description of the relics’ pilgrimage and the saving of the Lindisfarne Gospels from the sea: (From the Dictionary of National Biography):

“on his death in 721 Eadfrid’s bones were placed in the shrine where the uncorrupted body of St. Cuthberht lay, and shared the wanderings of the greater saint, and finally rested with his relics at Durham, where they were discovered on the translation of Cuthberht’s remains to the new cathedral erected by Ranulf Flambard in 1104. The ‘Book of St. Cuthberht,’ as the Lindisfarne gospels were commonly called, shared in the same vicissitudes. It was believed at Durham that when in 875 Bishop Eardulf carried the shrine of Cuthberht all over Northumberland to save it from Halfdene and his Danes, the precious manuscript accompanied the flight. In attempting to cross over to Ireland it was lost overboard, and when recovered three days afterwards, on the coast off Whithern, miraculously retained its original freshness and beauty. It was from the eleventh or twelfth century preserved at Durham, where it was described in inventories as ‘the Book of St. Cuthberht which had been sunk in the sea.’ It was ultimately acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, and is now in the British Museum. But though some have detected in the few faint stains on the vellum the marks of sea water, they are so slight that nothing less than a miracle could have saved the book if the tradition above related be true.

Meditation

Translation of Eadfrith’s relics to Durham Cathedral, June 4

Sometimes we discover a “bee in our bonnet” in which we realize that we really need to get something done and get it done quickly and correctly. Perhaps this is how Bishop Eadfrith felt about his need to preserve and honor Cuthbert’s legacy at Lindisfarne. We are grateful to this Bishop for not letting the time lapse by and lose to history this precious information about Cuthbert. This Bishop was not only a historian, but also an amazing scribe and illuminator/artist who left us with this immeasurable treasure that has survived over 1300 years.

Do you have a “bee in your bonnet” to get something done? Perhaps that is the gentle, yet persistent Spirit prodding and commissioning you to do something that only you can do on planet earth. Be listening. Be looking.  Be ready to follow-through. Your gifts and graces are needed to make a difference here on earth and on the other side of the thin veil.

Prayer: O Spirit of God, open my eyes that I may see…illumine me, Spirit Divine. (From the hymn Open My Eyes, Illumine Me by Clara H. Scott)

__________________________

Note: Michelle Brown in an email correspondance on November 24, 2014 wrote that Janet Backhouse  laid the original Lindisfarne Gospels on Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1987  in honor of his Resurrection Day. Michelle  said that it was a very special moment when she laid the facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels complete with the treasure binding in 2003 upon Cuthbert’s tomb.  (Can we even begin to imagine how incredible those experiences would have been! Of course those two scholars that have dedicated much of their lives to the study and research of these Gospels deserved this awesome experience and honor.)

 Some Resources:

Backhouse, Janet. The Lindisfarne Gospels. Phaidon Press, 1994.

BBC Anglo-Saxon Portraits. “Eadfrith” with Richard Gameson.

BBC. Tyne: Lindisfarne Gospels, Monks at Work, Making the Gospels. October 29, 2014.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede’s Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede., Trans. by Leo Sherley -Price, rev. by R. E. Latham, Translatio of the minor works and new Introduction and Notes by D.H. Farmer. London: Penguin Books, 1955, 1990 rev.

____. Medieval Sourcebook. The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne. 

Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Blair, Peter Hunter.  Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The British Library. Turning the Pages: Lindisfarne Gospels.

Brown, Michelle P. The Book and the Transformation of Britain c550-1050. London: The British Library, 2011.

_____________How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.Oxford, UK: Lion Book, 2006.

____________The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World.  London: The British Library, 2011.

_____________The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality & The Scribe. Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2003.

_____________Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007.

_____________Painted Labyrinth: The world of the Lindisfarne Gospels. London: The British Library, 2004.

Colgrave, Bertram, trans. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1940, 1985.

Deanesly, Margaret. The Pre-Conquest Church in England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars. New York: Macmillan, 1947.

Durham Cathedral. The Treasures of St. Cuthbert.

Eadfrid” in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 16.

Gameson, Richard. From Holy Island to Durham: The Contexts and Meaning of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Third Millennium Publishing, 2014.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne. 

Hull, Derek. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Art Geometric Aspects. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2003.

An Illustrated Walk of Lindisfarne Island.

Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.

Lindisfarne Heritage Centre. Marygate, Lindisfarne (Holy Island).

Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1991.

Medieval Sourcebook.  Bede: The Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, 721.

Treeve, Michelle (Michelle P. Brown). Eadfrith: Scribe of Lindisfarne (a historical novel by the preeminent Lindisfarne Gospels’ scholar and former Curator of Medieval Manuscripts at The British Library). 

Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1998, 2001 reprint.

About pastorpilgrim

Pastor Pilgrim is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor. I am married with two grown sons, a soon-to-be daughter-in-love and two Maine Coons. My interests include illuminated manuscripts, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints, pilgrimage, Franciscan and Celtic spirituality, Shakers, Anglo-Saxon and Merovingian abbesses and their double monasteries, comfy cute shoes, Native American spirituality, and genealogy. I am a "Dancing Monk" with the online Abbey of the Arts (known as the Disorder of Dancing Monks!). Join me as we pilgrimage with the Celtic/Anglo-Saxon saints in my 40 Day Celtic Advent Devotional entitled, "Celts to the Creche" at www.saintsbridge.org.
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