Two weeks ago we left off with Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne, taking a break from his rigorous duties and retiring from the world to live the life of a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, a few miles east of Lindisfarne. We’ll pick up the story from there….
The island of Inner Farne was deserted….or was it? Bede tells us that the first thing Cuthbert does is to banish some devils from the island who presumably had moved in once Aidan left, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne had once used the Inner Farne as a place of retreat as well. Once the island is cleansed from evil spiritual influences, Cuthbert is now free to build his hermitage.
The Inner Farne is one of a group of wild, windswept islands. Certainly Cuthbert got his wish to be free of human company, but even today the wildlife there is quite extensive, including over 100 species of seabirds (the Cuddy Duck among them) and myriads of seals. I imagine Cuthbert strode into this wild and rugged environment with a smile on his face, eager to begin his life of prayer and contemplation.
For Cuthbert and the monks, the spiritual disciplines of prayers, fasting and communion with God were not to be taken lightly. They considered them labour, spiritual labour, whereby they were praying not only for themselves but for any and all concerns. Just as Cuthbert had fought against the Mercians as a soldier, he now took all the spiritual discipline he had learned as a monk and used it as spiritual warfare, conquering the devil’s temptations and standing against the work of the devil in the world through prayer, always seeking to draw closer and closer to Christ.
But he couldn’t just sit out in the open in the gusting wind and rain. His second order of business, after the clearing the place of devils, was to build himself a cell for shelter and prayer. Practically speaking, this would not be easy. After all, he is alone. Bede’s description of Cuthbert from when he first becomes a monk at Melrose gives you a hint that he is capable of the task:
Like the mighty Samson of old, he carefully abstained from every drink which could intoxicate; but was not able to abstain equally from food, lest his body might be thereby rendered less able to work: for he was of a robust frame and of unimpaired strength, and fit for any labour which he might be disposed to take in hand.
So, he was up to the challenge, and he sets himself to work. It is possible that some of the brethren may have helped Cuthbert. Bede doesn’t say. But he does describe the result:
The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent: the wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. Some of them were so large that four men could hardly have lifted them, but Cuthbert himself, with angels helping him, had raised them up and placed them on the wall. There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory [a place for prayer], the other for domestic purposes. He finished the walls of them by digging round and cutting away the natural soil within and without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw. Moreover, at the landing-place of the island he built a large house, in which the brethren who visited him might be received and rest themselves, and not far from it there was a fountain of water or their use.
Pretty impressive, huh? I find these details fascinating, especially considering Bede almost certainly visited this hermitage after Cuthbert’s death. Unfortunately nothing remains today of Cuthbert’s buildings.
Although Cuthbert is alone on his island, he is not completely cut off from the world. The mention of the guest-house above gives you a clue. Cuthbert was visited regularly, firstly by the monks who would also bring him food and water. He would minister to them as well, in prayers and spiritual advice. There is a lovely mention in Bede’s account of how he would wash the monks’ feet, and they his, showing their mutual submission to one another, and to God.
But Cuthbert’s fame as a holy man was spreading, and he began to get others coming to him for advice or blessings as well, including Elfleada, the daughter of King Oswald of Northumbria, who had taken over as Abbess of Whitby Abbey after Hild‘s death. He could not refuse this royal personage and met her on another island, further south from Inner Farne.
As time went on Cuthbert decided he should grow his own food and not be dependant on the Lindisfarne brethren, so he plants some barley, reprimanding a flock of birds who come to eat it, who promptly depart, never to return.
Cuthbert seems very content on his island, and withdraws even further from society, only interacting with people through a window he cuts in the wall of his hermitage. But in 684 AD his idyll comes to an end. He is elected in abstentia as Bishop of Hexham abbey at a synod, which comes as a great surprise to him and he refuses, even disregarding the tears and pleas of his fellow monks. It takes King Ecgfrith coming to his island to persuade him for him to finally relent, but only if he can swap with Eata and become Bishop of Lindisfarne instead, which they agree to.
But his time as Bishop would be short. In 686 AD he returns to his island home, having been told by God that his time is near, and after two months becomes afflicted with some sort of sickness, possibly tuberculosis. On March 20, 687 he dies there, while at prayer in the oratory. He is accompanied by Herefrid, the abbot of Lindisfarne, who then tells the rest of the gathered monks outside who had been spending the night in prayer and watchfulness alongside their beloved Bishop. Immediately one of the monks ascended a hill with two lit candles, as they had agreed upon this signal as a means of telling the brethren at Lindisfarne the news, and the watching monk at the monastery hurried to tell the others.
Cuthbert had previously agreed that he would be buried at Lindisfarne, and so the brethren bring his body back and inter him near the altar there. But his death was not the end of Cuthbert’s remarkable story.
Many miracles continued to be reported by people who visited the monastery and his fame continued to grow. The first Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was written in the early 720s, and it is around this time that Bede wrote his poem about Cuthbert.
As Cuthbert’s fame grows, the monks at Lindisfarne decide that it would be a good idea to dig up his bones and put them in a small box as objects of veneration. So, eleven years after his death they dug up the coffin and opened it, and to their shock and amazement they discover that his body is perfectly preserved. As Bede recounts,
…opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.
This amazing occurrence sends the Cuthbert-cult into high drive, and it is this event that prompts the Lindisfarne community to commission Bede to write a new account of Cuthbert’s life and spread the news of this miracle. The monks hastily make a new, oak coffin to house the saint. This coffin, built in 698 AD, still can be seen today, and is one of England’s most important wooden objects from before the Norman conquest.*
In homage to Cuthbert, and to God, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, one the greatest treasures of the Early Middle Ages (arguably one the greatest works of art ever produced). Cuthbert (now reburied in his new coffin) becomes a huge draw to pilgrims.
Disaster strikes in 793 AD with the first Viking attack on a Christian church in England. The Vikings had first appeared in 789 AD, off the coast of Wessex, killing a king’s reeve. But the attack on Lindisfarne was different, as it struck at arguably one of the holiest places in Britain, desecrating the church with the blood of the monks, the church itself partially burnt down, the precious objects ransacked and taken away as treasure. Some of the monks were carted away as slaves.
However, somehow the Gospels survived.* In the chaos of that day (and many more, for the church was attacked many times after that), the monks preserved this precious book, for which we owe them our eternal gratitude.
But by 875 AD the monks had had enough. They fled Lindisfarne, taking with them what ever precious items they had, chief among them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Cuthbert. They also had with them some of the bones of Aidan (the rest buried at Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the great king (and saint in his own right by this point). They wandered about Northumbria, settling here and there and getting driven out again and again by the maurading Danes, but always taking their relics and the marvellous book with them. The monks were no milquetoasts, though. At the prompting in a vision from Cuthbert himself, they were involved in a bloodless coup by saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery who ended up deposing the current Viking leader of Crayke, near York.
Finally after seven years of wandering they settled at the old Roman town of Chester-le-Street, and built a monastery, staying there for a hundred years. But in 995 AD the Danes were threatening again so off they went, carting their book, the relics, and Cuthbert, and went to Ripon. When things settled down they started back, but on the way the wagon carrying the heavy coffin became stuck on the road, and the monks took this as a sign that this was where the saint wanted to be laid to rest (maybe the poor monks were exhausted, too.).
The site was Durham, and here they built a church and monastery, replaced by a cathedral after the Norman invasion. Cuthbert’s fame was at its peak at this point, and they wanted a church worthy of the great saint. However, people were skeptical of the story of the incorrupt body and so, before he was interred by the altar, the monks opened the coffin again and found the body still preserved inside. The coffin was placed in a beautiful shrine and visited by a great many pilgrims.
Alas, during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the VIII , the shrine was dismantled and the coffin reburied (not after opening it and once again finding the body complete!).
In 1827 the coffin was opened one last time, and a skeleton was found (darn). A post-mortem was done and the doctor said the bones were consistent with everything they knew about Cuthbert. He was laid to rest the final time in Durham Cathedral, where you can still visit his tomb today.
….Or can you? There is a legend that before Henry’s agents could come and destroy the church and presumably Cuthbert’s coffin, the monks opened the coffin and replaced Cuthbert’s body with that of a recently deceased brother monk. They spirited Cuthbert’s body away and buried it in a secret location in the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The location was only known to twelve monks, revealed to another only when one of the twelve dies.
So ended the life and travels of Cuthbert. It is said that with all the travelling he did as a monk and the journeys he took after death with his fellow monks, that he was one of the most well-travelled people of Britain at the time. There is some dispute about the exact route, but after they left Lindisfarne the monks travelled between five hundred and a thousand miles before settling in Durham!
Cuthbert had a remarkable life, and a remarkable death. No wonder he is still celebrated today!
* Click here to read a fascinating article about a new display in Durham Cathedral of that coffin and some of the objects found in it.
**It weighs close to eighteen pounds, and due to its size, would have probably taken two people to carry.