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St. Cuthbert: The Coffin

How a coffin became a treasure

The last time I looked at the treasures that were found in St. Cuthbert’s coffin, I highlighted the beautiful little Gospel book. This time, my sights are fixed on something much bigger: St. Cuthbert’s coffin itself.

You may wonder why a simple coffin is anything to be excited about. In fact, it seems rather morbid to talk about it. But in fact, this coffin is remarkable in many ways, just like the Gospel book.

You might remember from previous posts the long, torturous journey of Cuthbert’s remains after his death. After opening his coffin eleven years after his death and finding his non-decayed body instead of the bones they were expecting, the startled monks had to build another coffin to house him in, instead of the reliquary box they had prepared for his expected bones.

Throughout the next eight centuries the coffin was reopened numerous times to check on the status of the miraculous body. It was only until the final (one hopes!) time in the 19th century that only bones and sinew were found to be remaining. At point Cuthbert was interred into his final resting place in Durham Cathedral.

Which is where our story begins. The original coffin which the monks had built way back in AD 687 was still a part of the relics that the monks had toted around with them for all those years. As it got more fragile, on subsequent openings other coffins were built around it, but the original coffin itself was still there, albeit in pieces. When Cuthbert was interred for the final time in 1899, remains of three coffins were found, including approximately six thousand pieces of English Oak which were the remains of the original 7th century coffin. Many of these had light carvings and inscriptions on them. Despite the elegant inscriptions and carvings, the coffin itself is a rather crude object, which likely signifies the haste in which the monks had to make it when they opened up the grave the first time expecting to find bones but instead found a body.

One hundred and ninety of those six thousand pieces  of oak were were pieced together in 1939 by Ernest Kitzinger, an art historian employed by the British Museum. Kind of like an ancient, giant jigsaw puzzle. Nevertheless, Kitzinger’s reconstruction has only been slightly altered since he did it, which is a testimony to his skill.

This coffin, like the little Gospel book, is an extremely important artifact of early Medieval England. In fact, it is pretty much the only surviving Anglo-Saxon carved wooden object, and is certainly the largest one. It is a direct link to one of England’s most famous saints. And, in case you were wondering, in 1899 a doctor conducted a post-mortem on the remains themselves and concluded that they fit everything we know about St. Cuthbert, and were determined to indeed be the remains of Cuthbert himself.

The lid of the coffin has on it the figure of Christ and the symbols of the four Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). One end has the earliest surviving iconic representations of the Virgin and Child outside of Rome, and the other end has depictions of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The two sides of the coffin show the twelve apostles and five archangels.

One of the apostles on the sides of the coffin. Image from @durhamcathedral

There is also writing inscribed on the coffin, identifying the images. What is really fascinating is that the writing consists not only of Latin, which would be expected, but also Anglo-Saxon runic letters. The names of Matthew, Mark and John are in runic letters. John’s name is repeated in Latin, and Luke appears only in Latin. This mix of runic and Latin inscriptions is found on a few other Anglo-Saxon artifacts, including the Franks Casket, and it is a wonderful picture of the collision of the Anglo-Saxon culture with Christianity. These runes are another reason why this coffin is so unique, as it is the only object with runes that can be precisely dated based on documentary evidence, and they are also the only ones that can be identified with a specific known person. Cuthbert’s name does not appear on the coffin, but that is not surprising, as it stayed with his community of fellow monks and everyone knew exactly whose remains were housed inside.

Cuthbert’s Coffin today, on display at Durham Cathedral Museum. Image from

The reconstructed coffin is now on display at the Durham Cathedral Museum along with some of the other treasures found in the coffin.

And if you want to know what those other treasures are, stay tuned!

For more on St. Cuthbert, see my previous posts on his life.

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Part 1

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Part 2

Fascinated by Anglo-Saxon England? Check out my books, a historical fantasy series set in 7th-century Northumbria!