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St. Cuthbert’s Grave: The Stole and Maniple

A royal gift of great beauty and significance.

It’s hard to believe that I have written four posts on the treasures of St. Cuthbert’s grave, and there is still more to write about. So far we have looked at the Gospel book, the cross, and the coffin. Today I want to highlight another unique Anglo-Saxon treasure: the beautifully embroidered stole and maniple found in St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

A stole is an ecclesiastical vestment, worn by clergy. It is like a long scarf, and is usually made of silk. It is worn over the shoulder or around the neck, depending on the position of the person wearing it. The maniple is a smaller embroidered strip of silk, worn draped over the wearer’s left wrist, usually when celebrating Holy Communion.

Unlike the other items in the coffin that we’ve looked at so far (the cross and the Gospel book), we know for certain that the stole and maniple were not one of Cuthbert’s personal possessions. But they have a fascinating history, all the same.

A Royal Gift

Cuthbert died in AD 687, but the maniple and stole were placed in his coffin in the 10th century. We know this because of the Historia Sancto de Cuthbert (History of St. Cuthbert), written in the eleventh century by an unknown author. In this account of St. Cuthbert, the author details the life and death of Cuthbert, along with the travels of the devoted monks of Lindisfarne who carried his remains along with them as they searched for a safe place to settle after their monastery had been attacked one too many times by the marauding Vikings.

Cuthbert had become an important saint after his death. During the time the monks settled at Chester-le-Street in present-day Durham County, many would come to visit his shrine to pray and to bring gifts to ensure the saint’s favour. One important royal visitor was King Aethelstan (grandson of King Alfred the Great) who stopped by the monastery in AD 934. He was accompanied by his army, as they were on their way to fight against the Scots. Aethelstan did not come empty-handed to visit Cuthbert’s shrine. I imagine he wanted to be sure of victory, and so he brought many treasures to the saint’s shrine. The Historia contains a list of these items, and they included gold and silver ecclesiastical plates, cups, ornaments, bells, coins and books, along with the elaborately embroidered stole and maniple.

Alas, almost all of the treasures that Aethelstan brought have been lost, likely to King Henry’s agents during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. But, by great good fortune, the stole and the maniple had been placed in the coffin with the uncorrupted saint’s remains.

It wasn’t the fact that they were in the coffin that stopped the king’s men from taking them. They were quite happy to open the coffin, in fact, they were ordered to do so, because King Henry wanted to prove to the Papists that their famous uncorrupted saint had long turned to dust. This plan didn’t go so well, for when they opened the coffin, Cuthbert was still undecayed.

This stopped any thought of displaying the bones of the saint to show the falsehoods of the Catholic church, as there was still muscle and sinew attached to those bones, and so they hurriedly shut up the coffin and left it in the church for the king to decide what to do. Thankfully Henry took the safe route and decided to let Cuthbert lie, preserving not only the saint’s dignity but the objects in the coffin, missed by his agents in their haste. These included the lovely gold cross, many silk vestements, and the stole and maniple which had been gifted by Aethelstan. When the coffin was opened for the last time in the late 1800s, remnants of the silk vestments remained, but the beautiful small cross was discovered, along with stole and maniple. Plus one other item, but that is the subject of the next post!

A Second-Hand Gift? 

The stole and maniple are the earliest surviving embroidery from early medieval England, and they are the earliest vestments which have human figures embroidered on them. They contain standing figures of Old Testament prophets, as well as  Pope Gregory (died AD 604), Peter the Deacon (close friend of Pope Gregory) and other early saints. On each end of the stole there are square tabs containing embroidered faces representing St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist.

The image of Peter the Deacon, from St. Cuthbert’s stole.

The figures are embroidered on silk (now mainly decayed), and the backgrounds are embroidered with gold metal thread.* Silk threads were used for the figures, with gold highlighting some of the details. What is interesting is that we know these items were not specifically made for King Aethelstan to take to give to Cuthbert’s shrine. On the back of each item is embroidered, “Aelfled ordered this to be made”, and “for the pious bishop Fristan”. Aelfled was the second wife of Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great) and she died in AD 916. Fristan was bishop of Winchester from AD 909 to AD 929. So we know that these items were made sometime between AD 909 and AD 916.

For some reason, Fristan didn’t get this gift, and they obviously stayed in the family. Aethelstan was the son of Edward the Elder and his first wife, Ecgwyn. But when he made his trip north, he put them in the pile of gifts to be given to Cuthbert. In life, Cuthbert would have used items like these in his work as a priest and bishop. It is likely that the ones he used were more elaborate than the normal, every day ones used by the lesser-ranked clergy. He may have had someone give him beautifully embroidered vestments like this, just as Aelfed tried to give to Bishop Fristan. We will never know. But even though they didn’t belong to Cuthbert during his life, these vestments give us a little glimpse into this far-off time, showing us the interdependency between royalty and the Church at the time.

They are a beautiful example of devotion, art, and skill, and I’m so glad they survived. They are now displayed at Durham Cathedral, along with the rest of the treasures from Cuthbert’s coffin.

But we’re not done yet with Cuthbert’s coffin! As I mentioned earlier, there is still one last treasure to explore. Stay tuned…

*A word about this gold thread. The gold is of a very fine thickness, cut in strips and wrapped around a core (red) silk thread. The total thickness of this gold thread is 0.2 mm diameter. Just think about this for a minute…this was all done by hand. Incredible. I got this fact from a very interesting video series detailing a recent project by early medieval embroiderer Dr. Alexandra Makin to recreate the maniple, using as authentic materials as possible. The link to the first one is below, but she has a series of them. Check it out for fascinating details on the stole and the process of embroidery and materials used.

The St. Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project Part. 1

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