The travels of the body of Saint Cuthbert

June 19, 2009

John Davies of Kidwelly translated a manuscript which he described as THE ANCIENT RITES, and MONVMENTS OF THE Monastical, & Cathedral CHURCH OF DURHAM. Collected out of Ancient Manuscripts, about the time of the Suppression (1672).

As he explained in his dedication, this was a survey of the ruins of old Durham cathedral, and it contains one particularly interesting section about the death of St Cuthbert and the translation of his body to Durham. Cuthbert was born in approx. 625, and after entering the monastery of Melrose he eventually became prior of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. After some time, Cuthbert is known to have left to establish himelf as a hermit on a little rocky promontory on the coast nearby.

The text tells how Cuthbert was buried at Lindisfarne and, when his casket was opened eleven years later for the purpose of moving him to a better burial place, the body was miraculously preserved:

Being thus buried in St. Peter‘s Church in Holy Island, and having lain there for the space of eleven years, he was taken out of the ground the 20. of the Calends of March, in the same Calends he had dyed in, entire; lying like a man asleep, being found safe, uncorrupted, flexible, and leath-wake, and all his Mass-cloaths safe, and fresh, as they were the first hour they were put on him; at which time they enshrined him in a new Sepulchre, or Feretory, a little above the pavement of the Church, and there he stood many a day. (p.105)

With the invsion of William the Conqueror, Cuthbert’s body continued its travels. In the text that John Davies translated, the movement of the body is used as a way of explaining migration:

Bishop Eardulf, and Abbot Edred did take, and carry away the Body of St. Cuthbert from Holy Island Southward, and fled seven years from Town to Town, by reason of the great Persecution, and slaughter of the Painims, and Danes. And when the Inhabitants of the Island saw that St. Cuthbert‘s Body was gone, they left their Lands, and Goods, and followed after him. Whereupon, the Bishop, the Abbot, and the rest, being wearied with Travelling, thought to have stollen away, and carried St. Cuthbert‘s Body into Ireland for its better safety. (pp.107-8)

Davies’ text tells of how whilst the party were in a boat travelling to Ireland, there was a terrible storm during which the book of the Holy Evangelists fell into the sea. St Cuthbert appeared as a vision which told the men where to look for the book on the coast, and when they came ashore and found it ‘much more beautiful than before, both in Letters, and Leaves; and excelling in the outer beautifulness of the cover, being nothing blemished by the salt water, but polished rather by some Heavenly hand; which did not a little increase their joy.’ Cuthbert’s body was carried through the country until his soul appeared in a vision and told his bearers to take him to Durham, which was at that point uninhabited. First

they first built a little Church of Wands and Branches, wherein they did lay his Body (whence the said Church was afterwards called Bough-Church) till they had built a more sumptuous Church, wherein they might inshrine him, which they assayed to do with all their power; Uthred, Earl of Northumberland aiding them, and causing all the Countrey people to cut down all the wood, and thorn-bushes which did molest them, and so made all the place where the City now stands habitable, and fit to erect Buildings upon; which gave great encouragement to Aldwinus the Bishop, to hasten the finishing of the Church. Which accordingly being done, he translated the Body of St. Cuthbert from the wanded, or Bough-Church, to the White-Chappel (for so it was called) which he had newly built, which was a part of the great Church, not yet finished, where it lay four years. But after the great Church was finished, and consecrated, upon the 20. of September, he translated his Body out of the White-Chappel into the great Church, which he made a Cathedral. (p.111-112)

The idea that the start of a city was remembered in sync with the journey of this saint’s death and burial is interesting because of the civilisation-forming power it attributes to the translation of the corpse. What did people think about this in the seventeenth century? Cuthbert’s shrine had been desecrated by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1542, but it is alleged that three monks had hidden his body in a safe place. In the 1800s there was a debate over whether the remains alledgedly Cuthbert’s in Durham were really his, or were the remains of another body that had been substituted in. A medical examination ensued in 1899 and the skeleton was tested. This examination found that the remains could really have been preserved for those initial eleven years, by enbalming or perhaps a miracle.

The machinations of the creation of places is interesting.

An interesting description of the story is Gerald Bonner, David Rollason and Claire Stancliffe’s St Cuthbert, his cult and his community to AD 1200.

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