Magazine article History Today

St Cuthbert Reburied in Durham Cathedral: September 4th, 1104

Magazine article History Today

St Cuthbert Reburied in Durham Cathedral: September 4th, 1104

Article excerpt

CUTHBERT WAS THE most revered and formidable saint of the North. Such was the force of his personality that people who were deathly ill, when told that he was coming, recovered before he had even arrived. Prior of Lindisfarne from the year 664, he died in his hermitage on an island off the coast in 687, in his fifties. He was buried beside the altar at Lindisfarne and when the monks dug him up some years later, according to the Venerable Bede, instead of the skeleton they expected to discover, they 'found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead but sleeping.'

The body was put in a fine oak coffin and kept above ground for the veneration of the faithful, but two hundred years later, after fiercely destructive Viking raids on Lindisfarne, the monks left the island, taking with them the coffin and other treasured possessions, which included the Lindisfarne Gospels. The head of King Oswald, a great patron of Northumbrian Christianity, and the bones of St Aidan and other saints were placed in Cuthbert's coffin.

This was in 875. There followed a remarkable odyssey in which the monks and their wives and children wandered about for seven years, all over Northumbria and Cumbria, canting the coffin and their treasures with them, without being able to settle safely until they found a refine at Chester-le-Street. At one point they set off for Ireland by ship from the Cumbrian coast, but were driven back by an overwhelming storm. The Lindisfarne Gospels fell overboard, but the book washed up on shore, where the monks recovered it, the pages stained with seawater.

More than a hundred years later, in 993, with Viking raids renewed and the threat of marauding Scots, the monks took St Cuthbert's coffin up again and set off to the south, to Ripon. After a few weeks there they turned hack north and were perhaps intending to return to Chester-le-Street when they came to a place where they put the coffin down and it refused to move and would not be budged. That night one of the monks had a dream which told them to settle on the spot where Durham Cathedral looms in majesty today, high above a horseshoe bend of the River Wear.

A wooden church was built, and later a stone one, into which the coffin was ceremoniously transferred in 998 or 999 on September 4th, the day ever afterwards celebrated as the Translation of St Cuthbert. …

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