Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England
They climbed the hill, exhausted already, but with God giving them strength and the good Abbot Eardred urging them on. There came the seven first, leading along Bishop Eardwulf with the gentle face. They’d vowed not to put their blessed Cuthbert down until they were out of sight but they allowed themselves the luxury of a short rest and one final look. Behind came the men, women and children of their island, carrying meat and fish, salted over winter, that little extra, persuaded as they were by Bishop Eardwulf to eat more frugally for what they all surely knew was to come. Osbert and Ella had put aside their differences. The two rival kings for the throne of Northumbria had managed to join forces and repel the Danes. But their men were riven in division, as were the leaders themselves, and the Danes would be too strong.
Hunred watched three men carrying new born lambs in their arms. They’d struggled when first scooped up but soon settled into the comfort of strong arms . He wondered if a large sheep or two, shared by the four or five men in turn, would have made more sense, providing, as it would, with more meat. But he understood they carried new life and hope, even if he worried their bleating might notify others of their presence. Early raiding parties of Danes, scouts looking ahead for signs and victims, for riches; they could be anywhere around these inland hills because the Northumbrian kings would be holding on at Bamburgh. Hundred lifted the coffin up a touch, put it back down an inch further along his shoulder, a spot that wasn’t so raw, tried not to picture the consequences of being caught but couldn’t help himself. They slayed all but one, the Viking scouts, ensuring the person chosen to watch the mutilation was able to run away with full graphic details of the account. They’d all heard the stories, and they knew they moved fast on horseback as well as on the sea. Hunred closed his eyes and prayed those lambs would soon be free to skip around new lands, until they were all able to return to their holy island.
He watched his people, Lindisfarne’s people, as they climbed the last rocks one by one in solemn single file, all carrying something, even the smallest child. Those the monastery had looked after, that had provided them, and God, with food, with skins for vellum, wool for clothing, leather for the sandals they climbed these rocks with, fat for candles they prayed with, quills for writing – for those that had learned.
Back at the flat lands they all looked, the whole community, stood together on that hill. Bamburgh, where the Danes would attack first. It would take them two or three days to break into there surely, unless treachery and cowardice meant submission, weakened as they already were by indulgences, infighting and greed. Back to their beautiful monastery island, low to the earth, with the sea gathering around, and yet closer to heaven too. And further out, to Farne, where he had hoped to spend some time, like Cuthbert, gathering his thoughts alone with God. And then finally, a scan to the south, just to check that their worst fears weren’t yet realised.
Hunred wanted to look a little longer at Lindisfarne. They all did. But Eardred wouldn’t allow them to ponder what might have been. He urged them on, over the ridge and down to the small copse, following a well-worn path but in the wrong direction. As they picked their way carefully, bearing the weight of Cuthbert, of Oswald and Aidan and others upon their shoulders, Hunred saw the mountain range ahead in the dusk, and he understood then that God would be putting far more tests in their way than the little one-day journey they had undertaken so far.
Down past giant rocks they went, that earlier Angles in their ignorance used to worship, through God’s trees and no one else’s, and into the shelter of the cave.
It was damp at the top end, dripping from the walls, but the seven took the lower flatter ground and lowered Cuthbert down, returning him to that place of great solitude and beauty that he visited in life, away from the wind that roared in the trees. The Abbot and Bishop joined them silently. But Eardred had to stand and reprimand a shaking and crying child. “You are under the protection of God,” he said. “Do not be afraid. Whatever happens is his will.” And then he sent the women and children to collect firewood, insisting they do it without talking, and the men tied the lambs to a rock and built two small fires at either end of the cave. They huddled around them as best they could. Eardred instructed the men to take it in turns to keep watch through the night. And then birds started to sing their goodnights, a sign from God that his beauty and love could never die.