St Cuthbert's Final Journey

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

The Failed Flight to Ireland and the Solway Firth

Please note – usually I don’t let anyone see my work until I’ve done several redrafts, particularly fiction, such as the style below. For me, rewriting is the most essential part of writing; seeing your words as fluid on the page rather than static; understanding that sentences, phrases and words can open up, or close down; ensuring there is rhythm when it’s read out. I often start by free-writing on the given issue, writing fast with little worry towards punctuation or grammar. Most importantly, if I can’t think of a word or phrase within five seconds I just carry on and trust myself I’ll find it the next time. Otherwise, the sentences that are lining up in my head will float away somewhere else and never return, and my rhythm will have got itself lost. Second drafts onwards are the time to be particular, but it’s often not until a fifth draft or so that I have something I consider viewable by others. Because of the immediacy of this blog though,  I’m sending out second drafts to the world. There simply isn’t enough time to do otherwise. My thoughts are written, then typed, and then released. I have been contemplating writing a novel of the adventures and journey of the Community of St Cuthbert and if I did, then, as my other books, the research and process would be much longer and the writing much stronger. Still, I hope you enjoy my thoughts and writings as I wander this journey….

And so, after years of traveling the hills and dales of their once proud and powerful kingdom, of long cold nights hiding in the woods, lashed at times by God’s fury, but also humbled by the beauty of all his creation – and protected by his people, amazed and reassured as they were to see St Cuthbert in his still preserved and miraculous saintliness – they came to the mouth of the River Derwent.

Food had been hard to find these last few weeks and any company they encountered edgy with nerves and suspicion. For the first time in their travels they had been turned away at the door of Northumbrians. The Norse they said, find out everything. It’s as if they send out ravens every day to fly around the country and report back their findings. There have been massacres against any who dared disobey. And the Community knew that, for they had come across scores of dead bodies on their travels, with greedy carrion picking and pulling out their entrails. The English bodies, they buried and prayed for. Any Norse and Dane, they left to the elements and the wildlife.

Stitheard rubbed his eyes and yawned, then watched the Abbot and Bishop sit aside for some time. They had been doing this every night for the past week, but had kept their conversations to themselves. It was plain to everyone though, even the two children with fever, that the Abbot and Bishop could not agree on something, and it looked from the outside as if the Abbot were trying to convince the sceptical Bishop.

And Stitheard was correct; Abbot Eardred and Bishop Eardwulf had indeed been disagreeing for a number of days, and the disagreement was about to reach its climax. The boat was due to arrive any moment, agreed by Eardred and its owner and no one else. The Norse had burned all boats they came across, but this one had been hidden in the woods by its cunning owner, dragged into tangled blackberry vines and covered further with sticks.  The owner had gone off to find two other men, greedy as he was for the silver and jewel crucifix that had been promised him in payment.

Photography © Paul Alexander Knox

Photography © Paul Alexander Knox

Eventually, Stitheard and the other coffin bearers were called over to the two, as was Ethelwulf, the most loyal of the laymen, who had travelled all the way from Lindisfarne with his wife and two children, both of whom were now teenagers and did as they were told.

“The boat will be here very soon,” said the Abbot, whilst the Bishop looked to the ground.

“What about the weather?” asked Ethelwulf, looking to the dark clouds that were slowly gathering across the Irish Sea.

“We have survived so far,” said the Abbot sternly, “because it has been God’s will. Our kingdom has been ravaged by wolves, sliced into sections. We can’t go East because of the Danes. The people in the hills did not have enough food to store and salt over winter and will slowly starve. And this coast is being raided constantly by the Norse. What else can we do? It is God’s will that we take Cuthbert back to his spiritual home, back to the land of Ninia, of Patrick and Columba.”

The Bishop looked up at the Abbot, was about to say something, then for some reason changed his mind. Stitheard looked at his lined face, his hair now grey after these years of tiresome travel. Yes they had been received with joy at many places. People had taken strength from their arrival, from St Cuthbert himself. They had kissed the Gospels and looked to the heavens and prayed for peace. But always, as ever always, the Community were forced to continue. And who could blame the Bishop for keeping his silence? He had obviously been trying his best for the past few days. But he was weary, too weary. The travels had taken their toll on a man old before they started. His time on earth was almost over and then he would rise to be with God.

“It is here,” said the Abbot, standing up. “It is here.”

They stood, all those invited to share in the secret of what was about to happen. They stood and watched as the boat arrived in the harbour, rowed by a man with greedy eyes and a disconcerting smile. And apart from the Abbot, who knew already, they all had the same thought when it came near enough to realise.

“It is not big enough,” said Franco. “There is no way we can all get into that boat. It won’t take more than fifteen. To load it more than that would be foolhardy.”

“Indeed,” said the Abbot. “But it is all we could get. And foolhardy is not something we can afford to be.” He turned to this small select group he had gathered away from the others and looked every one of them in the eye. “We have no choice. It is God’s will. Be straight on the boat when it touches the pebbles and is still. Ethelwulf, collect your family. You are coming with us.”

And so that is what happened. The seven collected the coffin of St Cuthbert and lowered it gently onto the floor of the boat, which did not look as strong as its owner had suggested it was. Ethelwulf shepherded his family on board, despite their protestations, while the rest of the Community – men, women and children – began to realise what was happening and stood up to appeal.

“Don’t leave us here,” shouted Aella, leaving his wife aghast and heading down to remonstrate. He grabbed the sleeve of the Abbot who was helping hold the boat steady for the Bishop to climb in. “Please! We have been loyal and good to you. We have served God and St Cuthbert and they have protected us. Don’t leave us here like lambs to the slaughter.”

The Abbot pushed him away. “We have no choice,” he said, as others came down to protest and to weep at their sudden realisation. “There is no boat big enough. We have to save our Saints and our treasures. God will be with you always. You will reap your rewards in heaven.”

And with that, the Abbot climbed in too, and as the Bishop let a tear roll slowly down his cheek, and as the people of the Community stood astonished, the owner of the boat fingered the new shiny crucifix about his neck, then pushed them off the pebbles and looked to skies that grumbled and gathered.

“May God be with you,” he said. “For you will need him.”

And so off they went, over those waves, still looking back to the shore and its diminishing people when the first winds came. It gave them warning of just a few seconds, enough to steady and brace themselves. Across from Ireland it came and it brought with it a deluge of water from the skies. The boat tipped back and forth, increasingly so, until water soaked them below as well as above. The first wave that came over them spun them to their right and the side dropped down as if trying to tip them all out. Edmund dropped his oars as it hit him full in the face and body. Only Stitheard was left with oars.

“Turn it back around,” shouted the Abbot. “Face the front for God’s sake.”

But the storm continued and grew. And in comparison Stitheard was a tiny weakling. The children started crying and the boat lurched violently from side to side and up and down. He tried with all his  might, did Stitheard, but the storm was so fierce he could barely even see.

“Give them to me,” shouted Ethelwulf, trying to stand and then falling on top of him.

The Bishop laid down on the coffin and closed his eyes.

“We are all going to die,” screamed Ethelwulf’s wife, as another wave smashed over them.

The Abbot, now frantic and with an enraged look in his eye, struck her. “Do not be stupid,” he cried. “This is God’s test.” He fell forwards on top of the Bishop and dragged him to the side, opening the coffin as they lurched about. And then from inside, he produced the Gospels. And he stayed there on his knees, as the water swam around inside the boat and lashed down onto them from above, and he held the Gospels aloft. “”Behold,” he shouted up into the heavens. “God is my salvation. I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord is my strength and my song.”

But no sooner had he finished than the most giant of waves came hurtling over, as if God himself was furious with the Abbot, and it smashed him onto the side of the boat and sent the Gospels into the freezing waters. And all was red.

The rest of the Community had stood on the shore and watched the storm clouds gather and unleash themselves upon the seas and their beloved Saint. When the boat started to get bigger rather than smaller, the children grew excited. And the man who’d owned the boat scrambled up the shore with greedy intentions.

“It’s coming back,” the children shouted. “Cuthbert is coming back to us.” And they jumped in the rain for joy, crunching sandaled feet onto the pebble shore. Some of the women started to cry, even a man too, as the storm, far more ferocious out there at sea than it was upon them, pushed the boat back and cast it upon the shore.

Out came the Abbot first, with eyes of fury and a wild sodden look all about him that made the children take a step back. Ethelwulf helped the Bishop out, before the seven, with Stitheard bleeding from a head wound and Franco holding his shoulder at an unusual angle, brought out St Cuthbert and all his treasures but one.

“The Gospels,” said the Abbot, swinging around in circles. “The sea took them.”

“And the sea so nearly took all of us,” said Franco.

The Bishop knelt on the shore and prostrated himself in front of those they had left.

“Forgive us,” he said, “for leaving you to your own fates. For taking St Cuthbert away from his people. God has made his judgement against us and so we are back. ”

And the children, and some of the adults, rejoiced that justice had been done and came forward to help the Bishop back onto his feet while the Abbot still searched the seas and sands and the rain slowed somewhat.

“Perhaps it is God’s will,” said the Bishop, brushing himself down and shivering with cold. “Perhaps it is his punishment.”

“We must search for them,” said the Abbot. “This bay is vast. It’s possible they haven’t been taken right out to sea but will be washed up somewhere.”

He ordered everyone to pick up their belonging and start trekking along the coastline in a bid to find the Gospels.

“Why should we?” asked one of the men left behind. “You were quick to leave us, as soon as you had the chance. This was how you repaid us, by planning in secrecy and then taking our Saint away from us.”

Others murmured their agreement, their bodies as still as those sinful stone monuments of old.

“I shouldn’t have agreed,” said the Bishop. “But I thought it was the best thing, that it was the only way to save our Saint. I am sorry.”

“The boat wasn’t big enough for all of us,” said the Abbot. “We had no choice.”

“You did not even tell us,” said the man. “You sneaked off like thieves.”

“We wished God to be with you. Hardly the words of thieves you fool.”

And so it continued. Everyone was too busy to notice Hunred, too busy arguing and waving arms to notice the young man who had always had a special gift. For this is why his mother had sent him to the Monastery. What else could she do, with a young boy who spoke of such strange visions? She worried that he was possessed by a spirit and sent him to God. And as the others protested and bickered, Hunred slipped up the pebble shore and stepped into a muddy field. The bridle was hanging on a tree some way into the field, the horse that would wear it away in the far corner. Over it came, gently trotting, when he took the bridle down and shook it, causing the metal buckles to ring like a bell.

He soothed the horse with his hand, picked some grass for it and soothed it once more, stroking its head and nose, uttering soft words of reassurance. It was a beautiful beast, with a reddish tinge to its coat, a long white stripe down its nose and understanding eyes. And so he bridled it up and led it to the top of the shore, and stood there until he was noticed and all went quiet.

“God is with us,” he said. “He has given us this horse and bridle to pull the cart and our Saint. He has given me a name as well. And that name is Whithorn.”

And the others looked at Hunred with the upturned faces of hopeful children and put their hands together to pray.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” said the Bishop. “And lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.”

Photography © Paul Alexander Knox

Photography © Paul Alexander Knox

And so they went, along the shore, struggling at first upon pebble and soft marshy grass, until the tide started receding again. Their numbers were reduced, for only one other family that hadn’t been chosen for the boat trip, decided to stay with them. The other men felt too deceived, but  in truth were too stubborn to listen to pleading women or children.  They stayed, decided to settle, watched the Community walk away, along the sands, all the way back inland it seemed, the bay was so immense. But there was renewed vigour in the hearts of those that continued their journey; they had not been lost at sea and the horse was doing the heavy work. They walked alongside each other in a line and scanned the sands for the Gospels.

“The shining white house is on the other side of these sands,” said Stitheard to Hunred. “I am sure of it. It is a place of God’s love like our home.”

Hunred looked over at the mountains on the other side of the giant bay and he felt something stir inside him. They cuddled into each other in the sand dunes that night, for God’s breath was cold and shivering. Then when the sun came up, they were on their feet again, walking and searching.

Hunred stopped for a moment and spun around slowly. Franco had argued the previous night that walking on the flat open sands made them too visible and therefore vulnerable. But for Hunred, it made him feel closer to God. The vast sands, far away sea and low grasslands reminded him of Lindisfarne. The odd call of the oystercatcher, piercing his heart the only way a heart should be pierced, and the glorious heavens above. He took it all in for a few more seconds, smiled to himself and hurried to catch the rest up. By dusk they’d reached a small monastery, a daughter house of their great Lindisfarne. There were only a few monks but they reacted with absolute joy at the Community’s arrival with their Saint. They fed them with simple but beautiful food, gave them mead to drink. And then, when they had finished eating and drinking and talking, the Prior led them back out to the sand dunes and bid them stand on the top in the dark.

“You see the light over there,” he said, pointing at a beacon that glowed in the distance over the now gentle sea. “Whithorn is just a morning’s walk from there my friends. I will give you a boat and a guide to take you.”

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2 comments on “The Failed Flight to Ireland and the Solway Firth

  1. Heather Martin
    April 27, 2013

    I would certainly hope that you will write that book about the Community and it’s trials and travels taking St. Cuthbert’s body to safety.

  2. Mary Gilmartin
    April 27, 2013

    Your documenting this period of history through writing is a great project. I look forward to seeing your finished book as I read your blog writings with interest.

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