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
7th century Northumbria; wild, beautiful and often bloodthirsty, with twin capitals at Bamburgh and York, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that stretches from the Firth of Forth to Humberside, from the eastern shore to the Isle of Man.
A playground, towards the far north of the kingdom, near Melrose; a group of young boys are showing off, messing around. Some of them are naked, with their feet in the air and their heads on the ground. One of these is the boastful Cuthbert, an eight-year old boy with bundles of energy and more agility than any. A three-year old boy spots Cuthbert and calls upon him to stop, but Cuthbert ignores him. The boy becomes upset and starts to cry. And now Cuthbert stops and goes over to him. “Oh holy Bishop and priest Cuthbert, these unnatural tricks done to show off your agility are not befitting you or your high office,” says the tearful boy. Cuthbert doesn’t understand why the boy is speaking to him like this, but he gives up his games and stays to console him.
Later the same year, Cuthbert’s agility and physical prowess cause him to suffer an injury; a swollen knee and a foot so lame he is unable to place it on the ground. He has been carried outside and is lying against a wall, basking in the warmth of the sun, when a white robed man on a magnificent horse comes by. “Would you minister to me as a guest?” asks the man. Cuthbert points to his leg. “Most readily would I rise and offer you devoted service,” he replies, “if I were not restrained by the fetter of this weakness, the penalty for my sins. I have long been afflicted by this swelling in the knee and no doctor with all his care can heal me.” The man comes down from his horse and examines his knee, then tells him to cook wheat flour with milk and anoint his knee with it whilst it is still hot. After a few days Cuthbert is healed and has come to the realisation that this man was an angel of God.
So begins the holy life of St Cuthbert, moving on as it does through miracles, through periods of wandering over the hills and mountains of what is now northern England and Southern Scotland, preaching to and converting the common folk in remote villages isolated from bigger society by landscape and education, through stately duties as Bishop of Lindisfarne, to intense periods of prayer, cut off from the rest of the world by self-imposed exile as a hermit on a tiny island in the North Sea.
After death, his preserved body brought pilgrims, hoping for healing from illness, saving from sins and from the devil, wanting blessing before their own deaths. Aided by word of mouth and writings of the Venerable Bede, this culminated in the creation of a medieval cult that saw him become one of the most important English saints of all time, with an influence that reached all over England and much of Europe and the ‘new world’.
Born near Melrose in 634, Cuthbert worked as a shepherd boy and then served time in the Northumbrian army, probably fighting against Northumbria’s bitter enemy, the Pagan kingdom of Mercia, led by the great King Penda. It must have been obvious to Cuthbert that he was not destined for the life of a soldier though. And it is perhaps not surprising that, according to Bede, he said he preferred the monastery to the world. He will have heard many stories of butchery and brutality, of treason, betrayal and revenge, for Cuthbert lived in an era of almost constant warfare, where kings were lucky to last a decade. The story of King Ethelfrith’s 613 victory over the Welsh at Chester would surely have horrified Cuthbert. The sight of more than 1,200 monks praying for a Welsh victory at the side of the battlefield infuriated the Northumbrian king and so, living up to his nickname of ‘the destroyer’, Ethelfrith charged his troops into the monks first and slaughtered them all.
Northumbria only started on the path to Christianity itself when King Edwin was converted in 627, but it was King Oswald, also latterly a saint, who did the most to spread the religion throughout the kingdom. He defeated the British army under King Cadwallon at the Battle of Heavenfield near Hexham in 634 and ascribed this victory to God, having seen a vision of Columba beforehand and raising a wooden cross before the battle. And it was Oswald who received Aidan from Iona and gave him the island of Lindisfarne as his episcopal see.
Cuthbert was to follow in the illustrious footsteps of St Aidan and St Oswald, destined indeed to become more famous than either of them, yet it seems this was never his intention. Brought up with the Celtic tradition of Christianity rather than the Roman, he valued humility as a paramount virtue.
Aged twenty-one, he was made guest-master at the new monastery at Ripon, but returned to Melrose Monastery with Abbot Eata when Wilfrid, a quarrelsome supporter of the Roman faith, was given the monastery instead. The poor were as important as the rich and privileged to Cuthbert, something that not only ensured his popularity with the people but also impressed his elders. Accordingly, in 662 he was made prior at Melrose. Cuthbert spent most of this time serving the needs of people, either at the monastery or through wandering around the land. Bede, in his ‘Life of St Cuthbert’, describes the reception he received when he arrived at villages.
“It was the custom at that time amongst the English people, when a clerk or a priest came to a village, for all to gather together at his command to hear the word, gladly listening to what was said, and still more gladly following up by their deeds what they could hear and understand. So great was Cuthbert’s skill in teaching, so great his love of driving home what he had begun to teach, so bright the light of his angelic countenance, that none of those present would presume to hide from him the secrets of his heart, but they all made open confession of what they had done, because they thought that these things could certainly never be hidden from him; and they cleansed themselves from the sins they had confessed.”
In our days of aeroplanes and motor vehicles, of television and broadband internet, it’s easy to take for granted the ease of travel and the transfer of information and news. But by imagining the landscape more than 1,300 years ago, and the difficulty of travelling upon much of it, it’s perhaps understandable that a whole village would gather when a visitor appeared, especially if such a visitor bore a message of love rather than warfare. And, as Bede writes, “Cuthbert was wont to preach in those villages that were far away on steep and rugged mountainsides, which others dreaded to visit and whose poverty as well as ignorance prevented teachers from approaching them. He would often not return home for a whole week, sometimes, even for two or three weeks, and even occasionally for a full month, but he would tarry in the mountains, summoning the rustic to heavenly things.”
Bede and an anonymous Lindisfarne monk wrote of the miracles that Cuthbert was said to have performed whilst prior of Melrose. Out in the mountains with a youth to accompany him and no provisions to feed them, he told the youth to follow an eagle’s flight path and the three of them were able to share the fish it had caught. Through the power of prayer, he was able to turn the wind direction so that a raging fire did not destroy a home, and he drove out demons from those who were possessed. Whilst staying at a monastery in Coldingham he was followed by a monk who wanted to know where he went every night when others were sleeping. Spying in the dark, this monk watched astonished as Cuthbert walked neck deep into the sea and spent the dark hours of the night “watching and singing praises to the sound of the waves.” When daylight came sea otters came out of the water with him and dried his feet with their fur whilst he blessed them.
In 665 Cuthbert went as prior to Lindisfarne, where he became even more famous for his teachings, for his manner with all people, and for his miracles – being able to cure those vexed by evil spirits and ravaged by disease. Conflict and confusions between the Celtic and Roman versions of Christianity had been settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when King Oswiu of Northumbria decided in favour of the Roman faith. Cuthbert accepted this decision and, with his skills of negotiation, was sent to Lindisfarne, previously of the Celtic faith, to smooth out any resentment and bring through necessary changes. And yet, although Cuthbert managed all of this, and continued his work with the people who loved him, there was something in him that craved solitude. After many years in the monastery of Lindisfarne he was deemed worthy of hermitage and allowed to retreat, first to a cave, but then to Inner Farne, a tiny island in the North Sea that, unlike the holy island of Lindisfarne, was not made accessible by the flow of the tide. With the help of God he was able to lift rocks too heavy for many men to lift and the sea provided wood of exactly the right size and length. He built himself a structure, so “he could see nothing except the sky…thus restraining both the lust of his eyes and of the thoughts, and lifting the whole bent of his mind to higher things.” Others came to visit and receive his blessing and there was even a little house built for three or four people to stay. But for the most part Cuthbert was, as he wanted, alone with his God.
This wasn’t to last for the rest of his life however. In 684 he was asked to become Bishop of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert refused the offer. Perhaps he was satisfied with his work on land and wanted to remain alone with God and nature. Perhaps he thought he could be more useful there too, as from their castle on the great basalt rock at Bamburgh, the kings of Northumbria would be able to see Inner Farne and be reminded that on that tiny island was not only a man of God, but also a symbol of peace and love, of unity rather than division and warfare. Eventually, King Ecgfrith himself, with Bishop Trumwine and many other religious and powerful men, sailed over to Inner Farne and appealed to him in the name of God, until finally they drew him out, shedding tears.
But two years later, with King Ecgfrith slain by the sword of the Picts, a result Cuthbert predicted through a vision whilst with the queen at Carlisle, Cuthbert resigned and went back to Inner Farne. When asked when he would return, knowing he was reaching the final stage of his life in his early fifties, he replied, “When you bring my body back here.”
The next year, 687, Cuthbert’s body was brought back to Lindisfarne, washed, robed and placed in the church. Eleven years later, the congregation decided to raise his bones but were astonished to find his whole body undecayed. And so pilgrims came to his body, and were healed by visiting him dead, as indeed he healed them whilst alive. The creation of a great medieval cult was underway.
But in 793 visitors came to Lindisfarne who were not welcomed; from over the North Sea came the first wave of Viking attacks. Monasteries were easy pickings. Monks were slain, slaves were dragged away with gold and silver and the monastery partly burnt down. But Cuthbert’s body and coffin survived intact, and so the pilgrims kept coming, to worship, to ask for forgiveness and healing and simply spend some time with the body of a man who made a difference to many by the virtues of his life. And so this continued, until a new wave of Viking attacks came, not just from the sea, but this time from the mainland as well. Led by King Ivar the Boneless, the ‘great army’ landed in East Anglia in 865 and a year later were preparing for their attack on Northumbria. By 875 they had taken control of most of the landmass up to York and had permanent military outposts along the Tyne River. The King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, inspired by a vision of St Cuthbert, was rallying the Anglo-Saxon troops. But the community of St Cuthbert, fearing for the future of Christianity, fled from their vulnerable island home with the undecayed body of St Cuthbert and other religious artefacts, and started on a momentous journey that would help shape the future of England…