Saint in silk pajamas saves book for nation

Saint Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop, and hermit associated with monasteries in the Kingdom of Northumbria. He was one of the most important medieval saints and managed to have an astonishing after-life.

Cuthbert (634 – 687 CE) was probably from the neighbourhood of Dunbar at the mouth of the Firth of Forth in modern-day Scotland. One night while still a boy, working as a shepherd, he had a vision of the soul of St Aidan of Lindisfarne being carried to heaven by angels. So, he went to the monastery of Old Melrose and became a monk, shortly afterwards becoming a soldier for several years. After his return to the monastery, his fame for piety, diligence, and obedience quickly grew.

Illness struck the monastery in 664 and while Cuthbert recovered, the prior died and Cuthbert was made prior in his place. He spent much time among the people, ministering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles. In 676 he adopted the solitary life, settling on one of the Farne Islands, south of Lindisfarne. At first he received visitors and washed their feet, but later he confined himself to his cell and opened a window only to give his blessing. While on the Islands, he instituted special laws to protect the Eider ducks and other seabirds nesting there. As a consequence eider ducks are often called cuddy ducks (Cuthbert’s ducks) in modern Northumbrian dialects.

In 684, Cuthbert was elected bishop of Lindisfarne, but was reluctant to leave his retirement. It was only after a visit from king Ecgfrith that he agreed to take up the duties of bishop. He was consecrated at York, but just over a year later he returned to his cell on Inner Farne Island where he died on 20 March 687. He was buried at Lindisfarne.

In 875 the Danes attacked the monastery of Lindisfarne and the monks fled, carrying with them St Cuthbert’s body. After seven years’ wandering it found a resting-place at St Cuthbert’s church, in Chester-le-Street, which still stands. Then, in 995, another Danish invasion led to St Cuthbert’s removal first to Ripon and then Durham. There, a new stone church – the so-called “White Church” – was built, predecessor of the present Cathedral.

In 1104 Cuthbert’s relics were transferred to a new shrine behind the altar of the recently completed Cathedral. When his casket was opened, a small book of the Gospel of St John, measuring only three-and-a-half by five inches, now known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, was discovered. It was also noticed that his vestment was made of Byzantine silk with a “Nature Goddess” pattern. St Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but his relics survived and are still interred at the site.

Last month the British Library announced a £9m bid to save the Stonyhurst Gospel, the very one buried with St Cuthbert. The book, complete with its original red leather binding, had been on loan to the library since 1979. The British Library’s chief executive, Dame Lynne Brindley, has said that the gospel is “a beautifully-preserved window into a rich, sophisticated culture that flourished some four centuries before the Norman Conquest.” Its survival might be called a miracle.


One comment on “Saint in silk pajamas saves book for nation

  1. Some years ago I was co-producer of a video series on English Cathedrals. Our advance research on Durham found a report that when St Cuthbert’s casket was last opened, ” . . . his bones were yet succulent.” We had arranged for a docent to do the stand-up next to the tomb, and wondered what her interpretation would be. Our practice was record a person’s first comment. The dignified English woman’s comment was, ” . . . when they opened the casket he was, he was O.K.”

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