Godric was born at Walpole in Norfolk (England) around the year 1065. He was a peddler of some sort – a traveling salesman, indeed – whose wanderings led him to sea for a period of around sixteen years, during which time he became a part-owner of a number of vessels, one of which he went on to captain. There is, in fact, some indication that he may have been operating more or less as a pirate, and that his lifestyle was as far removed from the ways of Christian living as that of pirates generally is.
Godric’s maritime exploits brought him to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast, and here he became acquainted with tales of St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne’s greatest saint. Godric’s life was transformed by his encounter with Cuthbert (who, even centuries after his death, must have remained an almost tangible presence on Lindisfarne), and he experienced a profound conversion.
Ever the seafarer, his conversion of heart manifested itself in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the early Middles Ages as in Late Antiquity, the idea of pilgrimage exercised a powerful hold over the imaginations of the holy, symbolizing as it did both the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert as they passed from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the wanderings of Christians exiled by sin from Paradise and living in this world as “strangers and pilgrims” en route to the New Jerusalem. Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head”, was essentially a pilgrim, and pilgrimage was understood as a way of conforming oneself with Christ and of following in his footsteps.
This last aspect of following in Christ’s footsteps was one which Godric interpreted with a certain literalness. While in Jerusalem he visited the river Jordan, and, contemplating his own feet, vowed: “Lord, for love of your name, who for men’s salvation walked barefoot through the world, and did not deny to have your naked feet struck through with nails for me; from this day I shall put no shoes upon these feet”. Godric always remained faithful to this vow – even in old age (he lived to be around 100) amid the biting winters of the North East of England.
Further pilgrimages took him to Santiago de Compostella, the shrine of Saint Giles in Provence, to Rome, to Cumberland in North West England (where he obtained a copy of the Psalms which was to provide the material and inspiration for his life of prayer and contemplation), and back to Jerusalem, where he spent time working in a hospital and living with the hermits of Saint John the Baptist and worked in a hospital for several months.
Cuthbert remained his inspiration, however, and it was a vision of Cuthbert in which the saint promised him a hermitage in England that promoted him to return to the land of his birth – this time to Durham, where Cuthbert lay buried – and eventually became a hermit in the forest around Finchale (just outside Durham) in the hunting grounds of the rather disreputable Bishop Ranulf Flambard (the first man to escape from the Tower of London).
Godric embarked upon a life of austerity and mortification, wearing a hair shirt under a metal breastplate, under the guidance of the prior of Durham. Many people sought his advice either in person or from a distance (the latter group included both St Thomas à Becket and Pope Alexander III), and Godric developed a reputation for miracles, for prophecy and for an affinity (characteristic of hermits) for the wild animals among which he lived.
His gift of prophecy extended to foretelling not only his own death both also the deaths of others. Though he seafaring days were now behind him, his prophetic charism enabled him to know when a ship somewhere was in danger of being wrecked, and he would cease from whatever he was doing in order to offer up a prayer.
Godric’s prophetic visions were also the occasion for the Blessed Virgin (among others) to teach him songs, and the four which are recorded by his biographer Reginald are the oldest examples of English verse for which we possess the original musical settings survive, and also the first to favour rhyme and metre over traditional Anglo-Saxon techniques of alliteration.
He died in 1170, tended and mourned by the monks of Durham, having given expression during the course of his extended life to the vocations of both the pilgrim and the hermit.