Today (September 4th) is the feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert (born c. 635; died 20 March, 687). Probably born near Melrose in the Scottish/Northumbrian borders, Cuthbert was inspired from an early age by the monks of the local monastery where St Eata was abbot and St Boisil prior.
In 651 he experienced a vision in which angels bore up to heaven the soul of St. Aidan, and as a result of this he decided to become a monk at Melrose, though his entry seems to have been delayed by the requirement of military service – a consequence of the threat posed to the Kingdom of Northumbria by Penda, the pagan King of Mercia, who had already been responsible for the martyring of two Northumbrian kings, St Edwin and St Oswald.
Once peace had been restored, Cuthbert returned to Melrose, where he soon became known for his learning, holiness and miracles. He spent some time in the monastery of Ripon, but, along with other Ripon monks who felt a loyalty to the Celtic style of monasticism, left when St Wilfrid decided to enforce a stricter adherence to the Roman usage.
Back at Melrose he replaced St Boisil as prior, but, after the decision by the Synod of Whitby in 664 to accept Roman usage throughout the Anglo-Saxon church (most especially with regard to the date of Easter), St Eata sent Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior with a view to introducing Roman customs into what was by tradition a Celtic monastery.
Cuthbert’s success in this regard was due in large part to his own personal sanctity, and in the process he demonstrated that fidelity to all that was best in Celtic monasticism and commitment St Wilfrid’s program of bringing English Christianity more into line with continental Christianity were by no means incompatible with each other.
After a period devoted to evangelizing the people of Northumbria, Cuthbert retired (in 676) to lead the life of a hermit, finally settling on Farne Island off the Northumbrian coast. However, in 685 his life of prayer and asceticism was interrupted St Theodore of Canterbury insisted that Cuthbert be ordained Bishop of Lindisfarne, and for nearly two years Cuthbert devoted himself to preaching and pastoral work before returning to his cell on Farne Island to await his approaching death.
His tomb in the monastery at Lindisfarne was immediately associated with numerous miracles, giving rise to Cuthbert’s title of “Wonder-worker of England”.
During the Danish invasion of 875, Bishop Eardulf and the monks took Cuthbert’s body with them during a seven-year period of wandering around Cumberland and Galloway before returning to Northumbria where a converted Danish ruler who had a personal devotion to St Cuthbert gave the monks a church at Chester-le-Street a few miles to the north of Durham.
As the end of the first millennium approached, the fear of further Danish incursions resulted in the temporary transference of the shrine to Ripon. En route back to Chester-le Street (the threat of invasion having receded) the monks were persuaded by a sign from God to build a new shrine in Durham, which became the site for the original Durham Cathedral (completed in around 998/999).
After a brief sojourn on Lindisfarne (where he was removed for safety while William the Conqueror was ravaging the north in1969), Cuthbert’s shrine (containing his incorrupt body together with the head of St Oswald) was restored to the present Norman Cathedral in 1104.
Throughout the Middle Ages St Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham was one of England’s greatest centres of pilgrimage and devotion, but in 1542 the iconoclasm of the Reformers resulted in its despoliation. Happily, a group of Durham monks had the foresight to hide Cuthbert’s body in a secret location, which, according to tradition, is known to selected Benedictines who pass the knowledge on from one generation to the next.
For more information on St Cuthbert, the Haliwerfolc blog is heartily recommended.