Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Today we go back to year 687 and travel to Lindisfarne in the North of England and remember the life of St Cuthbert who died today. Curiously his legacy and fame seems to have strengthened as time has stretched on. Cuthbert was born in North Northumbria at the same time which Aidan founded the monastery on Lindisfarne, a small rock island off the coast of Northumbria.
You can listen to the podcast below - an abbreviated section of the script is following
The turning point in his life seems to be at the age of 17 years old, when he was guarding some neighbour's sheep on the hills and saw a light descend to Earth and then return to the sky. This was a strong experience that at first perplexed him - what could it be? It was August 31st, 651AD, and he later found out that it was the same which the same night that Aidan died. Henceforth, Cuthbert believed that the light was an angel escorting a human soul to Heaven and this lead him to seriously consider a monastic vocation.
For the next 13 years he joined a monastery in Melrose in the Scottish borders and when Melrose was given land to found a new monastery, further south in Ripon, Yorkshire, Cuthbert went with the founding party and was made guestmaster. When
his former teacher and friend, died of the plague. Cuthbert returned to Melrose taking up a position of responsibility.
Now in his early thirties, the Synod of Whitby marked a vital turning point in the development of the church in England. Northumbria had been mainly converted to Christianity by Celtic missionaries from Ireland and the West Coast of Scotland. However after the arrival of Augustine in Canterbury, seen by some as the first foreign mission mandated by the Pope, there was growing influence of Roman Christianity from the South of England. Two accounts of the synod survive, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and in The life of Wilfrid by the monk Eddi.
The Northumbrian King decided in favour of Rome because he believed that Rome followed the teaching of St. Peter, the holder of the keys of heaven. This brought the English Church into close contact with the Continent. As a result, the Irish monks of Lindisfarne, with others, went back to Iona. The abbot of Melrose subsequently became also abbot of Lindisfarne and Cuthbert’s administrative role increased. A deeply spiritual man, this would have been at some level a vexation, and moved by a desire for the contemplative life, with his abbot's leave, he moved to a spot which has been identified with St Cuthbert's Island near Lindisfarne. Shortly afterwards, Cuthbert moved to Inner Farne island, two miles from Bamburgh, where he gave himself up to a life of great austerity. At first he received visitors, but later he confined himself to his cell and opened his window only to give his blessing. To his dismay he was elected Bishop of Hexham, and it was only after a visit from a large group, including king Ecgfrith, that he agreed to return and take up the duties of bishop, but instead as Bishop of Lindisfarne, swapping with Eata, who went to Hexham instead. However by the end of the next year he resigned and returned to his hermitage after Christmas day where he died today on 20 March 687, after a painful illness.
He was buried at Lindisfarne the same day, but his remains where removed to escape Viking raids, and eventually settled at Durham, causing the foundation of the city and Durham Cathedral. The St Cuthbert Gospel is among the objects later recovered from St Cuthbert's coffin, the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive.
After Cuthbert's death, numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession and his shrine at Durham Cathedral
was a major pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages, until stripped by Henry VIII's commissioners in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Most famously, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was inspired and encouraged in his struggle against the Danes by a vision or dream he had of Cuthbert. Cuthbert became a figure and a rallying point for the building of England as a cohesive kingdom after the absorption of the Danish populations into Anglo-Saxon society. Bede the Venerable wrote both a verse and a prose life of St Cuthbert around 720 and has been described as "perhaps the most popular saint in England prior to the death of Thomas Becket in 1170.