Saint Cuthbert of Durham (Part 2)
Cuthbert died on 20 March 687. He had wanted a simple burial on the Inner Farne, but the monks of Lindisfarne had other ideas. He was taken back to Lindisfarne where he was given a burial fit for a king. His body was wrapped in precious cloths and placed in an elaborate sarcophagus together with his presumed pectoral cross and a copy of his beloved Fourth Gospel, the 'Cuthbert Gospel Book' that has recently been purchased for the nation by the British Library. Eleven years later, the sarcophagus was opened, then the accepted route to canonisation. Miraculously it was found to be intact with no evidence of decay. This was taken to be a sign of sainthood, and from then on his relics were venerated in a shrine above ground. When the community abandoned Holy Island, they set off around the north of England, looking for a permanent home. The issue here was not simply the need to live as a community in safety. It was first and foremost to identify a final resting place for their beloved saint, probably a conscious imitation of the patriarchs of the Old Testament gathering up the bones of their ancestors and taking them for burial in the place of God's choosing, the promised land. The wanderings of this faithful band of pilgrims carrying the relics of their beloved saint and their precious gospels is to me one of the most moving stories to come from our part of Britain.
The places where the saint's body rested on its long journey became indelibly associated with his memory. Already, the community had acquired estates across the north of England through the donations of kings and noblemen. The churches built on these sites were obvious safe stopping points on the pilgrimage, and the recollection that Cuthbert had lain in these places often provided the impetus to found small monastic cells there and enlarge their churches. Norham on the Tweed, Bedlington in Northumberland, and Crayke in North Yorkshire are among many places that were part of what came to be known as the Patrimony of St Cuthbert, Cuthbertsland. Wherever you find a pre-Conquest church dedicated to St Cuthbert, you can always presume a link to the Patrimony and often to this period of wandering. Even today, the memory of this defining époque is perpetuated in the fact that many of these parish churches dedicated to Cuthbert remain within the patronage of Durham Cathedral, the lineal successor to Lindisfarne. And this extends to the estates that this increasingly prosperous community acquired thanks for benefactions of those who came to treasure the memory of Cuthbert. Yesterday, we were in Whitekirk near North Berwick, a beautiful church I had not visited before. Inside there was a photograph of a medieval document which recorded the donation of the lands of that parish to the monks of Durham in virtue of its ancient connection with St. Cuthbert, either because he had preached there or because his body had rested there.
The memory of how Cuthbert's body had travelled around and rested at certain stopping-places created a strong sense of what we might call 'sacred geography' in the north of England and in the Scottish borders. It reinforced the notion of 'Northumbria' as not simply a political entity but a 'kingdom of the mind' with an emotional and spiritual dimension. This built on the connections already established in his lifetime between Cuthbert and the northern part of Northumbria, the kingdom of Bernicia. In this he was building on the partnership Bede describes in his Historybetween Aidan and King Oswald. By the time of the Norman Conquest, the inhabitants of the far north were known as haliwerfolk, the people of the saint. This ability of a saint's memory to bond a people and define a sense of place is comparable to the role of St Martin or Joan of Arc in France. In north-east England, Cuthbert provided precisely the kind of 'glue' that 1300 years later is perhaps still able to affirm something like a common history and set of values in the north-east.
In about 883 the community settled at Chester-le-Street where they rested for more than a century and a church was built in honour of Our Lady and St Cuthbert. In 995, they decided to move to a more secure site up river. We all know the legend of how they recognised the place where Cuthbert wished to lie. As they drew near to the peninsula, the coffin unaccountably stuck fast in the ground. It was impossible to lift it. Clearly the saint wished the community to pay attention. Then they overheard two women talking about a lost cow, and pointing to a place on top of the hill, Dun Holm, where she would be found. The community took this to indicate the saint's wishes. Now they found they could move the coffin again. They brought it on to the peninsula where they built a church to house the relics. It is only a story, of course, what the experts call an aetiology that explains the carving of a cow on the exterior north wall of the Cathedral. But it is exactly the kind of miracle story frequently resorted to in the middle ages to legitimise a religious shrine. It demonstrated both that Cuthbert had lost none of his potency in death, and that although Durham had enjoyed no direct connection with him, nevertheless this was the place where he wished to be honoured.
The Norman Conquest brought far-reaching change across England. The new order was proud, confident and ruthlessly efficient. In Durham, there was an early consequence for religious life at a time of conflict and rebellion in the north-east. In 1083, the Norman bishop William of St Carileph brought 400 years of Saxon religious history to an end by suppressing the Community of St Cuthbert because the monks had been allowed to marry and, it was alleged, their discipline had become lax. He re-founded it as a Benedictine Cathedral Priory whose monks were required to live strictly according to the Rule of St Benedict. Monastic 'cathedral priories' like Durham, Canterbury and Norwich provided for their bishops to be titular abbots who, no longer monks, delegated the running of the Cathedral to their priors. These curious institutions were unique to England, and in this respect, the Normans simply carried over a well-tried Saxon model. However, they transformed it on the basis of the Benedictine pattern familiar to them from hundreds of existing foundations in France. Here, the model was Cluny, whose Abbot Hugh of Cluny was at this time completing the construction of the great third Abbey Church, then the largest church in Christendom.
This watershed in the life of the monastery was given outward expression a decade later. In 1093 the first Cathedral, the White Church, the last visible survival of the Saxon community of St Cuthbert, was pulled down and a new Cathedral begun under Bishop William of Saint-Calais and Prior Turgot. As historians and lovers of architecture know, it is not only the pinnacle of Romanesque church building in Europe, but also pioneered new structural techniques. It was the first building in Europe to be stone vaulted throughout with rib vaults that would provide one of the foundations on which the gothic style could emerge. Along with the vault there were two other pioneering innovations at Durham: the flying buttress and the pointed arch. Work proceeded quickly and by 1104, the sanctuary, quire and transepts had been completed. In that year, Bishop Ranulf Flambard consecrated the feretory behind the high altar as the new shrine to St Cuthbert, and his remains, together with the head of St Oswald, were interred there.
The significance of that event would be hard to exaggerate. It launched a golden age for the Priory when pilgrims flocked to the shrine in their millions, bringing with them endowments and estates that made Durham the wealthiest cathedral in the land. For most of the 12th century it was the unrivalled pilgrimage centre of England. Only with the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170 and the growth of his cult at Canterbury did Cuthbert lose his pre-eminence in England. Durham's response was to promote itself as a pilgrimage church even more energetically. The late 12th century saw the creation of a beautifully illustrated life of Cuthbert, and the construction of Bishop Puiset's exquisite Galilee Chapel. In the next century followed the building of the Chapel of the Nine Altars at the east end of the Cathedral, a clear enlargement of the church around the shrine to allow pilgrims to gather and circulate more freely. Despite Thomas a Becket, Cuthbert's shrine at Durham continued to be a focal point for the devotion and loyalty of the people of the north of England and southern Scotland throughout the middle ages.
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