Feast day: 20 March
St Cuthbert was born probably into a noble family in Dunbar - then Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, now East Lothian, Scotland - some ten years after the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity in 627, when he was baptised by Paulinus of York. Edwin’s successor Oswald invited Irish monks from Iona to found a monastery at Lindisfarne, where Cuthbert would spend much of his time. Though Edwin was converted it took a long time for Christianity to be established. There was also a tension between Celtic and Roman practice, exacerbated by Wilfred, Archbishop of York.
Butler, author of Butler’s Lives, suggests that Cuthbert was fostered at Melrose, which would suggest noble birth, as would references to his riding a horse when young. The fact that at some time he looked after sheep does not necessarily indicate that he came from a poor family. There is some suggestion in Irish genealogies that he was a second cousin to the king of Northumbria.
His decision to become a monk seems to date from a dream he had of St Aidan’s soul being carried to heaven by angels; he later discovered that he had died that night. There is also a legend that an angel appeared to him when he was about seven, in the guise of a little boy, who was crying bitterly. When Cuthbert asked the reason he was told by the child it was because he was wasting so much time at games, when he was destined to be a priest and bishop. Nevertheless, Cuthbert spent some time as a soldier. After this he joined the new monastery at Melrose (referred to as Old Melrose). The abbot was Eata and the prior Boisil.
Cuthbert was renowned for piety, diligence and obedience, and when Alcfrith, king of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became guest master under Eata. However when Wilfred was made abbot of the monastery, Cuthbert and Eata returned to Melrose. They had been trained in the Celtic tradition whereas Wilfred was staunchly Roman. When the prior died, Cuthbert replaced him. He spent much time among the people administering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching and performing miracles. He would have travelled extensively through northern England and southern Scotland, founding churches, chapels and holy wells.
Cuthbert and Eata accepted the Roman customs such as the tonsure and fixing of Easter after the Synod of Whitby (663-4). Cuthbert and Eata moved to Lindisfarne, where the latter was abbot and the former prior. Cuthbert was asked to teach the rules of monastic life to the monks of Lindisfarne. He was gentle, kind and patient and was responsible for establishing the Roman customs among the people, but he also led a very austere life and introduced strict discipline and rules in the monastery. He continued his missionary work which extended to what is now Durham and Carlisle. However, he longed for a life as a hermit and withdrew first to the isle known today as St Cuthbert’s Island and then to Inner Farne in 676. Here he built a little hut and chapel with a high wall round them. He grew food for himself in a soil that became fertile and obtained plentiful supplies of water from a well. It has been suggested that he was the first person to see the need for safeguarding wild birds, particularly eider ducks, and in 676 he introduced laws to protect them. Inner Farne is still a wild bird habitat. The Northumbrians call the Eider Ducks “Chickens of Cuddy” after St Cuthbert. In spite of his desire for solitude he was visited by many people, religious and lay alike who sought spiritual advice and consolation from him.
In 684 he was elected bishop of Hexham, much against his will, but he exchanged the see with Eata and became bishop of Lindisfarne instead. He was consecrated in York in 685. He worked hard in his new role for two years and then returned to his cell in Inner Farne where he died in 687.
One of Cuthbert’s closest friends was a hermit priest called Herbert, who lived on an isle in Derwentwater. Cuthbert paid a yearly visit to him, where they shared their spiritual insights. When Cuthbert revealed to him that he was going to die soon, Herbert asked him to pray that they might depart this life at the same time. His wish was granted and Herbert’s feast day is celebrated the same day as Cuthbert’s.
St Cuthbert was the most popular saint in medieval England apart from St Thomas of Canterbury. Alfred the Great had a vision of him in a dream where he gave encouragement to the king in his struggle against the Danes. There are many miracles and stories about him before and after his death. He was buried first in Lindisfarne and was removed many times to escape the Danish invaders before finally coming to the hill of Warden Law, where the bier rested and would not move. In a vision the saint indicated the place where he wished to be buried, later the site of Durham Cathedral; thus in 995 the city of Durham was founded. He became an important symbol for the independence of the Palatinate of Durham, where the bishop had almost as much power as the king of England. Cuthbert’s banner was carried in battles against the Scots.
His coffin was opened eleven years after his death and his body was found to be incorrupt. It was again opened in 1104 when he was moved to the shrine behind the altar of the recently completed cathedral. A small gospel of St John was recovered (now in the British library), the oldest western book to have retained its original book binding. His shrine was destroyed in the Reformation but his relics were preserved and are enshrined in Durham cathedral.
The main original sources for his life are the Vita Sancti Cuthberti, written at the end of the seventh century, in eight manuscripts from continental Europe, and Bede’s verse and prose Life of St Cuthbert which used the earlier work. He was inspired to write after the discovery of the saint’s incorrupt body.
St Cuthbert, pray for us. St Herbert, pray for us.