Celebrating St Cuthbert’s Day

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Durham Cathedral posted a few pictures of their celebration of St Cuthbert’s feast day this year (yesterday) on facebook. I thought I would share this one. This is from the evensong service after the procession at Cuthbert’s shrine in the Cathedral.

A picture of the shrine below comes from their facebook page. I wish I could see the banner on the wall better. I think its St Oswald on horseback with his raven. Oswald’s skull is still in the casket with St Cuthbert. The pre-Reformation status of Cuthbert holding Oswald’s head is along the wall near the top of the grave. It was damaged during the Reformation.

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

The shrine is an enclosed chapel behind the main alter but also near the back center of the cathedral. There are more alters along the back wall behind the chapel. It seems to be a pretty unusual plan, or better yet a survival of a pre-Reformation floor plan. It’s possible only because of the huge size of Cathedral. The only one I saw remotely similar was the tomb of the Black Prince and kings in Canterbury cathedral but those were much smaller. (I have to say that the sight of all the Black Prince’s war gear displayed in church really put me off.) I saw lots of large coffins/sculptures in the middle of the floor in many English churches, but not walled off like this one.

Captivated by the Cross

I’ve been captivated by this image since I found it earlier this week. It was taken by David W Coigach and posted at deviantART. Taken at Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway  (Southwest Scotland), this imagery seems so right for Heavenfield  with the ravens circling overhead. Ok, so I’ll admit heavenfield didn’t have a stone cross, which seems really odd, but I guess a miracle working wooden cross was enough!

Heavenfield Round-up 5: Signs of Power and Piety

The find of the week was the grave of a medieval abbot of Furness Abbey in Cumbria. Past Horizons has the best write up of the discovery at the abbey, which is just southwest of the Lake District. They have also had good features on reinterpreting the mass grave of Vikings found in Oxford, and possible remnants of the first Anglo-Saxon church at York.

Antiquarian’s Attic also has featured the finds at Furness abbey, and the purchase of the St Cuthbert Gospel by the British Library.

Karen Jolly of Revealing Words is investigating the design of the church at Chester-le-Street for her novel, and refining her design here.

Tim Clarkson of Senchus reviews People of Early Scotland, and on his blog Heart of the Kingdom looks at the hogbacks of Govan and Penrith.

Esmeralda’s Cumbrian Folklore and History brings us a picture of Cumbria’s oldest cat from St Cuthbert’s church, Penrith.

Jonathan Jarrett of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe reviews James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland (and hits the nail right on the head),  his digital work, on Alex Woolf’s vision of early medieval Scotland, and writes about Anglo-Saxon moneyers (or lack of them) and coin distribution.

Curt Emanual, the Medieval History Geek, takes up the defense of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus this week.

Magistra et Mater writes about the complicated history of Justinian’s code and its use in later Italy.

Nicola Griffith of Gemæcca writes about her vision of York and its church during King Edwin’s time.

Historian Sally Wilde has a new blog to write about her crime novel project on the murder of Hereric, father of St Hild. She has several posts up in the last week.

Clas Merdin has posts on Arthur’s Stone and on the Oxford mass Viking grave.

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a Blog and he also hath a new post up.

Mak Wilson of Badonicus posts about his plans for his Arthurian project.

Viqueen of Norse and Viking Ramblings writes about a fieldtrip to the Isle of Man to study runes.

Bamburgh Research Project blog has a new video up of excavations in the west ward of the castle and a post on Bamburgh village.

From the Professor Awesome’s Unlocked Wordhoard: The Battle of Maldon

Oswine the Anti-Hero

(A post from the archive on the anniversary of King Oswine’s death.)

King Oswine of Deira (Yorkshire) 20 August 651

Modern Eastern Orthodox icon of King Oswine of Deira

Today is the anniversary of the execution of King Oswine of Deira, considered by some to be a saint. All we know of Oswine is included in Bede’s History (Book III:14). Bede writes a curious tale for Oswine.

“King Oswine was tall and handsome, pleasant of speech, courteous in manner, and bountiful to nobles and common alike; so it came about that he was beloved by all because of his royal dignity which showed itself in his character, his appearance, and his actions; and noblemen from almost every kingdom flocked to serve him as retainers. Among all the other graces of virtue and modesty with which, if I may say so, he was blessed in a special manner, his humility said to have been the greatest” (McClure and Collins, ed; 1994:132)

This all seems well and good. Bede proceeds to narrate an example of Oswine’s great humility to St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, at the end of the episode, Aidan turns to an Irish colleague and says “I know that the king will not live long; for I never before saw a humble king. Therefore I think that he will very soon be snatched from this life; for this nation does not deserve to have such a ruler.” (p. 133). Oswine death follows and Aidan himself dies only 12 days “after the murder of the king he loved”. The implication is that Aidan dies of a broken heart.

Bede actually begins his tale with Oswine’s murder/execution. Oswine has gathered his army to meet King Oswiu (who would later rule at the Synod of Whitby) in battle near Catterick. When Oswine realized how outnumbered he was by Oswiu, he disbanded his army and went into hiding with a retainer he believes is his friend. This retainer betrayed him to Oswiu who had his rival executed. There is no doubt that this murder caused an outrage in the church. Oswiu’s queen, Eanflaed, was the cousin of Oswine and demanded a weregeld (blood price) paid by the founding of the monastery of Gilling where prayer was to be offered daily for the soul of King Oswine and his murderer King Oswiu.

The question is why does Bede include the story in his History. There is no evidence that he sees Oswine as anything other than a sad victim. Bede provides no evidence that Oswine was considered to be a saint by his day. Oswine was much later reported to be buried at Tynemouth, not the new monastery of Gilling.

The usual explanation is that Bede includes the story because his beloved Abbot Coelfrith came from Gilling, Coelfrith’s family monastery (meaning that Coelfrith was also a kinsman of Oswine). This isn’t really a very satisfying answer. Gilling had ceased to exist before Bede was born and Coelfrith is not mentioned in the story. An interesting side note is that Gilling seems to disband as a monastery after the plague of 664 when all the surviving monks joined Abbot Wilfrid at Ripon (victor of the synod of Whitby the same year). Thus within months of deciding for Rome, the monastery Oswiu had to found as weregeld/penance was allowed to disappear.

Another explanation is that it was part of Aidan’s death story. This isn’t very satisfying either because Aidan’s death is not elaborated on, as it is in a later chapter (which doesn’t mention Oswine at all). These look like two reports of Aidan’s death.

The chapter begins with an assessment of Oswiu’s reign and the next chapter records a miracle of Aidan’s in assisting in the arrival of Eanflaed to her marriage to Oswiu. The context of the story places it within Oswiu’s story as Oswald’s successor. Miracles of St. Aidan and Aidan’s death are then inserted. After Aidan comes the life and death of pious King Sigeberht of East Anglia who had entered a monastery, but his people pulled him out of the monastery to lead them into battle against Penda, the evil pagan of Bede’s History. Sigeberht refused to carry a weapon in to battle and rode to his death carrying only his royal scepter.

Bede has set up a story of three example kings

  • Oswald: Bede’s ideal king: brave, victorious in battle, supporter of the church and evangelist, humble enough to translate Aidan’s sermons before his people, but not too humble to loose their respect, protector of his people up to his death.
  • Oswine: too humble to be a king. A perfect picture of a king, but when it came down to it, not brave enough to ride in to battle and die. He is an anti-hero.
  • Sigebert: a pious king, but nevertheless Bede did not favor kings who retired to monasteries. The fact that his people came to him to lead them in battle suggests that he once was victorious in battle and was still young and healthy enough to do so again. He did not protect his people. Penda destroys the army, Sigebert’s co-king, and then ravages the monasteries and people of East Anglia.

Bede believed that people should live up to the position in life they were given: king, bishop, monk, commoner. A king should be a good king: protector of the people, patron of the church, obedient to the bishop. He offers Oswine as an example to his readers of how a king should not behave.

Perhaps he was also eager to ensure that King Oswiu would not be too glorified. He tallied plenty of pious attributes during his 28 year reign. He may have been the greatest patron of the church of his age, judge at the synod of Whitby, and slayer of Northumbria’s worst enemy (Penda of Mercia), but he was also capable of murdering his rivals and having his own kinsmen, his nephew Oethelwald son of Oswald and his own son Alhfrith, rebel against him. His rebellious kinsmen are never heard from again. Bede does make sure to casually mention these rebellions in the beginning of the chapter before he narrates Oswine’s story. The execution of Oswine may be Bede’s way of indicating the fates of Oethelwald and Alhfrith by implication in a way that would not offend the contemporary rulers of Northumbria.

Adomnan, Cuthbert, and King Aldfrith

St Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral

I was really looking forward to Barbara Yorke’s paper “Adomnan at the court of King Aldfrith” from the Adomnan conference published in Adomnan of Iona: Theologian, Lawmaker, Peacemaker. I have a couple of her books and I’ve learned a lot from her. Unfortunately there are a few things in her chapter that I don’t think work very well.

While I agree that Cuthbert appears to have worked himself into King Ecgfrith’s confidence there really isn’t much evidence that he arranged for Aldfrith to be Ecgfrith’s heir to the family’s relief. If King Aldfrith owed his succession to Cuthbert, it is strange that there is not one episode of Cuthbert being in the presence of Aldfrith or Adomnan in Bede’s History, either Life of Cuthbert, or Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Strange given that there are several episodes of Cuthbert with King Ecgfrith and his queen. We know that Adomnan visits King Aldfrith’s court one year after his succession, in 686, and this is about the same time that Cuthbert essentially abandons his episcopate to become a hermit on Farne island again (for which health is not an excuse). He is trying to get away from the world, perhaps the new king.  After Cuthbert’s death in 687, Bishop Wilfrid takes control of Lindisfarne, hardly a friendly appointment, and there is great turmoil at Lindisfarne during his tenure there. Adomnan visits again in 688 and this roughly coincides with the appointment of a new bishop for Lindisfarne, ending Wilfrid’s jurisdiction there. How much influence Adomnan had on King Aldfrith in these matters is unknown, maybe none. However we do know that Adomnan was successful in redeeming Irish hostages taken by King Ecgfrith in 684 on both his 686 and 688 trips. Rather than seeing Cuthbert’s prophecy as evidence that he arranged Aldfrith’s succession, it may be intended to cover up friction between Bishop Cuthbert and King Aldfrith. Someone so closely tied to Ecgfrith, intrusted with the queen before his death and seeing her safely into a convent as a widow, may not have been trusted by Aldfrith.

Here we remember Cuthbert’s dying instructions to Lindisfarne included

“But have no communion with those who err from the unity of the Catholic faith, either by keeping Easter at an improper time, or by their perverse life. And know and remember, that, if of two evils you are compelled to choose one, I would rather that you should take up my bones, and leave these places, to reside wherever God may send you, than consent in any way to the wickedness of schismatics, and so place a yoke upon your necks.” (Life of Cuthbert, Ch. 39)

Adomnan was the leader of those schismatics and Iona its fountain head, where the Aldfrith was when his brother was killed in battle. Cuthbert had spent years as prior of Lindisfarne bringing that community into communion with Rome, so he had no energy or desire to back peddle by improving their relationship with Iona.

Barbara Yorke’s paper also doesn’t recognize that Adomnan made a third trip to Northumbria in 702-3, as recorded by Bede. I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say, that I think Adomnan’s visit to Wearmouth-Jarrow occurred in c. 702-3 rather than in 688.

Is this St. Cuthbert? (via Contagions)

A post-mortem of sorts on my other blog Contagions. Let me know what you think!

Is this St. Cuthbert? Somehow I envisioned better teeth.   Actually Dr Shelby Plummer, who examined the remains from Durham Cathedral in 1899, believed that the incisors (front teeth) were lost after death. He doesn’t elaborate on why he thinks that and the loose teeth were apparently lost. As I work on my presentation for Kalamazoo on Plague in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, I thought I would look at the only paper Shelby Plummer published on Cuthbert’s remains to evaluate … Read More

via Contagions

Plague Comes to Lindisfarne, Christmas c. 683

In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (ch. 22), Bishop Cuthbert tells a Christmas story at Lindisfarne and his hermitage on Farne to the people of Carlisle . This is not your typical cheerful Christmas story.

One Christmas before Cuthbert was ordained bishop, some of the brothers from Lindisfarne rowed out to his hermitage on Farne Island to celebrate the feast day with him. They prepared a feast worthy of the holy and joyful feast day. Eventually they coaxed Cuthbert out of his hut to join them.


Cuthbert was not a very cheerful fellow. In the middle of the feast, Cuthbert stopped their joyful celebration with warnings that they must prepare for temptations at all times and repent. The brothers chided Cuthbert that Christmas is supposed to be a joyful feast and he relents; the feast continues. A while later after more feasting and storytelling, Cuthbert again stops the feast and tells them that they should be praying and keeping vigil. This time the brothers remind Cuthbert that when the angel announced the holy birth to the shepherds it was to herald joyful celebration by the whole world. He relents again, but after a little while admonishes them for the third time. This time the brothers recognize Cuthbert’s sincerity and in fear end their feast. Cuthbert tells the people at Carlisle that neither he nor the brothers visiting him knew what was yet to befall them.

When the brothers returned to Lindisfarne the next day, they found that the first brother had died of the pestilence.

“as it grew and became worse from day to day, yea and from month to month, and almost throughout the whole year, nearly the whole of that renowned congregation of spiritual fathers and brethern departed to be with the Lord in that pestilence. Now therefore, brethren [of Carlisle], do you also watch and pray, so that if any tribulation come upon you it may find you already prepared.” (Colgrave, p. 249)

Ironically Cuthbert tells this story to the people of Carlisle to reassure them that his sermon warning them to prepare for tribulations was not necessarily about a return of the pestilence! This makes me think that something about this story has been reworked by Bede or his informant. According to Bede the tribulation that Cuthbert warned them of in his sermon was the death of King Ecgfrith in Pictland.

My immediate concern here is his description of the plague. This slow ramp up of cases over nearly a full year is what we should expect for the plague. There should be a trickle of cases early on, while the rodent epizootic is going on, and only when the rodents have been decimated do human cases begin occurring in large numbers. The plague does not behave like the flu; it doesn’t come and go in six weeks.

The priest Herefrith, who was abbot of Lindisfarne during Cuthbert’s tenure as bishop (685-687), read and helped Bede edit his Life so there is reason to believe that this description of the plague is accurate. It also means that both the then hermit Cuthbert and Bishop Eata, who were each at Melrose during the plague of 664, survived this second round at Lindisfarne.  Although Cuthbert was a hermit, he was being supplied by Lindisfarne. This is consistent with his survival of an episode of plague in 664, which would give him immunity to the plague. Of course in a flea transmitted disease it is possible for him not to have been exposed in this second wave, cases would have been very hit-n-miss.

As to the Christmas timing of the beginning of the plague, this makes sense considering Lindisfarne’s role as the mother church of the kingdom. The arrival at Christmas suggests that it came in trade goods obtained for the festivals of the Christmas season. Lindisfarne is within eye-shot of the royal fortress of Bamburgh and so could expect goods and visitors for the major feast days of the Christmas season.

Considering the events of Cuthbert’s life and the consensus that the second major wave of plague in Northumbria ran from about 684-687, I’m dating this Christmas to the end of 683. Cuthbert is talking about the completion of the year long plague while in Carlisle in May 685.  Even so the plague lasted within the kingdom for as long as Cuthbert lives. Perhaps we should consider the year long pestilence at Lindisfarne in Cuthbert’s demand to stay at Lindisfarne if he was to accept the episcopate in the spring of 685.

Colgrave, Bertram, trans. (1940, repr 2007). Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.