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

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.

Herefrith of Lindisfarne

Some of the most important additions to Bede’s Prose Life of Cuthbert came from Herefrith, a former abbot of Lindisfarne. I think its worth exploring what Bede tells us about Herefrith in  the Life of Cuthbert and what we can deduce.

When Bede first introduces material from Herefrith in the plague of Melrose chapter [Ch 8] he tells us that Herefrith was a former priest of Cuthbert’s and a former abbot of Lindisfarne. In chapter 37,  where Bede relates Cuthbert’s instructions for his burial, Herefrith is described as being the abbot of Lindisfarne at that time (March 687).

Herefrith relates three key elements of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: 1) account of the plague at Melrose, 2) Cuthbert’s healing of Abbess Ælfflaed by his girdle, and 3) the account of Cuthbert’s last days. Contrary to what Colgrave says in his notes on the plague of Melrose, Herefrith does not say that he was a member of Melrose. He says that he was a member of Cuthbert’s community and abbot at Lindisfarne and that Cuthbert used to relate the events at Melrose.   It seems likely that Herefrith had been a member of Cuthbert’s community at Lindisfarne only. As his abbot at Lindisfarne, he would have been close to the bishop especially during his last illness.

Now being the abbot of Lindisfarne when Cuthbert died gives us several possibilities for how he lost the abbacy.He would have been abbot of Lindisfarne when Bishop Wilfrid succeeded Bishop Cuthbert for a year. This was remembered as a terrible time when many of the brothers left Lindisfarne. Was Herefrith among those who abandoned Lindisfarne? Could he have led some of the brothers away? Or is it more likely that he lost the abbacy over not being able to keep it together during the stress of Wilfrid’s tenure?

Since he is not mentioned at all in the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, it is possible he was gone from Lindisfarne before then. If he did leave Lindisfarne and was seeking to get away from Bishop Wilfrid, then Whitby is the most likely refuge powerful enough to protect monks from Lindisfarne. When King Ecgfrith was killed Bishop Trumwine abandoned his see at Abercorn and went to Whitby. Thus Whitby would be the one place where members of the Irish party would be out of Bishop Wilfrid’s reach. Bishop Trumwine was one of the bishops who convinced Cuthbert to accept the episcopacy would have been sympathetic to his former community. There is one secure connection between Herefrith and Whitby. The story of Abbess Ælfflaed’s healing by Cuthbert’s girdle came from Ælfflaed herself to Herefrith, and from Herefrith to Bede.

Bede tells us that Herefrith was very active in reviewing notes and the text of his Life of Cuthbert. Herefrith is the only reviewer that Bede names specifically and says that he came to him to work on it. It is possible that Herefrith waited to return to Lindisfarne until after Bishop Wilfrid’s death in 709. As Lindisfarne’s former abbot he would have been most likely to want to improve the first Life and counter Stephan’s Life of Bishop Wilfrid. Although there are few direct comparisons between the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid, they present two very different models for bishops. It is as competing models more than quotes or common episodes that marks these two lives as being produced in opposition to one another.

We know little of Herefrith outside of his role in Cuthbert’s life and the production of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. There is a Herefrith the priest listed among the anchorites in the Durham Liber Vitae. If this is the same man, then he seems to have followed Cuthbert’s model to his last days.