Audrey, Cuthbert and the Durham Stole

St Cuthbert\'s stole[I haven’t been able to post much lately, but life seems to be getting straightened out so I hope on a regular basis back soon. It may be August before I’m back to the frequency I had last spring though. Hang in there with me…]

Today is the feast of St Æthelthryth so I can’t let today pass without a post on Audrey. Did you know that according to Marie de France, St Audrey made the very stole that is among St Cuthbert’s treasures at Durham (pictured right)?

“But above all others she loved Saint Wilfrid who advised her and Saint Cuthbert for his goodness and his great integrity. To Saint Cuthbert she often gave very generously of her wealth: Saint Audrey made a finely-worked stole and maniple out of gold and silk, adorned it with precious stones and gave it to him. These adornments are still kept with great affection in Durham. To honor God in memory of Saint Cuthbert the church made a monstrance for them. The love between these two [Cuthbert and Audrey] was proper and acceptable to God for they were both virgins who led chaste and holy lives. One was always mindful of the other, [praying] that God would bring each of them into His glory.” [Vie Seinte Audree, lines 1091-1110, McCash and Barban, p. 77, 79]

It is highly unlikely that Audrey ever gave Cuthbert, only a prior when she died, a gold and jewel encrusted stole and maniple. It is true that this stole, considered part of the treasures of St Cuthbert, is not jewel encrusted but that could either be an elaboration on Marie’s part or the jewels may have been removed over the years. It appears as though the backing of the stole and perhaps its edges have been removed at some point. (See the frayed edges to the right.) If this stole was kept in a monstrance (a type of reliquary) that could explain how it survived so well and very little of it would likely have been visible to see jewels or much of the design.

The stole and maniple was actually made by Queen Aelfflaed, the second wife of Edward the Elder for Bishop Frithestan of Winchester. It was donated to Durham by Aelfflaed’s step-son King Aethelstan in 934. Indeed, it seems likely that if former Queen Aethelthryth of Northumbria had given Cuthbert a jewel encrusted gold and silk stole, he would have been buried in it! King Aethelstan’s gift may have been used by the Bishops of Durham as a sign of their loyalty to Wessex or it may have been intended for a statue of St Cuthbert in Durham cathedral.

It is possible that we have yet another case of Marie’s inability to read or discern Anglo-Saxon names so that Aelfflaed was mistaken for a version of Aethelthryth (whose English name would have been spelled more like Audree by Marie’s time). It is also possible that the monks of Durham were trying to boost the relationship between Audrey and Cuthbert for their mutual benefit. Keeping it in a monstrance would have prevented many people from inspected the inscription.

Looking at the stole itself, it is a work of art. It is clear that needlework of the tenth century was at least as good as illuminations, if not better. I have long thought that these two art forms influenced each other a great deal. The photo to the left comes from The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 1913, vol 23 (121), at p. 4. You should be able to enlarge it by clicking on the picture or the link above (if you have access to JSTOR). The picture to the left is the prophet Amos and then the ends of the stole that record the name of its maker Aelfflaed and Frithestan who it was made for. A few years ago I picked up a bunch of slides from Durham of the stole and other treasures, I must get them scanned someday.

Enjoy this fine summer day and think a little of Audrey on her feast day. We commemorate what would not have been a fine summer day for Ely at all. Not only did they loose their founder and abbess, it was the beginning of a plague upon the Isle of Ely.


June Hall McCash and Judith Clark Barban, eds. (2006) The Life of Saint Audrey: A Text by Marie de France. McFarland.

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