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.

6 thoughts on “Plague Comes to Lindisfarne, Christmas c. 683

  1. I’m interested in evidence for plague in Britain around this time, as there is that problem in the Welsh Latin annals (“Annales Cambriae”) where Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon is said to have died in a great plague raging in the early 680’s. The year implied in the A and B texts is perhaps either AD 682 or 683, but, as you know, these sets of annals have very few internal date markers (the C text implies the date AD 679, but this is heavily influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth (HRB xii,15). However, the received wisdom is that ‘682’ is a mistake and that Cadwallon actually died in the plague of 664, to fit in with the idea of his father being the Cadwaladr who fell in battle against the Northumbrians in 632 or 634. The Irish annals (AU, AT & CS) also record ‘mortalitas’ in the early 680’s, their ‘third plague’, so it seems likely that, whatever the identity of Cadwallon and his father, it is not improbable that this annal is in fact correctly placed in the chronology.

    1. Adomnan also talks about two great waves of plague in “our time”, so in his lifetime. Plague did strike Ely in 679. Abbess Aethethryth died of plague in June 679 and Bede implies most deaths came after her. For Caedwalder we also have to cope with Geoffreys conflating of Caedwalla of Wessex with Cadwalader. What year did Caedwalla of Wessex die?

  2. Caedwalla of Wessex died 20 April 689, which is the precise date C gives for the death of Cadwaladr ‘in Rome’: this is Geoffrey’s fiction, he makes the ‘mortalitas’ in Britain the pretext for Cadwaladr deserting Britain and going to Armorica (Brittany) ten years previously (i.e. AD 679). But this is the equivalent annal in C (and B) to that in A noting the death of Cadwaladr in the early 680’s.

    1. It is plausible that he died in a plague in 679-early 680s. As I said, the plague visited Ely in 679. I think the later date is more likely than 664. According to the HB there was another king in Gwynedd in 655, so its unlikely that Cadwaladr directly followed his father on the throne. This leaves less than 10 years on the throne before the plague of 664, although the plague of 664 probably lasted a couple years at least. As far as how long plausible it is for Cadwaladr to live, Penda’s youngest son died in 704 if I recall correctly. King Oswiu died over 50 years after his father Æthelfrith.

  3. Is there any evidence for the plague in this part of the world for the period 750 to 1340AD?

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