Restless Dead

09 04 cuthbert 1Today I am celebrating the translation of Saint Cuthbert. When a saint is translated it means that his remains are moved from one place to another. On this day his body was interred at Durham in the year 999. In fact Cuthbert had undergone an unusual amount of translation since his death in 687 and that’s what I’ve been reading about today.

Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne and was buried at the monastery there. His grave was visited by many pilgrims. Because he had been such an important person, eleven years after his death, the monks opened his coffin in order to wash his bones and wrap them in expensive cloth for reburial. They were amazed to find that his body looked just the same as the day he died, a sure sign that he was a very holy man. So they enclosed his body in a second coffin and kept it above ground. Word spread as Cuthbert received even more visitors and many miracles were attributed to him.

09 04 cuthbert 2Then in 875 Lindisfarne was invaded by Danish raiders and the monks were forced to flee. They took all their really important stuff with them including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Saint Cuthbert. They also took with them the bones of Saint Aiden and the head of King Oswald of Northumbria. The monks probably thought they would be unable to return for some time. However, they probably didn’t expect than they would spend seven years travelling all around the north with Cuthbert’s body. They carried him down through Northumbria to the River Tyne and across to the west coast. There they tried to take him to Ireland where they thought they would be safe from Viking raids. But a storm blew up which battered their boat so badly that they were forced to conclude Cuthbert didn’t want to go there. They turned back the way they had come and then looped down through Yorkshire and back up to Chester-le-Street where they arrived in 882.

Cuthbert’s body remained at Chester-le-Street for the next 113 years. Then another Viking raid uprooted him again in 995 and he was moved to Ripon. This time he was away only a few months. On the return journey the cart on which the coffin rested became stuck, and one of the monks experienced a vision telling him that the saint must have a new shrine at a place called Dunholme. There was one problem, none of them had ever heard of the place. But then two women happened to pass by, one had lost her cow, the other remarked that she had seen it at Dunholme. The cart immediately became unstuck and the women were able to lead the monks to the right spot. A densely wooded plateau almost surrounded by a loop in the River Wear that would become known as Durham. When people heard of Cuthbert’s new resting place they turned up in droves to help the monks clear the sight and build a shrine. Cuthbert was laid to rest there in a new church, called the White Church, on September 4th 999. In 1104 he was moved again to a shrine in the newly built Durham Cathedral.

Even after his long peregrinations the saint could not really rest in peace. In the early 11th century he was tended by a priest called Alfred Westou who liked to open up his coffin to comb his hair and trim his nails. The priest also tells us that a weasel raised a family inside his coffin. Westou wasn’t just content with looking after the body of Saint Cuthbert though. He began to travel around the north acquiring, possibly stealing, other remains for his collection. He took two hermits, two bishops of Hexham, two abbesses and a king. What he really wanted though, were the bones of the Venerable Bede which were at Jarrow. The monks there were probably aware of his proclivities and he was foiled in his attempts for several years. But then around 1020 after spending several days there in apparent prayer and meditation the bones were found to be missing. No one knew what had happened to them until Cuthbert’s shrine was moved to the cathedral in 1104. Westou had put Bede’s bones in the coffin with Cuthbert.

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