Sunday, March 20, 2011

St. Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral

The Catholic Herald features St. Cuthbert this week:

Cuthbert (c 634-687) was raised in the traditions of Celtic Christianity. Although he subscribed to Roman ways after the Synod of Whitby (664), he remained an exemplar of a less triumphal, more inward form of religion than that represented by the dominating personality of St Wilfrid, the Pope’s henchman.

“Above all,” wrote the Venerable Bede, “Cuthbert was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort.”

* * * * *

From 875 to 883 Cuthbert’s corpse was taken on a series of peregrinations, no doubt with the aim of raising funds for the community established in his name. His cadaver was variously reported to be at the mouth of the Derwent, at Whithorn in Galloway and at Crayke near York.

Then for more than a century the body was at Chester-le-Street until it was again moved in 995, first to Ripon, then to Durham, where in 1194 it was accorded an honoured place in the new cathedral.

Cuthbert’s magnificent shrine was destroyed at the Reformation; his memory, however, has proved more durable.

Geoffrey Moorhouse described the destruction of the saint's shrine in his book The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery. Hilary Mantel of Wolf Hall fame summarizes the story in her Guardian Review:

In the dark winter days of 1539, Henry VIII's commissioners arrived to strip the shrine. They took away an emerald which in the previous century had been valued at more than £3,000, and dispatched the priceless Lindisfarne Gospels to distant London. St Bede's shrine was also at Durham, but when it was opened there was nothing to see. His bones were elsewhere, or had been distributed among the faithful. But the commissioners brought in a blacksmith to smash open Cuthbert's coffin, and "found him lying whole incorrupt with his face bare and his beard as if it had been a fortnight's growth, and all his vestments upon him as he was accustomed to say mass withall; and his meet wand of gold lying beside him there". One leg broken in the raid, the ancient saint was bundled into the vestry for a year or two, till he was re-entombed in plainer style. His emerald was never seen again. . . .

Later iconoclasts pulled down Cuthbert's statue and smashed his stained-glass life-story. In the reign of Edward VI, the dean was Robert Horne, who brought a wife "where never woman came before" - she had the holy water stoups lugged into the kitchens and used them for salting meat and fish. But today Cuthbert lies in state again in the cathedral. Moorhouse is an eloquent witness, wise and measured, to the getting-up and lying-down of his old bones.

Moorhouse's book was published in the USA as The Last Divine Office: Henry VIII and the Dissolution of the Monasteries. See my review here.


  1. "Pope's henchman?"

    What's a hench, anyway?

    -- Mack Hall

  2. Whinnnnny!

    -- Mack