Cuthbert (d.687) (DNB00)
|←Cutcliffe, John|| Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 13
CUTHBERT, SAINT (d. 687), bishop of Lindisfarne, though said by Irish historians to have been the son of an Irish king named Muriadach (Libellus de Ortu), a statement adopted by Wessington, prior of Durham in the fifteenth century (Rites of Durham, 64, 65), was probably born of parents of humble condition dwelling in the Lothians. When he was in his eighth year, and naturally fond of childish play, he was amusing himself, so he afterwards told Bishop Trumwine, who repeated the story to Bæda, with other children, by contorting his limbs and making faces, when a little boy about three years old prayed him to desist, telling him that he would hereafter be both priest and bishop (Bædæ Vita S. Cuthberti, 4). As a boy he suffered from a disease in the knee, and he had a vision which led him to believe that his cure was miraculous. His home was probably on the banks of the Scottish Tine, near the monastery of Tiningham; for he was believed to have wrought a miracle there by his prayers while he was still a youth. He next appears as keeping sheep upon the hills near the Lauder, a tributary of the Tweed, in 651. While thus engaged he saw in a vision the soul of Bishop Aidan [q. v.] carried up to heaven by angels, and a few days later heard of his death (Vita, anon. 8). This vision made him determine to enter the monastic life. He went to the monastery of Melrose, which stood about a day's journey from where he was keeping sheep, on a site still called Old Melrose, on the same bank of the Tweed as the famous house of later days. At the time of his arrival the abbot Eata [see art. on Colman, d. 676] chanced to be away, and he was received by the prior Boisil, who, Bæda tells us on the authority of an eye-witness, when he saw him, said to those who stood by, ‘Behold a servant of God,’ and greeted him with the words addressed to Nathanael (Bæda, 10). A few days afterwards, when Eata returned, Cuthbert received the tonsure, and soon surpassed the other monks in prayer, in labour, in reading, and in discipline. When the Northumbrian king, Alchfrith [q. v.], built the monastery of Ripon and gave it to Eata, Cuthbert was one of the party the abbot took with him to his new house, and he there held the office of hostillar, or receiver of guests. Alchfrith, however, adopted the Roman usages, and in 661 Cuthbert and the rest of the Melrose monks who adhered to the customs of the Celtic church were expelled from Ripon, and returned to their old house. Soon after their return the plague broke out in their monastery. Cuthbert was attacked by it, and his life was despaired of. He recovered, but the disease left him with an internal tumour, from which he suffered during the rest of his life. He was somewhat tall of stature, and before this attack had been stout and strong. As soon as he had recovered, his friend and teacher, Boisil, fell sick, and called him to him, and told him that he had not more than a week to live, and bade him learn something from him while he was yet able to teach him. So in the course of the next seven days they read through the Gospel of St. John together, and then Boisil died. Cuthbert succeeded to his office as prior of Melrose, and gave himself with great earnestness to going about from place to place instructing the people, being absent from the monastery sometimes for a week, sometimes for as long as a month at a time, preaching to the ignorant inhabitants of the upland villages. Wherever he went, his loving and persuasive manner and the sweetness of his face brought men to confession and repentance. Visits that he made to Coldingham and to the land of the Picts, probably to Nithsdale (‘quæ Niduari vocatur’), are specially recorded. It is evident that he adopted the Roman usages after the synod of Whitby (664), and Eata, the abbot of Lindisfarne, appointed him prior of his house in order that he might introduce the observance of the Roman rule in the convent, a work which he did not accomplish without considerable difficulty. In spite of the departure of Colman and his company, a strong party in favour of the usages of the Celtic church appears to have been left at Lindisfarne, and Cuthbert often met with rudeness in the discussions held in the chapterhouse. Gradually, however, his loving nature and patient temper overcame his enemies, and won them over to his views. Gentle with others, he was severe with himself, and was unsparing in his acts of mortification and devotion. He wore no robe different from that worn by all the brethren, which was of undyed wool.
In 676, after Cuthbert had been twelve years at Lindisfarne, he determined to adopt a solitary life, and retired to a lonely spot, where he gave himself up to religious meditation. Tradition has identified the place of his first retirement with a cave called St. Cuthbert's Cave, in the southern slope of the hills near Howburn (Raine, Life, 21). After a while he resolved to enter on a life of severer seclusion, and fixed on Farne Island, about two miles distant from Bamborough Castle. This island, the nearest to the coast of the group of islands and rocks known by the common name of Farne Islands, is now generally called House Island; it consists of a few acres of ground partially covered with coarse grass, and hemmed round with an abrupt border of basaltic rocks, which on the side towards the mainland rise to the height of eighty feet, while on the other side they slope down to the water. On this slope Cuthbert made his cell. With the help of his brethren he built an enclosure wall of stones and turf so high that he could not see over it, and within this he made his abode, the walls being of unhewn stones, and the roof of timber thatched with grass. Outside it was about the height of a man, while inside it was much higher; for it was dug out so that the occupant could see nothing but the sky from its single window. The cell was divided into two chambers, one to be used as an oratory, the other as a dwelling. A larger hut was built at the landing-place for the accommodation of the brethren who came to visit the anchorite. Here Cuthbert gave himself up to austerities. At first he would come out of his cell and receive his brethren when they came to visit him, and would wash their feet. After a while, however, he kept within his cell, and would only talk to them through the window, and then at last he kept that closed, and never opened it except to give his blessing, or when he needed something (BæDæ Vita, 18). Cuthbert passed nine years in this seclusion. Once in 684, at the earnest request of Ælflæd, abbess of Whitby, he met her on Coquet Island. She prayed him to tell her how long her brother Ecgfrith had yet to reign, and he foretold the king's death, which took place the next year, and the succession of Aldfrith [q. v.] When, in the same year, Tunberct was deposed from the see of Hexham, Cuthbert was unanimously elected to succeed him by a council held at Twyford, on the Alne, in Northumberland, in the presence of Ecgfrith, and under the presidency of Archbishop Theodore. Many letters and messengers were sent to him to beg him to accept the bishopric; and as he continued to refuse to do so, the king and Bishop Trumwine, accompanied by a large number of churchmen and powerful laymen, went to his island, and after some difficulty persuaded him to agree to their request. His old abbot, Eata, then bishop of Lindisfarne, was transferred to Hexham, and Cuthbert was given the diocese where his home was. He was consecrated at York, in the presence of Ecgfrith, by Theodore and seven bishops at the Easter festival, on 26 March 685 (Bædæ H. E. iv. 28; Councils and Eccl. Docs. iii. 166). Although the charter which declares that Ecgfrith gave Cuthbert Crake and a considerable district, together with Carlisle, is certainly a forgery, it is possible that such a grant was made. It is mentioned by Symeon of Durham (Historia Dunelm. Eccl. i. c. 9), and Bæda connects Cuthbert with Carlisle (Bædæ Vita, pp. 27, 28). As bishop, Cuthbert was diligent in preaching, he delivered the poor from him that oppressed him, he spent little on himself, for he still lived a strictly monastic life, and he gave food and raiment to the needy.
Two years after his election, feeling that his death was near, he gave up his bishopric and returned to his cell on Farne Island. As he was leaving the mainland, a monk of Lindisfarne asked him when he would return. ‘When you bring my body hither,’ he answered, as simply as though he were stating an ordinary fact. This was just after Christmas 686 (Bædæ Vita, p. 37). Two months later, on 27 Feb. 687, he suddenly fell sick. Bæda describes his last days from information he received from Henfrith, abbot of Lindisfarne, who was with him when the sickness came on him. His complaint arose from the tumour from which he had suffered ever since he recovered from the plague. Cuthbert told the abbot of the preparations he had made for his burial: in the north side of the oratory, hidden by the turf, Henfrith would find a stone coffin that had been given him long before by the abbot Cudda; in this his body was to be laid after it had been wrapped in a shroud that Verca, the abbess of Tiningham, had sent him, and he desired that he might be buried on the south side of his dwelling-place, with his face to the east, looking towards a cross he had set up in his cell. He would not allow the abbot to leave any one with him, but desired that he would return before long. For five days Henfrith was unable to go back to him on account of the stormy weather. When at last he came to the island again, he found him sitting in the hut built at the landing-place; he had been there during the whole time waiting for some one to come and minister to him, for he seems to have been too weak to move, nor had he eaten anything save that he had moistened his mouth with part of an onion. Then the abbot washed one of his feet that was ulcerated by his disease and gave him some warm wine, and when he returned to the monastery left certain brethren to take care of him. When Henfrith told his monks that Cuthbert desired to be buried in his cell, they sent some of their number back with the abbot to beg him to allow them to lay his body in their church. Cuthbert granted their request, and told them that the reason why he had ordered otherwise was because he feared that if he were buried at Lindisfarne, it would be made the resort of evil men who would come thither for the purpose of claiming sanctuary. When he found that his death was drawing near, Cuthbert caused the monks to carry him back to his cell, and in the afternoon of the same day he sent for Henfrith. The abbot found him lying in a corner of his oratory over against the altar. Although scarcely able to speak, he sent the monks a farewell charge; he prayed them above all things to live a life of humility and peace, to hold catholic unity, especially in the matter of keeping Easter, and to observe the catholic commands of the fathers, and the institutes of monastic life which they had received from him, and he bade them remember that his wish was that if ever they were compelled to leave their monastery they should take his body from the tomb and carry it with them whithersoever they went. At midnight the abbot gave him the last sacraments, and when he had received the holy elements he died on 20 March 687. Cuthbert had been a monk for thirty-seven years (Symeon of Durham, Hist. Dunelm. Eccl.), and as he entered the monastic life at an early age, he probably was not sixty at the time of his death. As soon as Cuthbert had breathed his last, one of the monks who were in attendance on him took a torch in each hand and went up to the highest point in the island looking towards the mainland, and so gave the signal of his death to the brethren who were spending the night in watchfulness and prayer in their church. The monks dressed Cuthbert's body in his priest's robes, put his sandals on the feet, and placed the sacramental elements on the breast; they then conveyed the body to Lindisfarne and laid it on the south side of the altar. In spite of Bale's assertion to the contrary, there seems no reason for believing that Cuthbert was the author of any works. His life was one of asceticism rather than of labour. By far the larger part of it was devoted to the care of his own soul, and he was not remarkable either as a reformer of ecclesiastical order or as a preacher of the gospel. Yet the church held him in extraordinary veneration. It has not been thought necessary to give any account here of the numerous miracles that were attributed to him. Those recorded by Bæda were believed to be genuine by the saint's contemporaries; many of them were told to the historian by men of the greatest sanctity of life who were eye-witnesses of the facts they related, and who believed them to be evidences of Cuthbert's miraculous power. They are proofs of the high place that he held in the church even during his life. It is easy to see why this was. Although Northumbria could already boast of many men of eminent holiness, a large number of them differed from the Roman church, and held to the peculiar Celtic usages. Cuthbert was a convert to the Roman ritual, a fruit probably of the synod of Whitby; he supplied the loss that the church would otherwise have sustained when Colman turned his back on an ungrateful land, and he brought Colman's famous house into the catholic unity. Men saw in him then an embodiment of the triumph of the ecclesiastical order established in 664, and every proof of saintship that was attributed to him must have been looked on as a fresh seal to the victory of the church over her former Celtic teachers.
Eleven years after Cuthbert's death, in 698, the monks of Lindisfarne, wishing to do him honour, translated his body, and placed it above the floor of their church. On opening the coffin they found the body of the saint in a state of incorruption, and the robes undecayed. They took off the chasuble, which became a miracle-working relic, and put another in its place (Bæda; Reginald). When Lindisfarne was laid waste by the Danes in 793, the body of the saint was left undisturbed. In 875 the see was again ravaged by another pagan invasion, and Bishop Eardulf determined to flee for safety. Mindful of the saint's charge to Henfrith, he and the monks took Cuthbert's body with them in their flight, carrying it in a wooden coffin. They went into Cumberland, and intending to migrate to Ireland put the body on board a ship at the mouth of the Derwent; the ship, however, was driven back, and the bishop and his monks journeyed to the coast of Witherne in Galloway, and then again to Northumbria. Wherever the body of the saint rested during these seven years of wandering, it is said that a church or chapel was built and dedicated to him. At length in 883 Guthred, the christian king of the Danes, believing that he had been helped by the saint, gave Eardulf Chester-le-Street, a few miles to the north of Durham, for the place of his see, and there Cuthbert's body was laid in the church. The body remained at Chester for about a hundred years, until Bishop Ealdhun, fearing another Danish invasion, carried it to Ripon. After a few months the bishop left Ripon, intending to return to Chester. He and his monks did not take the direct road, and finally, in obedience, as it was supposed, to the saint's directions, settled at Dunholme or Durham. There Cuthbert's body was deposited first in a little chapel made of the branches of trees, then in a wooden church, and on 4 Sept. 998 was removed into Ealdhun's church, which was built of stone. When William the Conqueror ravaged the north in 1069 the monks of Durham fled for shelter to Lindisfarne, taking the body of their patron with them, but returned again the next year. In 1104 the body was transferred to the new church built by Bishop William, and the monks on opening the coffin found it still in a state of incorruption, and with it the head of King Oswald, slain in 642 (St. Cuthbert is usually represented as holding the king's head in his hand) and various other relics. In 1542 the magnificent shrine of the saint was defaced, and the body was buried below the floor of the church immediately beneath the spot where it had formerly lain. Finally, on 17 May 1826 the tomb was opened, apparently for no other reason than to gratify the curiosity of certain of the cathedral clergy. The bones of the saint were found, and the head of Oswald was with them. Pieces of Cuthbert's robes were taken out of the tomb, and it was further rifled of several relics, which are now exhibited by the dean and chapter in their library. A fuller account of these translations will be found in the Rev. J. Raine's article on St. Cuthbert in the ‘Dictionary of Christian Biography.’ That article, to which the present writer acknowledges his obligations, also contains an admirable bibliographical and critical account of the various works written on the saint's life and miracles.
[Bædæ Vita S. Cuthberti Metrica, and the later but more valuable prose Liber De Vita et Miraculis; Hist. Eccl. iv. c. 26–32; Vita S. Cuthberti, auct. anon., the foundation of Bæda's prose Life, written by a monk of Lindisfarne; Historia Translationis S. Cuthberti, extending from 875 to 1080, all these are edited by Stevenson in 2 vols. (Eng. Hist. Soc.); the prose Life by Bæda, the work of the anonymous author, and the Historia Translationis are in the Bollandists' Acta SS. 20 Mar. 93 et seq. with valuable notes; see also under Bæda for bibliography of his works on St. Cuthbert; Symeon of Durham, Hist. Dunelm. Eccl. and other tracts under Symeon's name in Twysden's Decem Scriptores, and the edition of Symeon now in course of publication in the Rolls Series; Reginaldus mon. Dunelm. Liber de B. Cuthberti virtutibus (Surtees Soc.); Liber de Ortu S. Cuthberti, containing the Irish account of him, and Vita apud Miscell. Biog. (Surtees Soc.); J. Raine's (the elder) Saint Cuthbert, a work to which little if anything can be added; Raine's North Durham; Registrum Palatinum Dunelm. i. preface (Rolls Series), edited by J. Raine (the younger), and by the same the article on Cuthbert in Dict. Christian Biog.; Bale's Scriptt. cent. i. 84.]