St. Cuthbert (c. 635 – 687) was a Northumbrian saint renowned for his ascetic and spiritual life
“…since death is upon me I admonish you to loose no opportunity of learning from me so long as I am able to teach you.” Cuthbert, never doubting the truth of the words of Boisil, answered: “And what, I ask you, is it best for me to read, which I can yet finish in one week?” He replied: “The evangelist, John. I have a book consisting of seven gatherings of which we can get through one every day, with the Lord’s help, reading it and discussing it between ourselves so far as is necessary.” They did as he said. They were able to finish the reading so quickly because they dealt only with the simple things of the “faith which worketh by love” and not deep matters of dispute. So when the reading had been completed in seven days, Boisil the man of the Lord, having been attacked by this said disease, reached his last day and, having spent it in great gladness, he entered into the joy of perpetual light.”
(Quoted from Bede’s life of St. Cuthbert, chapter VIII).
Cuthbert was born sometime before 635. The only inkling we have of this date, though, stems from the story that he in 651 had a vision of the death of St. Aidan, founder of the first monastic community at Lindisfarne. At this point, he is said to have already served in the army. Although this might be a superimposition of the story of St. Martin of Tours on the life of St. Cuthbert, it is likely he was at least sixteen before he entered a monastic life. Both Cuthbert and Kenswith, the name of his foster mother, are British and he probably spent his youth in the northeast growing up in a bilingual world.
After his vision, he entered the monastery of Melrose in 651, where he became a guest master. The reason, he entered Melrose, was probably his affinity to its prior, Boisil, who according to the vitae prophesied his future career as both bishop and saint. At Boisil’s death, Cuthbert became prior at Melrose.
At this time, the church in Northumbria was divided as to the proper calculation of the time of Easter as well as the way in which the priests and monks should be tonsured. On the one hand were the proponents of the particular Irish – more Johannine and spiritual – Christianity; on the other the Petrine inspired communities adhering to Rome and Latinitas. Officially the controversies were laid to rest at the Synod at Whitby in 664, but the three different vitae, written about St. Cuthbert, all witness to the fact that he was initially a proponent of the Irish church and its Columban traditions.
It was during this time, Cuthbert became known to the Northumbrian royalty, and it is likely, this led to his flight from “worldly glory” to Lindisfarne, where he became prior. In this role, he was instrumental in introducing a harsher and more ascetic regime on the Holy Island. Later, he was allowed to move to setlle on the inner Farne Island, some six miles to the south-east of Lindisfarne.
In 685, he was – though unwilling – consecrated bishop of first Hexham and later Lindisfarne. The consecration took place in York in March 685. Now followed a tumultuous period as Northumbria was already on the cusp of war. Also, plague struck, and the old theological controversies once more raised their head. Soon after, he fell ill and was allowed to retire to his beloved Farne Island, where he died in January 687. He had wished to be buried there beneath the cross, he had erected outside his hermitage. Despite this, his fellow brethren brought him back to Lindisfarne where they wrapped him in a shroud and laid him to rest in a stone-coffin gifted to him by the Northumbrian royal family.
During the next ten years, the Irish community at Lindisfarne continued to be harassed by the Roman camp in the church, and it is likely this led to the sanctification of Cuthbert in 698 when his uncorrupted remains were reinterred in a wooden shrine.
Later in 875, after the Vikings had repeatedly sacked Lindisfarne , the remaining monks carefully fitted an interior portion int he shrine, which they presumably packed with their other treasures and relics. Traipsing around the countryside for several years, the monks found shelter first at Chester-le-Street, later at Ripon, and finally at Durham. It is likely some of the artefacts from the 7th and 8th centuries found in the shrine were preserved because of this wandering about – the pectoral cross, the comb and not least the small Gospel Book. The book still has its red leather binding adorned with an interlace pattern framing a double vine scroll in the middle.
The manuscript with its preserved binding and spare and ascetic, yet beautiful script, is unique. The book was probably produced around 700 – 730 at Wearmouth-Jarrow and is thus unlikely to have been the personal prayer-book of the saint. Nevertheless the text – the Gospel of St. John – witnesses to the contemplative and ascetic life of the saint steeped in Columban (Irish) spirituality. It is likely, the book was early on involved in the commemorative masses of the saint and venerated as such. Later, the small book was placed inside the coffin. Thus, it was preserved in its nearly pristine condition.
In 1104 the shrine was opened and inspected. At this time, the small book was discovered on a shelf above the head of the saint. Girded with miraculous capabilities as well as a particular “honour” it miraculously stayed safe in its casket at Durham until the dissolvement of the Cathedral priory in 1539. While the rest of the treasure was either confiscated, broken or dispersed, the book was probably preserved in secret by Crypto-Catholics. Much later, it turned up in the posession of Stoneyhurst College, who deposited in the British Library until it was fully acquired by the institution in 2014.
There exists three vitae or lives of St. Cuthbert: Vita Sancti Cuthberti, completed soon after the translation of his body in 798. and Bede’s two lives respectively in prose and verses. The best translation is
Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life.
Translated by Bertram Colgrave.