March 20, 687: Death of St Cuthbert

Cuthbert is easily the most well-known of the Anglo-Saxon saints, as much for events after his death in 687 as before. He became a monk at Melrose in 651, and was part of the first monastic community at Ripon. In the later 660s he became prior of Lindisfarne, but in 676 he retired to the less accessible island of Farne. In 685, he was made bishop of Lindisfarne, somewhat against his will; but after Christmas 686 he retired once again to Farne Island, where he died a few months later.

Within fifty years of his death there were three saints' lives of Cuthbert, an anonymous life commissioned by the bishop of Lindisfarne in about 700, and two lives written by the Venerable Bede, one of the foremost scholars of the day. The lives picture him as a simple monk, a pastor and teacher, a man who sees visions and experiences miracles, some of which seem homely to a modern audience -- for instance the night when he prayed a whole night standing neck-deep in sea-water, and in the morning otters came out of the sea to dry and warm him. (It should be noted that early saints' lives often copy stories from other lives written for other saints, so the stories may not be true specifically of Cuthbert, but they do affirm the reverence in which he was held.) Another side of Cuthbert is seen in his connections with the Northumbrian royal family -- as when Ælfflæd, abbess and daughter of a king, asks him to prophesy about the reign of King Ecgfrith, and he foretells Ecgfrith's death.

Eleven years later after his death, Cuthbert's tomb was opened and the body was found to be uncorrupted (that is, undecayed), which was taken as a great sign of sanctity, and miracles have been claimed in his name ever since. In the wake of Viking attacks in the late eighth and early ninth centuries (Lindisfarne was sacked in 793), the community took up the still-uncorrupted body of their saint and travelled, settling in Chester-le-Street in 883 and moving finally to Durham in 995. The remains were still incorrupt when they were moved to the Norman cathedral in 1104, and some of the other contents of the coffin were removed in the nineteenth century, including an ivory comb and a pectoral cross of gold set with garnets which was probably worn by Cuthbert himself, over thirteen hundred years ago.