Feast Day: 4 September
St Cuthbert lived from 634 to 20 March 687. He was a monk, bishop and hermit, and a man who is closely associated with the monasteries at what is now Old Melrose and on Lindisfarne. After his death he became one of the most important medieval saints of northern England, and a cult grew up around his tomb at Durham Cathedral. Cuthbert is regarded as the patron saint of northern England and today even has a long distance walk, St Cuthbert’s Way, named after him. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Cuthbert is said to have been born in or near what is now Dunbar in East Lothian, probably the son of a noble house: by some accounts he was a relative of Northumbrian royalty. He seems to have been fostered to a family living near what is now Melrose in the Scottish Borders. It is said he trained for military service before seeing a vision of St Aidan on the night the saint died in 651. This prompted him to become a monk in the monastery at Old Melrose.
Cuthbert quickly established a reputation for piety, diligence, and obedience at Old Melrose. In 655 King Alchfrith of Deira founded a new monastery at Ripon, and Cuthbert was invited to become its “praepositus hospitum” or guest master under his mentor, Prior Eata. Cuthbert subsequently returned to Old Melrose and when an epidemic struck the area in 664 the prior died and Cuthbert was appointed as his replacement.
Until 664, Northumbria (which included what is now south east Scotland) had subscribed to the teachings and practices of the Celtic Church. However, the early church was riven by doctrinal differences, with the Celtic Church differing from the Roman Church in a number of respects. The most important of these was their different methods of calculating the date of Easter, which in some years could produce results that were 28 days apart.
As far as the Kingdom of Northumbria was concerned, the matter was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when, after prolonged debate, King Oswy decided to employ the method advocated by the Roman Church. The result was a deep split between the monasteries at Lindisfarne and Iona. Monks at Lindisfarne unable to accept the decision departed for Iona, and thereafter the two island monasteries became focal points of distinctly different Christian traditions.
Implementing the new Roman doctrines required strong leadership, and in about 670 Cuthbert was asked to become the prior of the monastery on Lindisfarne. This caused so much strife that in 676 he retired to become a hermit, first on what is now called St Cuthbert’s Isle, just off the shore of Lindisfarne itself, and later on the Farne Islands. In 685, however, he reluctantly agreed to the request of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria to become a bishop, initially of Hexham and then of Lindisfarne. During the two years before his death in 687 he established an enduring reputation as a religious leader. He died on Inner Farne Island and was buried in the main monastic church on Lindisfarne. Two years after his death his body was “translated” to a new coffin, and his remains were found to be “incorrupt”.
Cuthbert subsequently became a highly venerated saint, and the subject of an enormously popular cult. On 8 June 793 the monastery at Lindisfarne. was raided by Vikings. It was the beginning of the end, and in the face of further attacks the monks left Lindisfarne for good in 875, taking St Cuthbert’s coffin and relics with them. They established a new monastery in an old Roman fort at Chester-le-Street, before in 995 moving again, this time to Durham. St Cuthbert’s tomb has since been housed in Durham Cathedral.