From time to time I like to pop into the British Library, which is only a 20 minute bus journey from our home. Sometimes this is to visit the latest exhibition, at other times just to spend a half hour browsing the ‘Treasures of the British Library’ permanent exhibition. I am always a little overwhelmed by the beauty and significance of these unique books and documents – it’s like meeting one’s greatest heroes in the flesh.
This week I took the opportunity to see one of the more recent acquisitions of the BL, the St Cuthbert Gospel. This has actually been on loan to the library since 1989 but earlier this year was acquired from its previous owners, the British Province of the Society of Jesus, for £9m. As I am now a co-owner (along with the rest of the nation, of course) I thought I would check out my/our latest purchase.
The Gospel Book (a hand-written copy of St John’s Gospel) is a remarkable document in its own right, and I’ll be saying more about that in a second post. But what makes it even more precious is its association with St Cuthbert. To understand the significance of the St Cuthbert Gospel we need to know a little about the life of Cuthbert and his significance to the history of Christianity in Britain.
Cuthbert was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in the year 634 or 635, about the same time as the founding of the monastery at Lindisfarne (present day Holy Island) by Aidan. A vision of the death of Aidan in 651 led to Cuthbert entering the monastery at Melrose, which had been recently founded by monks from Lindisfarne. His leadership skills were soon recognised; after a short period at another new foundation at Ripon, he returned to Melrose where he was made prior, and around 665 moved to Lindisfarne, where he occupied the same position. In 684 Cuthbert was made bishop of Lindisfarne but resigned after just two years and assumed the ascetic lifestyle of a hermit, living in a cell on one of the Farne Islands, where he died on 20th March 687.
During his lifetime, Cuthbert became renowned as an effective evangelist and preacher. Many healing miracles were attributed to him. He impressed people with his severe simplicity of lifestyle and generosity to the poor. The times in which he lived saw a late flowering of Celtic Christianity in northern Britain, which had developed its own distinct customs and traditions independent of Rome. Differences between Celtic and Roman traditions were resolved at the Synod of Whitby (664) where King Oswiu of Northumbria, who chaired the synod, judged in favour of Rome. Cuthbert apparently submitted to the decisions made at Whitby and was responsible for introducing them to Lindisfarne.
Following his death in 687 Cuthbert’s body was brought to Lindisfarne for burial, but was not destined to remain there. In 793 the monastery suffered the first Viking raid on the British islands. Subsequent raids led to Lindisfarne’s eventual abandonment when in 875 the monks fled taking the bones of Cuthbert with them . The community eventually settled in Chester-le-Street, but a century later was forced to look for a new site after further raids. In 995 the monks – and Cuthbert – came to a new site on a defensible position within a loop of the River Wear. This was the foundation of Durham, which soon became a place of pilgrimage. In 1104 Cuthbert’s body was eventually laid to rest in a shrine at the eastern end of Durham Cathedral, the construction of which had begun a few years previously. Well, not quite laid to rest; in 1538 the richly decorated tomb was destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII. Cuthbert’s body was reinterred under the simple stone slab where he lies to this day; eyewitnesses declared that it was miraculously well-preserved and uncorrupted. There can be few bones as well travelled as those of Cuthbert.
It was when Cuthbert was buried in his new shrine in 1104 that a beautifully preserved copy of St John’s Gospel was found by his head. This was almost certainly placed next to the saint by the monks of Lindisfarne at the time of his canonisation in 698, when his body was laid in a new wooden casket. (Fragments of this casket are still preserved at Durham Cathedral.) So for 400 years this little book shared in the travels of the saint.
In my next post I will write about the significance of the St Cuthbert’s Gospel as a document in its own right.