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The hermit who prayed in the freezing Celtic sea

St Cuthbert (March 20) was an examplar of a less triumphal, more inward form of religion than that represented by St Wilfrid, the pope’s henchman

By on Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert served as prior

Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert served as prior

Cuthbert (c 634-687) was raised in the traditions of Celtic Christianity. Although he subscribed to Roman ways after the Synod of Whitby (664), he remained an exemplar of a less triumphal, more inward form of religion than that represented by the dominating personality of St Wilfrid, the Pope’s henchman.

“Above all,” wrote the Venerable Bede, “Cuthbert was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort.”

There can be no question of Cuthbert’s holiness. But whereas he is traditionally presented as a shepherd boy, it is clear from the stories told about him that he lived on easy terms with royalty and aristocracy. Cuthbert’s name is Anglo-Saxon, and he was probably born in the Lothians.

At 15 he entered Melrose Abbey, later moving to Ripon, only to be expelled when King Aldfrith of Northumbria fell under the influence of the Romanising Wilfrid.

Back at Melrose, Cuthbert succeeded as prior in 664. In the tradition of Irish monastics, he travelled around the country preaching. Fiercely ascetic, he would stand in the freezing sea to pray.

Subsequently he became prior at Lindisfarne, where, obedient to the decision at Whitby, he performed the difficult task of introducing Roman rites and customs.

“When he was fatigued with the bitter taunts of his opponents,” it is recorded, “he would get up and without a sigh of vexation adjourn the chapter. The next day, as though he had met with no opposition, he would repeat his arguments until by degrees he had them brought round to his way of thinking.”

From 676 Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the small, rocky island of Inner Fane, although at the end of his life he served briefly as bishop, first at Hexham, then at Lindisfarne. By this time, though, ecclesiastical power in Northumbria had moved south to York.

Cuthbert died on Inner Fane, and over the next century a cult developed around his undecayed remains at Lindisfarne. When the Vikings sacked Lindisfarne in 793 his body was removed to Norham, on the river Tweed. During the ninth century his reputation spread as far as Germany.

From 875 to 883 Cuthbert’s corpse was taken on a series of peregrinations, no doubt with the aim of raising funds for the community established in his name. His cadaver was variously reported to be at the mouth of the Derwent, at Whithorn in Galloway and at Crayke near York.

Then for more than a century the body was at Chester-le-Street until it was again moved in 995, first to Ripon, then to Durham, where in 1194 it was accorded an honoured place in the new cathedral.

Cuthbert’s magnificent shrine was destroyed at the Reformation; his memory, however, has proved more durable.