Translation of St. Cuthbert’s Relics

In addition to the 20 March feast day of St. Cuthbert (observed in the Extraordinary Form—I believe—and the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and by the Church of England), 4 September celebrates the arrival of the relics of St. Cuthbert at their eventual resting place, Durham.  The 4 September date is celebrated as St. Cuthbert’s feast day in the Divine Worship form of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.  Additional name-day blessings to you, Father Matthew Cuthbert Dallman, Obl.S.B.!

Following is a summary of the history of how St. Cuthbert’s relics were moved from Lindisfarne to Durham.  (The following is adapted mostly from this source.)

The Viking Raids

In June 793, Lindisfarne Monastery was attacked by Vikings, the first major such raid on Britain, in what was to become a frequent occurrence over the next few decades. Monasteries were prime targets as they were wealthy and undefended.  In 875, the monks of Lindisfarne became alarmed by the threat of Danish invasion and decided to flee. They took with them their most precious possessions, including the relics of Saint Cuthbert, and the Lindisfarne Gospels.  They wandered for a full seven years, until 883, when they were given a church at Chester-le-Street, near Durham. Ironically, their benefactor was a Danish king who had converted to Christianity.

From Chester Le-Street to Ripon

In the late 10th century another Danish invasion threatened, so the body of Cuthbert was moved again, this time to Ripon, over 300 years after St. Cuthbert had first come to the abbey as a master. After only a few months at Ripon, the relics were once more carted off.  The intention was to return to Chester-le-Street, but on the way, Durham became a possibility and indeed the eventual resting place of St. Cuthbert’s relics.

There are two stories about Cuthbert’s eventual resting place in Durham:

The Story of the Dun Cow

Legend has it that at some point on the monks’ journey back to Chester le-Street with the body of St Cuthbert, the cart carrying the coffin suddenly stopped and could not be moved. The leader of the community, Bishop Aldhun, had a vision of St Cuthbert demanding to be taken to a place called ‘Dunholme,’ but nobody knew where it was.

The puzzled monks stood perplexed at how to find ‘Dunholme’. Then a cow girl walked by, and asked another young woman if she had seen a lost dun (brown) cow.

The young woman said she had seen the cow heading in the direction of Dunholme – and pointed out the way.

The monks, who had overheard this exchange, decided to follow the cow-girl, and found that St Cuthbert’s coffin moved readily in that direction. They continued along that road and got to Dunholme (Durham). 

dun cow bas relief

A Son in Law in Durham

There were several factual reasons for St Cuthbert’s Community to have chosen Durham.  Like many Anglo-Saxon priests, the community’s leader, Bishop Aldhun, was married, and, in turn, his daughter was married to Uchtred, who had become the Earl of Northumbria. As a dowry, Aldhun had received extensive land for the Church, which included Durham.

In seeking a safe haven from raids, Durham, a peninsula protected by a river with very steep banks, was ideal.

The Community’s move to Durham was beneficial from the point of view of Uchtred as well – it would provide the reason, and perhaps the finances for the construction of a defensive complex, and St Cuthbert would bring tremendous prestige, and through continuous pilgrimage, prosperity.

(The featured-image photo is of the St. Cuthbert Feretory to the east of the high altar in Durham Cathedral.  The photo of the bas relief of the dun cow and the two Northumbrian women is–if memory serves–on a building in Dun Cow Lane to the north of the cathedral.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s