The Relics of Saint Cuthbert:
Orthodox Pilgrimage to Durham, Escombe, Jarrow, Bamburgh, Lindisfarne, and the Farne Islands, led by Bishop Kallistos, August 26-September 2, 2006
On the night of March 20, 687, two torches were held aloft on the crest of Cuthbert’s island. The signal was seen by a monk on Lindisfarne, who ran to the church, to tell the brethren that Cuthbert, their abbot and bishop, had breathed his last. With inexpressible sorrow, his body was brought to the monastery and placed in a sepulchre. We have a description written by an eyewitness:
“He was carried by ship to our island; but first his whole body was washed, his head wrapped in a head cloth and an obley placed upon his holy breast. He was robed in his priestly garments, wearing his shoes in readiness to meet Christ and provided with a waxed shroud. His soul rejoicing in Christ, his body remained incorrupt, resting as though asleep in his stone coffin; and so they placed him with honour in the church.
“After eleven years, through the prompting and instruction of the Holy Spirit, after a council had been held by the elders and licence had been given by the holy Bishop Eadberht, the most faithful men of the whole congregation decided to raise the relics of the bones of the holy Bishop Cuthbert from his sepulchre. And, on first opening the sepulchre, they found a thing marvellous to relate, namely that the whole body was as undecayed as when they had buried it eleven years before. The skin had not decayed nor grown old, nor the sinews become dry, making the body tautly stretched and stiff; but the limbs lay at rest with all the appearance of life and were still moveable at the joints. For his neck and knees were like those of a living man; and when they lifted him from the tomb, they could bend him as they wished. None of his vestments and footwear which touched the flesh of his body was worn away. They unwound the headcloth in which his head was wrapped and found that it kept all the beauty of its first whiteness; and the new shoes, with which he was shod, are preserved in our church over against the relics, for a testimony, up to the present day.”
An Orthodox Christian will understand these things from his own experience. A visitor to modern Athens can take the tube to Omonia Square, and from there, take the elevated train to Nea Ionia. It is then a walk of about six blocks to the Church of Saint Eustathios, a large and imposing church built by refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s. At the front of the church, on the right, in a beautiful silver reliquary, lie the incorrupt and miracle working holy relics of Saint George of Neapolis. He was a priestmonk, celebrating the Divine Liturgy blamelessly in Neapolis, which was in Cappadocia, in Asia Minor. He was martyred by the Turks in 1797. His body was buried hastily by the roadside where he had been killed, but some years later, he began appearing to his parishioners, condemning them for having abandoned him like that. When his parishioners uncovered his holy relics, even though he had been buried in a shallow grave by the side of the road some years before, they found his body whole and incorrupt. His relics were enshrined in the church where he had celebrated the Divine Liturgy, and there many miracles took place. The relics were brought to Greece, with great difficulty, at the time of the Exchange of Populations, in 1924, and there, they continue to work miracles. But there are many Saints in Greece whose relics are incorrupt: Saint John the Russian, Saint Spyridon of Trimythus, Saint Gerasimos of Cephalonia, Saint Dionysios of Zakynthos, Saint Patapius of Corinth. And, of course, there are many Saints whose relics are incorrupt in Russia. I know less about these, never having visited Russia, but I have read that the incorrupt relics of Saint Sophrony of Irkutsk escaped destruction at the time of the Soviets by being placed in a museum, and that they have now been restored to the Church, and are again venerated by the faithful. An Orthodox will know from his own experience the joy and wonder that the monks of Lindisfarne felt when they opened the tomb of Saint Cuthbert, and found him whole and incorrupt, as if asleep.
But what is the significance of incorrupt holy relics? When Adam sinned, God said to him, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It is our nature that, at death, the body decays, returning unto the dust from which it was created, awaiting the Resurrection of the Dead at the Last Day. But the Saints are those who have already entered into the promised Kingdom by anticipation, and God glorifies them by signs and miracles. Many times, their bodies remain incorrupt, and fragrant. This is a witness to their sanctification.
Nicodemus of Athos singled out three signs by which God glorifies His saints, and these are incorruption, fragrance, and miracles. All of these surpass the bounds of human nature. They partake of the Age which is to come, when all of creation shall be renewed. They are glimpses, they are reflections, of that which shall be in its fulness hereafter.
The relics of Saint Cuthbert were enshrined in a new coffin, and many miracles were wrought by them. Ninety-five years later, on June 7, 793, the Danes invaded Lindisfarne. They robbed the church of its silver and gold, killing some of the monks, and injuring others. But when Higbald and those with him who had escaped the fury of the Danes returned to the church, they were overjoyed to see that the holy relics of Saint Cuthbert had remained undisturbed.
The monastery continued in comparative quiet for a period of eighty years, but then a second and fiercer invasion began. In the year 875, the monks abandoned Lindisfarne, taking with them the relics of Saint Cuthbert, into whose wooden coffin were placed other holy relics, including the head of the martyred King Oswald. They wandered from place to place, in the midst of hardships and privations for seven years. When they came to the west coast of England, they even set out for Ireland. But a storm arose, and forced them to turn back. At the beginning of the year 883, when conditions had become more peaceful, they settled at Chester-le-Street, where the relics of the Saint rested until the year 995. Once again, the Danes invaded the land, and the monks fled south to Ripon, which was inland, and better protected from the incursions of the Danes. Here they remained for three or four months, after which they set out to return to their cathedral. But when the holy relics of Saint Cuthbert reached a site to the east of Durham, they could not be moved further. Bishop Aldune enjoined prayer and fasting for three days, and on the third day, the Saint appeared to one of the clergy named Eadmer, revealing that his holy relics should be conveyed to Durham. There, the monks found a hill fortified by nature, which was completely overgrown and undisturbed, where they built a small church, in which they placed the relics of the Saint.
This first church was replaced soon after by the White Church, a church of stone that would be worthy of the Saint. Although it was not completely finished until 1017, by the year 999 construction was far enough along to allow a translation of the relics of Saint Cuthbert, which was carried out on September 4. The feastdays of Saint Cuthbert were thus March 20, the day of his repose, and September 4, the day of the translation of his holy relics. In 1066, the Normans invaded England, and in 1083, a community of Benedictine monks succeeded the earlier community. Ten years later, the construction of a yet more ambitious and magnificent cathedral church was begun by Bishop Carileph, the church that stands to this day. During the building of this cathedral, the relics of Saint Cuthbert were kept in a shrine that had been prepared for them in the Cloister Garth.
In the year 1104, the construction of the new cathedral had advanced to the point where it became possible to translate the relics of Saint Cuthbert into the new edifice. August 29 was appointed as the day for this solemn event. Ralph Flambard was Bishop of Durham at the time, and many other bishops and abbots had assembled for this occasion. Had they been Greek monks, they would have allowed the events of the day to unfold of their own accord, expected or unexpected. But being English monks, they were concerned lest unexpected developments should disrupt the ceremonies. The account is very important, and deserves to be quoted at some length.
“The 29th of August, the day appointed for the solemn removal, being at hand, the brethren entered into a resolution, that as no one was alive who could give them accurate information, they themselves, as far as they should be allowed by the permission of God, should examine into the manner in which each individual thing was placed and arranged about the holy body, for this purpose, that they might make it ready for removal on the day approaching, and without loss of time furnish it with things fit and becoming, lest when the hour of festive procession had arrived, any difficulty, proceeding from want of foresight, should cause delay, and from that delay any unpleasant feeling should arise in the minds of the numerous assemblage which had come together to witness such a solemnity. The brethren, therefore, appointed for the purpose, nine in number, with Turgot their Prior, having qualified themselves for the task by fasting and prayer, on the 24th of August, as soon as it was dark, prostrated themselves before the venerable coffin, and amid tears and prayers they tried to open it with fearful and trembling hands. Aided by instruments of iron, they soon succeeded in their attempt, when, to their astonishment, they found a chest covered on all sides with hides, carefully fixed to it by iron nails. From the weight and size of this chest, and other facts which presented themselves, they were induced to believe that there was another coffin within it, but fear for a long time prevented them from making the experiment. At last, the Prior having twice or thrice commanded them to proceed, they renewed their task, and having succeeded in opening the iron bands, they lifted up the lid.
“Here they saw within, a coffin of wood, which had been covered all over by coarse linen cloth of a threefold texture, of the length of a man, and covered with a lid of the same description. Again they hesitated, for a doubt arose, whether this was the dwelling-place of the holy body, or that there was still another coffin within. In this stage of their operations, they called to mind the words of Bede, which record that the body of Saint Cuthbert had been found by the brethren of Lindisfarne in a state of incorruption, eleven years after its burial, and had been placed above ground for the purpose of worthy veneration. With this information before them, they discovered that this was the very same coffin, which had for so many years preserved the deposit of so heavenly a treasure. Under this conviction they fell upon their knees, and prayed Saint Cuthbert to intercede with the Almighty for pardon for their presumption. They rejoiced, and at the same time they were afraid. Their fear resulted from an apprehension of the consequences of their boldness, and yet, the certainty that they had before them so great a treasure inspiring them with delight, their joy burst forth into tears, and with thankful hearts they conceived that their desires had been amply satisfied. To make a further examination appeared to be a rashness, which would unquestionably bring down upon them the Divine vengeance; and, therefore, laying aside their intention of more minutely investigating the sacred body, they entered into deliberation as to the manner in which it should be removed on the day of translation which was approaching.”
But one monk, Leofwin by name, urged them to continue:
“ ‘What do ye, my brethren! What do ye fear? That deed will never fail of being attended by a happy result, which begins from the inspiration of God. He who gave us the will to make the investigation, gives us the hope of discovering what we seek. The progress which we have already made without difficulty, is a proof of the good which we may hope to arise from what remains to be done. Our beginning would never have been so successful, if it had been the Divine will that we should not persevere to the end. God will never set that down to the score of rashness which proceeds from a devout mind. Our object in investigating these sacred relics proceeds from no contempt or diffidence of his holiness, but that the Lord of virtues, the King himself of glory, may be the more glorified by all men in proportion to the mightiness of the miracle manifested in the present day. Let us then examine the inner parts of the hospitable chest, that upon a matter which we have seen with our eyes, and have thoroughly examined, which our hands have handled, our testimony may be credited, and no argument may be left to the doubtful for disbelieving our assertions.’ The devout brethren regained their confidence by this admonition, and moved the venerable body from behind the altar, where it had hitherto reposed, into the middle of the choir – a place more spacious and better adapted to the investigation.
“Their first step was to remove the linen cloth which enveloped the coffin, yet still they feared to open the coffin itself; and under a hope that its contents might be ascertained through a chink, or by other means, they carefully examined its exterior by candle-light, but without success. They then, but not without fear, removed the lid, and no sooner had they done this than they found another lid, placed somewhat lower, resting upon three transverse bars, and occupying the whole breadth and length of the coffin, so as completely to conceal the contents beneath. Upon the upper part of it, near the head, there lay a book of the Gospels. This second lid was raisable by means of two iron rings, one at the head and the other at the feet. A doubt no longer remained. They knew that the object of their search was before them, but still they hesitated to handle it with their hands. They had an eager desire to see and touch that which had been the object of their affections; but fear, resulting from a consciousness of their sins, repelled them from the attempt, and between the two they were kept in such suspense as almost to be ignorant which in reality they preferred.
“Whilst they were in this state of doubt, being encouraged by the command of the Prior, and the exhortation of the brother above mentioned, at last they raised the lid, and having removed the linen cloth which had covered the sacred relics immediately beneath it, they smelt an odour of the sweetest fragrancy; and behold, they found the venerable body of the blessed Father, the fruit of their anxious desire, laying on its right side in a perfect state, and, from the flexibility of its joints, representing a person asleep rather than dead. The moment they saw this, a tremendous fear thrilled through their limbs, and they shrunk back to a distance, not daring to look at the miracle before their eyes. Oft and many a time they fell upon their knees, beating their breasts, and exclaiming, with eyes and hands raised to heaven, ‘Lord have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.’ Whilst they were in this state, each related to the one who was nearest to him what he had seen, just as if he had been the only one favoured with the sight. After a short interval, they all fell flat on the ground, and amid a deluge of tears, repeated the seven penitential psalms, and prayed the Lord not to correct them in his anger, nor chasten them in his displeasure. When this was done, approaching the coffin on their hands and knees, rather than on their feet, they found in it such a mass of holy relics, that the moderate size of the coffin could never have contained them had not the holy body of the Father, by reclining upon its right side, as has been already mentioned, allowed them on this side and on that a larger portion of space for reposing along with him. These relics, as is gathered from old books, consisted of the head of the glorious King and Martyr Oswald, the bones of the venerable Confessors of Christ and Priests Aidan, and of (the successors of the venerable Father Cuthbert) Eadbert, Eadfrid, and Tehelwold. There were, besides, the bones of the venerable Bede, who had well written the Life of Saint Cuthbert – these had obtained a resting-place by his side, and along with the rest were contained in a small linen sack. . . . Their first wish was to remove the holy body from its lateral position, and place it on its back; but they were unable to effect this on account of the multitude of relics which surrounded it. They determined, consequently, to remove it altogether for a while, that they might collect and place the relics by themselves, and then restore it to its own proper abode. But still they dreaded to touch it with their hands, until being encouraged by the prayers of the brother above mentioned, they at length became ready to execute the commands of their seniors.
“The two deputed to remove the venerable body from the coffin, took their stand, the one at its head and the other at its feet; and whilst they were raising it, holding it by those parts, it began to bend in the middle like a living man, and sink downwards, from its natural weight of solid flesh and bones. A third, upon this, ran up by special command, and supporting its middle in his arms, they reverently placed it upon the pavement upon tapestry and other robes. How did their joy then break forth into tears, what were their words of gratulation, what their exultations of praise, when now at length they had before their eyes that treasure of heavenly grace, in comparison of which even gold itself was of little worth!”
But the hour of Nocturnes was at hand, so the monks replaced the relics into their shrine, and in the morning, gave a report to the Bishop, who remained sceptical that a body should have remained so incorrupt after a period of 418 years. That night, the monks again removed the relics of Saint Cuthbert. They again saw for themselves that his relics were as if asleep, after which they wrapped them in costly robes, and restored them to their place.
At the time of the translation, an argument broke out. The assembled Bishops and Abbots felt that the witness of others should have been asked in such a wondrous matter. They said, “It was probable enough that the brethren, as they had not permitted a member of any other church to witness their secret proceedings, were dealing in fiction rather than in fact. Reason seems to require that the truth of such a marvellous thing should be investigated by others, that the people who have assembled in such numbers may be satisfied by the testimony of us, who, by ocular demonstration, have ascertained the fact.” But the monks resented this, and retorted, “Let it never be the case that that man should have an opportunity of seeing the sacred remains, through whose agency we have fallen under the suspicion of a grievous falsehood.” With considerable reluctance, the monks were convinced, and yet again, the holy relics of Saint Cuthbert were brought out, and all could see that they were whole and incorrupt, and flexible, as if he were asleep rather than in death. In this manner, the holy relics were taken in procession to their new resting place. We read,
“They all straightway chanted the Te Deum in solemn exultation, and every thing which was necessary being decently arranged, the holy body of the Father was placed upon the shoulders of a fit number of bearers; and in honour of the Omnipotent God a band of singers scattered their celestial peals on the gale. The various caskets of relics, the remains of the other saints, went before – the venerable body of the blessed Cuthbert the Bishop followed after, and no sooner was it out of the door and in the open air, than the immense crowd which was waiting for it, from very joy, burst into tears, and fell flat on the ground, rendering it almost impossible for the procession to advance – all the while the voices of the singers were drowned by the strong cries of the praying, the exulting, and the weeping for joy. Having gone round the outside of the new church, the procession halted at its eastern end, where the Bishop began a sermon, and there stood by his side men to inform the assembled multitudes of the fact that they had seen and handled this miracle of incorruption, which had lasted for four hundred and eighteen years. It was a matter of new exultation to them, that their devotion had been thought worthy to be rewarded with such a manifestation of celestial grace.
“The day had far advanced, and the Bishop kept preaching on, touching many points not at all appropriate to the solemnity, and fairly wearing out the patience of many of his hearers by the prolixity of his discourse. The brightness of the day had been such that there was no sign of bad weather whatever in the sky, when on a sudden such torrents of rain began to fall, that the brethren, interrupting the sermon, snatched up the coffin in which the holy body was contained, and hastily conveyed it into the church. No sooner had they done this than the rain straightway ceased; and the inference from this is plain, that it was not pleasing to God that the sacred body of his servant should be any longer detained in unholy ground. There is also another fact worthy to be recorded – that, notwithstanding the immense fall of rain, neither the ornaments of the church, which were all of them exposed to it, nor the robes of those who were dressed more splendidly than usual, received any injury whatever. At length, the body having been decently restored to its place, a solemn mass was performed, whilst all the while the church was echoing with peals of praise, and the mysteries for the safety of the faithful being duly gone through, all returned home with joy, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard.”
We may imagine the cathedral as it was in the Middle Ages, when Saint Cuthbert’s was the most beloved of all English pilgrim shrines. The screen at the front of the cathedral was filled with alabaster statues. There were numerous altars, one of them dedicated to Saint Catherine. As a monastery church, women were only allowed into the western end. A line in the floor, made of black stones, shows the boundary beyond which they were not allowed to pass. The relics of Saint Cuthbert lay in a raised shrine. The shrine was covered by a lid, attached to ropes, on which were suspended small bells. At times, the lid would be raised, pilgrims would hear the bells, and redouble their prayers to the Saint. The feastdays of the Saint, in March and September, were important holidays, when multitudes were drawn to the cathedral, and to the presence of their beloved Saint Cuthbert.
We come now to England in the sixteenth century. It is a very different England. Henry the Eighth had declared himself head of the Church of England, and in his desperation for funds, had ordered the dissolution of all the monasteries. This began with the smaller institutions. In 1536, the monasteries of Holy Island, Farne, Jarrow, Wearmouth, Finchale, Lythum, Stamford, and Durham’s College in Oxford had all been dissolved. And in 1540, the Royal Commissioners arrived at Durham itself. Their first goal was to pillage and destroy the relics at each shrine. Sanderson has left us this description:
“The sacred Shrine of holy Saint Cuthbert was defaced at the Visitation held at Durham for demolishing such monuments, by Dr. Lee, Dr. Henly, and Mr. Blithman, in King Henry the Eighth’s reign, at his suppression of Religious Houses. They found many valuable and goodly jewels, especially one precious stone, which, by the estimate of those three Visitors and their skilful lapidaries, was of value sufficient to redeem a Prince. After the spoil of his ornaments and jewels, they approached near to his body, expecting nothing but dust and ashes; but perceiving the Chest he lay in strongly bound with iron, the goldsmith, with a smith’s great fore hammer, broke it open, when they found him lying whole, uncorrupt, with his face bare, and his beard as of a fortnight’s growth, and all the vestments about him, as he was accustomed to say Mass, and his metwand of gold lying by him. When the goldsmith perceived he had broken one of his legs in breaking open the chest, he was sore troubled at it, and cried, Alas, I have broken one of his legs; which Dr. Henly hearing, called to him, and bade him cast down his bones. The other answered, he could not get them asunder, for the sinews and skin held them so that they would not separate. Then Dr. Lee stept up to see if it were so, and turning about, spake in Latin to Dr. Henly, that he was entire, though Dr. Henly, not believing his words, called again to have his bones cast down: Dr. Lee answered, if you will not believe me, come up yourself and see him. Then Dr. Henly stept up to him, and handled him, and found he lay whole: then he commanded them to take him down; and so it happened, contrary to their expectation, that not only his body was whole and uncorrupted, but the vestments wherein his body lay, and wherein he was accustomed to say Mass, were fresh, safe, and not consumed. Whereupon the Visitors commanded him to be carried into the Revestry, till the King’s pleasure concerning him was further known; and upon the receipt thereof, the Prior and Monks buried him in the ground under the place where his Shrine was exalted.”
The holy relics of Saint Cuthbert had thus remained whole and incorrupt for over 840 years.
The relics were next opened on Thursday, May 17, 1827, by James Raine, the Librarian of Durham Cathedral. In doing so, he had an agenda. Roman Catholics had been granted freedom of worship in England in 1791, but they encountered strong opposition as they tried to establish churches in England in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. In 1827, Roman Catholics had built a church in the Old Elvet area of Durham, named in honour of Saint Cuthbert, and the consecration of the church had been set for May 31. James Raine’s opening of the tomb of Saint Cuthbert two weeks earlier was no coincidence. He was determined to discredit the Roman Catholics by showing that it was an Anglican cathedral where the Saint’s relics lay, that the entire history of Saint Cuthbert’s incorrupt holy relics had been nothing but an invention of the medieval monks, and at the same time, that the bones now in the tomb were those of Saint Cuthbert, in spite of Roman Catholic rumors that at the time of the Reformation, the true relics of the Saint had been buried in another part of the cathedral, where they would remain until England and the cathedral were once again Roman Catholic. This complex and in some ways contradictory agenda accounts for the haste and the violence of the opening of the tomb, which has been a matter of regret ever since.
John Lingard, a Roman Catholic historian, met with Dr W S Gilly, Prebendary of Durham, in 1841, and recorded his account of events. He writes,
“He was according to the extract from Raine in the little book which I sent you one of the openers of Saint Cuthbert’s tomb. He tells me that he was not: but hearing in the choir a strange noise in the feretory, the moment the service was over he ran there in his surplice to see what was going on, and there found Darnell and Raine with two workmen, the latter actually standing within the coffin and trampling on the contents. He ordered them out, remonstrated with Darnell and requested that witnesses might be sent for out of the town and someone from Ushaw. Darnell was sub-dean and seemed very nervous, but refused. He wished to finish the investigation as quickly as possible and to prevent any crowd assembling.”
Raine describes the discovery of three coffins, all in great decay, the innermost being that made for the Saint in Lindisfarne. Inside this were found the robes which had been placed upon the Saint when his tomb was opened in 1104, as well as the comb, the small silver altar, the embroidered stole and maniples, together with a cingulum and two bracelets of gold tissue. They found, in addition, the beautiful gold cross set with garnets, all of which are now on display in the cathedral treasury. Next were found the bones of the Saint, and as they were bones, and at the same time, as there was not the least sign of corruption, Raine is adamant that the relics never were incorrupt, but that all such accounts were the inventions of the medieval monks. He then writes,
“After those portions of the various coffin bottoms, which could be removed, had been laid aside, the whole accumulation of crumbled wood and robes was thoroughly examined, lest any thing should have escaped our notice. This was done by means of a sieve; but no further discovery was made.
“The next step was to re-inter the bones of the Saint and the other relics which had been found along with him. For this purpose, a new coffin was prepared, in which they were one and all placed; and this coffin was, in the same evening, deposited in the bottom of the original grave, upon a mass of broken wood, iron rings, and iron bars, the remnants of the two outer coffins of the Saint, which had been thrown into the grave.”
I should point out that Raine later expressed regret for the manner in which he had written of Durham’s medieval monastics, as all subsequent scholars have expressed regret for the haste and violence in which his excavation was carried out.
It was his references to the “mass of broken wood, iron rings, and iron bars, the remnants of the two outer coffins of the Saint, which had been thrown into the grave,” which caused Canon Greenwell to propose that the tomb should be opened yet again, some seventy-two years later. He writes, “After many delays, caused by the strong feeling in the minds of some whose objections rightly carried great weight, it was decided that the grave should be opened, the coffin of 1542 carefully raised, the other contents of the grave taken out, and the coffin returned to its place with its contents undisturbed.”
The tomb was thus opened on March 1, 1899. We read,
“On looking into the grave we expected to see the ‘coffin’ of 1827, but could discern nothing clearly. By the help of a lantern it was soon found that there was no coffin properly so called, but that there were three narrow boards about an inch apart, at first supposed to be lying on the coffin as a sort of protection. As soon as any attempt was made to raise these boards they fell to pieces, and it was then seen that they formed the top of the ‘coffin’ of 1827, and that immediately under them lay a large quantity of human bones, shavings, and rotten wood. The so-called coffin had only been a sort of crate of thin deal, hastily knocked together, in which the bones had been packed in shavings from the carpenter’s shop.”
When it proved impossible to remove this, a temporary coffin was prepared, lined with cotton wool and white linen. The bones were then removed from the tomb, and laid upon this coffin, after which the fragments of the Anglo-Saxon coffin and other coffins were removed from the tomb.
A very careful examination of the bones was carried out. We read,
“The bones of the skeleton supposed to be that of Saint Cuthbert were uniformly of a deep brownish tint, being quite different in appearance, texture, and formation from those of other relics found in the vault, left, by their similarities as well as by their position in the grave, no doubt that they belonged to the same skeleton. They were those of a man of considerable mascularity, as was evidenced by the strongly marked muscular ridges. They were in many places covered with a membraneous layer [this seems very significant, but then one reads with alarm the rest of this sentence] particles of which, being burnt, gave off a marked animal odour.”
It was thought that the person would have been about fifty-five years old at the time of his death, and about five feet, eight or nine inches in height. The examination also revealed evidence of the illnesses from which Saint Cuthbert suffered. The author concluded his account by saying,
“Without, therefore, expressing a definite opinion that the remains examined were those of the veritable Saint Cuthbert, I venture to think that the medico-legal evidence is corroborative of the genuineness of the relics and condemnatory of any substitution.
“On Friday, March 17th, the whole of the bones, having been duly deposited in the new coffin, were restored to the grave. In the upper part of the coffin were placed the bones forming the skeleton supposed to be Saint Cuthbert’s, and with these, as of old, the cloven skull of Saint Oswald. The other relics were laid under the horizontal partition above mentioned.”
This was the fifth, and last, time the grave of Saint Cuthbert was opened.
Durham is a very pleasant town, built on steep hills, bounded on three sides by the River Wear. Many of the homes are intact as they were two hundred years ago. The cathedral still dominates the town, as it did in Medieval times. It is a marvel of Romanesque architecture and, to my mind, the most beautiful cathedral in all England. But it is, above all, the shrine of Saint Cuthbert, whose holy relics have survived even to our own days.
We have the example of the Saint ever before us, in all his comeliness and grace. And his prayers are ever with us, for he stands with boldness before the throne of God. But there is something extraordinary about standing at his holy tomb. It is to step from chill drakness into warming sunlight. It is to experience temptations being dissipated by his presence. It is a confirmation of the grace of the Saint that drew all to him while he was yet alive, and that continued to draw all to his holy shrine after his falling asleep. It is a great blessing to have spent this week, recounting the life of Saint Cuthbert, and following in his footsteps. May his holy prayers be ever with us.
We may conclude our account with this prayer, composed in Latin by Laurence, Prior of Durham in 1149, and translated by James Raine,
A Prayer to Saint Cuthbert
Hail, father of thy country! hail, man of renown! hail, thou who often bestowest upon the miserable the comforts of health! hail, lovely glory! hail, great hope of thy servants! Farewell merit of our own! do thou act, thou man of piety! To thee be praise! to thee let worthy honour, to thee let thanks be given! who frequently bestowest blessings upon me, undeserving though I be. Thou art my mighty help; often hast thou been my glory. Always dost thou cherish me with thy sweetly-flowing love. Oh from how many evils, from what enemies and dangers, my father, hast thou rescued me, and still nourishest thou me in prosperity! What worthy return can I make to thee, my father? Oh thou pious Bishop! Oh father! Oh merciful Pastor! give me thy aid. As it pleases thee, O father, and as thou knowest my wants, give help to thy petitioner. I pray thee to remember me, thou sweet friend of God.