Back in the 19th century, the tomb of St Cuthbert, in whose name Durham Cathedral was built, was opened twice, under very different circumstances. Today, Exhibitions Assistant Shaun McAlister takes a look back over the first of these great historic moments.

On May 17th 1827, the cathedral librarian, James Raine, gathered with the Sub-Dean William Darnell, Prebend William Gilly and various stonemasons and labourers to open the St Cuthbert’s tomb.  He never asked permission of the Bishop, Dean or Chapter.  His only motivation was to be able to prove that Cuthbert’s body was no longer incorrupt.

It was described as an effort ‘to open the eyes of the blind deluded papists to the imposture of their church’.  James Raine was a brilliant librarian but terrible at public relations.

When the top cover was removed the team had to dig through a layer of earth and sand to reach the second grave cover.  This one had been placed there in 1542 when Cuthbert had been reburied following the Reformation.  Time and resources being in short supply, they reused the grave cover of a former monk, Richard Haswell, who had died in 1446.  Once removed, they were able to see into the tomb.

The most recent coffin they discovered also dated back to 1542.  It was heavily decayed with very few fragments salvageable.  This drawing from the Cathedral archives by Raine shows how it would have looked when new.  While the coffin no longer exists, the iron rings shown on the outside were saved.

When Raine and his team reached the final coffin, the one made in 698 and now on display in the Great Kitchen within the cathedral’s Open Treasure museum, they found the wrapped remains of St. Cuthbert.  His body, now a skeleton, was wrapped in various silks and garments designed for the clergy.  This drawing shows how Cuthbert looked when seen by Raine in 1827.

Although we refer to it as the Shrine of St. Cuthbert he isn’t the only one buried there.  Among the bones shown at Cuthbert’s feet are skull fragments of St. Oswald, the martyred King of Northumbria.  There are also bones of small children which we know from medieval relic lists were the remains of the Holy Innocent’s, children killed by Herod.   The remaining bones belong to some of the early Bishops of Lindisfarne, brought with the monks when they fled the threat of Viking invasion in 875.  Some of those bones will belong to Bishop Eadfrith who was the single scribe responsible for creating the Lindisfarne Gospels.

In the coffin Raine also found various objects from the 7th century that were either owned or used on St. Cuthbert.  These included a portable altar, an ivory comb and the Pectoral Cross that has since become a symbol for the region. He removed the objects and put them on display in the Refectory library, alongside some of the most important manuscripts in the Cathedral’s collection.  They became the founding objects of the Cathedral’s first museum and the librarian’s salary was increased to £100 to compensate for their new role as a tour guide. You can read more about St Cuthbert’s treasures here.

While these objects were all removed for further study and display, the remains of the deceased were returned to the grave.  Like all other aspects of the operation, it was rushed and unsophisticated.  The new coffin was closer to a packing crate than a coffin.  Luckily the tomb would be opened again in 1899, providing a chance to give Cuthbert and the others a more fitting burial.

You can see St Cuthbert’s coffin, which is on permanent display in the cathedral’s Open Treasure museum, when the cathedral reopens to the public. But for now, #StayHome #StaySafe and watch out for Part 2 of this blog series, coming soon!



  1. Thank you for this post. More of these from/about the Cathedral and those related to it would be a great way to reach and expand overseas Friends of the Cathedral.

  2. Loved reading this! Am I right that the best thing to read more about this is ‘Cuthbert’s Corpse’, by Willem? Is there anything else worth reading?

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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