In the second part of this blog series, Exhibitions Assistant, Shaun McAlister, recounts the second opening of St Cuthbert’s tomb in 1898.

*If you missed Part 1, read it here before you continue.

72 years after St Cuthbert’s tomb was re-sealed by James Raine in 1827, and the Treasures of St Cuthbert had been displayed in the cathedral’s Refectory Library, Canon William Greenwell went on a voyage of discovery of his own. 

 Sometime in 1898 he began work on reconstructing the coffin of St. Cuthbert from the fragments recovered earlier in the century.  Piecing together this 3D jigsaw puzzle, he realised that some of the most important parts were missing.  From reading Raine’s account of the excavation, he knew that a lot of fragments had been reburied with Cuthbert.  In fact they had been thrown back in the grave in their haste to rebury the remains.

Unlike Raine, Greenwell and Canon Fowler asked permission to open the tomb.  This was granted by Bishop Westcott, though he later admitted to being ‘greatly pained’ by his decision.  Permission was given on the condition that the actual remains were not removed from the coffin.  Something which would prove impossible.

As soon as the first marble slab was lifted, the lack of care and time that Raine and his team put into the first investigation became blatantly obvious.  Buried in the sand between the two grave slabs was a paper wrapper containing fragments of silk and gold thread.  When the sand was sieved they uncovered more silk and gold fragments, a selection of coffin wood, iron nails, some stained glass and a molar tooth.

With the tomb open they came face-to-face with the coffin Raine had made in 1827, though at first they assumed it was an outer protective layer rather than the coffin itself.  It was more like a packing crate than a coffin.  The original plan had been to crate a frame around the coffin, lift it unopened and retrieve the older coffin fragments underneath.  However, the moment they tried this, the decayed coffin collapsed and the bones fell out into the bottom of the grave, leaving no choice but to remove them.

Making the most of the situation, the bones were examined eleven days later by Canon Fowler and Dr. Selby Plummer.  Both men had extensive medical training meaning this was to be the most detailed examination ever undertaken on the contents of the shrine.  For the first time they were able to measure and record every bone belonging to Cuthbert and those buried with him.

When he examined Cuthbert’s skull, Dr. Plummer determined that his face would have shown ‘considerable character’ with slightly bucked teeth.  Calculating from the length of the right humerus Cuthbert would have been around 5ft8 tall, confirming the hurried measurements made by Raine.  They also discovered that Cuthbert was between 50-60 years old when he died and had likely suffered from tuberculosis, despite not being able to confirm his cause of death.

Their investigation also identified mummified tissue still attached to some of the bones.  A thin membrane was present around areas of the skull.  The ribs and vertebrae also showed evidence of what had once been ligaments.

The right eye socket contained ‘a plug, showing traces of a laminated structure, and with some deposits of whitish magnesium salt on the outer surface.’  Dr. Plummer refused to state with certainty that it was the actual remains of an eye, but Canon Fowler remembered seeing ‘the muscles, the circle of the pupil, and rows of marks where eyelashes had been.’

With the examination over, a new coffin was made and on March 17th 1899 Cuthbert, Oswald and the others were reburied.  A copy of the excavations preliminary report and the latest copy of the Churchman’s Almanack was buried with the remains, as a time capsule.  And there it remains, undisturbed after 121 years.

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.


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