In this timely blog post on the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, our Head of Collections, Alison Cullingford, looks at how Bede became so closely connected to Durham Cathedral, despite spending much of his monastic life in other parts of north east England.

As we have seen, Bede spent his life in the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow and, naturally, was buried at Jarrow.  So how did he come to be so closely connected with Durham Cathedral?

The disruptions of the Viking invasions and settlements to monastic life and scholarship meant Bede’s fame was kept alive by scholars on the continent rather than England and there does not seem to have been much of a cult around his memory in England.  This began to change in the late 10th century as reformers of the church looked back to better practices in the time of Bede.

Alfred Westou observed this renewed interest in holy people of earlier times. Alfred was the sacristan at Durham Cathedral, whose duties included caring for the body of Saint Cuthbert. The Cathedral was not the magnificent Norman building you see today, but its predecessor, on the same site. It had been built by the monks of Lindisfarne to house Cuthbert’s shine. They had fled their monastery to escape Viking raids and eventually settled in the natural stronghold of Durham.

Alfred was clearly proud of his saint and his church and wished to enhance its reputation and wealth. Thus, as we are told by the chronicler Symeon of Durham, he was directed by visions to visit the ancient monasteries and churches in the region, to acquire the bones of the saints buried there.  Alfred put the relics he acquired into Cuthbert’s tomb.

Every year, Alfred visited the monastery at Jarrow where he prayed and kept vigil.  One year he changed his usual practice and came home alone and in secret.  He never returned to Jarrow, and it was said afterwards he ‘conducted himself like a person who had secured the object of his desires’.

What had Alfred done? We are told by the chronicler that he had brought the bones of Bede to Durham and buried them in a little linen bag in the tomb of Cuthbert.  Alfred kept this secret though he did hint to his friends that Bede was to be found in the shrine of Cuthbert.  Symeon thinks Alfred’s behaviour is justifiable and explains his secretive ways as the desire to protect the relics at Durham from its enemies, such as bishops of Durham Aethelwine and Aethelric, who wanted to take the relics away to other monasteries.  Alfred protected the Cathedral’s precious relics and added to them.  The Cathedral thus came to hold and to represent the saintly traditions of the whole of the north-east of England.

The Shrine of St Cuthbert- Picture: DAVID WOOD

A linen bag of bones was found when Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1104, along with the other bones said to have been gathered by Alfred. 

The poem known as ‘Durham’, written at about this time and the last poem known in Old English, lists the saints whose relics are said to have been acquired by Alfred Westou and demonstrates how they added to the fame of Durham:

‘… Lies the body of blessed Cuthbert

And the head of Oswald, innocent king,

Lion of the English; also bishop Aidan

Eadberch and Eadfrith, eminent men

Athelwold the bishop sleeps beside them,

And the great scholar Bede and abbot Boisil …’

Bishop Hugh le Puiset created a separate shrine for Bede’s relics next to Cuthbert as part of his extensive building programme of the late 12th century. In 1370 Bede’s remains were ‘translated’ (moved) to a magnificent new shrine in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral. The bones were kept in a casket of silver and gold. Bede’s relics remained an important focus of worship and pilgrimage until the 16th century.


This shrine was destroyed following the Dissolution of the monastery and Bede’s bones re-buried in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral, where they remain to this day. One of the highlights for visitors to Durham Cathedral is the chance to see Bede’s tomb.

The simple chest tomb is made of black limestone and inscribed in Latin:  HAC SVNT IN FOSSA BAEDAE VENERABILIS OSSA.  This means literally:

‘Here are in this ditch/trench the bones of venerable Bede’

or, more elegantly:

‘Here are buried the bones of venerable Bede’.

The tomb is surrounded by artworks inspired by Bede. Everyone who enters the Chapel will be reminded of Bede, his wisdom and his holy life.

On the east wall behind the tomb you will see gleaming golden letters, a memorial to Dean Cyril Alington, designed by George Pace in 1970 and sculpted by Frank Roper.  The letters are the words of Bede, from his Commentary on the Book of Revelation. The design features the text in Latin and then English: 

‘Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.’

Suspended above the tomb burns the eternal flame lamp, which consists of a lantern under a star-shaped umbrella.  Donated by local Rotary clubs in 2005, it was designed by the Cathedral Architect Christopher Downs.


Nearby you can see a stained glass window installed in 1973 to mark the 1300th anniversary of Bede’s birth.  It was designed by Alan Younger and features abstract images including a monk at his writing desk, a fitting memorial to the scholarly Bede.

Read more about the Venerable Bede at:


Durham translation: Crossley-Holland, K. ed. (1984) The Anglo-Saxon world: an anthology. Oxford University Press.


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