As you may know, we had to postpone many of our plans for our Year of Pilgrimage and the launch of the Northern Saints Trails which were scheduled for the Spring. We’re happy to announce that our partners at This is Durham have now made the walking routes lives online and in celebration of this, our Head of Collections, Alison Cullingford, has chosen to dedicate a blog post to the enormous impact of the great northern saints.
The great northern saints lived in the kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries. They converted people to Christianity, established and ran places of prayer and learning, and created artistic and scholarly work.
Our story begins circa 634…
In this year, at Heavenfield, near Hexham, Oswald defeated pagan kings of Wales and Mercia in battle and brought together Bernicia and Deira into one Northumbrian kingdom.
Christianity had been adopted earlier in the region following the conversion of King Edwin, but lapsed after Edwin’s death. Attributing his great victory to the raising of a cross and prayer before the battle, Oswald set about re-establishing Christianity in his kingdom. He aimed to lead a saintly life and he invited the monk Aidan to come from the island of Iona as bishop. Aidan set up his bishopric and a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Aidan’s appointment was a great success: his preaching was gentle, and his approach encouraged people to adopt Christianity and improve their lives.
Despite continuing conflict and power struggles, Christianity became firmly rooted in the region thanks to Aidan and Oswald and their contemporaries. Along with Lindisfarne, several other monasteries were established, including Hexham, and the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The monasteries became the centre of a flowering of culture which is sometimes called the Northumbrian Golden Age. To see the level of artistry and skill which had been attained by this time, witness the Lindisfarne Gospels and its sister book, the Durham Gospels (which survives in the Library of Durham Cathedral), and the Ruthwell Cross.
Northumbria can be seen as a cross-roads for English Christianity, a place where the Celtic traditions of Iona exemplified by Aidan and Oswald met the Roman customs brought by the papal missionaries who converted Edwin and his court. This was beneficial in the development of the Golden Age culture, but also caused significant theological and practical problems. The focus of concern was the different dating of Easter. In 664, the Synod of Whitby settled the question by adopting the Roman tradition.
Whitby was a double monastery, home to nuns and monks. Its first abbess was Saint Hild, great-niece of King Edwin, who was baptised aged thirteen when the whole court was converted. When she was thirty-three, she was about to join her sister in a convent overseas, when she decided instead to answer the invitation of Aidan to set up a monastery at Hartlepool. Later she was granted land by King Oswy (Oswald’s successor) to set up the Whitby monastery. Hild was a leader, administrator, teacher and counsellor to the kings of Northumbria, and beloved as a kind and wise motherly figure.
634 (or thereabouts) was also the year of Cuthbert’s birth. Probably from a noble family, he was educated in the Celtic tradition and inspired to a religious life by a vision of Aidan. Cuthbert however readily adopted the Roman customs after Whitby and combined the best of both traditions in his faith. He was a monk at Melrose, Ripon and later Lindisfarne where he was made prior, and early became renowned for his preaching, healing and miracles. Cuthbert was however drawn to the contemplative life of a hermit, retiring from active life in 676 to live on the remote island of Inner Farne, where Aidan had also lived. On this place of wild nature, Cuthbert befriended the animals, protecting the eider ducks who are now locally known as Cuddy’s (Cuthbert’s) ducks. Cuthbert was made bishop of Lindisfarne in 685 but returned to the solitude of Farne in 687 anticipating his death. Cuthbert’s fame grew when 11 years after his death his body was found to be incorrupt and perform miracles.
But, how do we know so much about these people who lived so long ago?
This is thanks largely to another of our northern saints, the Venerable Bede, a monk who devoted his life to learning, spending his days in prayer and study at Wearmouth and Jarrow monasteries. Bede researched the stories of Cuthbert and the other saints of his time and wrote about them in his famous “History of the English Church and People”. For this remarkable work of scholarship, just one of Bede’s many writings, he is often known as the first English historian.
The people of Golden Age Northumbria continue to inspire today: Cuthbert’s care for the natural world, the courage of Oswald, the kindness of Aidan, the learning of Bede, the loving wisdom of Hild. The new saints’ trails help us to enjoy the stunning landscapes they knew and to follow in their path to the Cathedral as the culmination of the routes.
Durham Cathedral is the shrine of two of the northern saints: Cuthbert and Bede. It has preserved the legacy of the Golden Age of Northumbria, which came to an end with the Viking raids after 793. The monks of Lindisfarne managed to protect Cuthbert’s body and many books and other treasures, as they fled their vulnerable island to safety inland, settling at first in Chester-le-Street. Later, under Cuthbert’s guidance, they found a permanent home on the easily defended peninsula of Durham, where our Cathedral was built in 1093.
The bodies of Bede and other Northumbrian holy folk were brought to the Cathedral later, to add to its significance and appeal to pilgrims. The monks of Durham Priory enshrined Cuthbert and the other saints in the splendour of stained glass, metalwork, textiles and the other marvels we can read about in the Rites of Durham. Much was lost in the Reformation and Civil War period, but some treasures survived. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Cathedral consciously recreated medieval splendour and celebrated the northern saints in stained glass and textiles.
Here are some of the objects and spaces in the Cathedral where you can experience the legacy of the northern saints and be inspired by them…
*Please note that some of these spaces aren’t currently accessible at the moment as we work on a phased reopening of the Cathedral and its amenities.
Saint Cuthbert’s Shrine, the Feretory, is the heart of the Cathedral, a place of quiet prayer and reflection.
Cuthbert’s relics are carefully preserved in our museum, Open Treasure. His original wooden coffin, pectoral cross, comb, and portable altar, along with the splendid gold vestments found when his tomb was opened in 1827, are on show in the breath-taking space that is the Great Kitchen. You can also see a facsimile of the Ruthwell cross, in the Monks’ Dormitory. Read more about Cuthbert’s treasurers here.
The Galilee Chapel is home to Bede’s tomb and objects inspired by his life. The very rare 12th century medieval wall paintings include striking images of Cuthbert as bishop and of King Oswald.
The Chapel of Nine Altars is rich in modern textiles embroidered by the Cathedral’s Broderers. Look out for the wild creatures of Holy Island on the Aidan altar frontal (can you find the tiny spider?). The frontal on Hild’s altar shows the wings of a seabird wrapping a cross and an ammonite. This design reflects her links with coastal places (South Shields, Hartlepool and Whitby) and the legend that she turned a plague of snakes to stone, thereby creating ammonites.
Many of the Cathedral’s beautiful stained-glass windows depict the northern saints, for example, Cuthbert surrounded by seabirds, Oswald holding up his sword (symbolising the cross), and Bede at his writing desk.
The Cathedral Library is home to several manuscripts from the age of the northern saints and later works which depict and honour them. Take a look at the Priory Project which makes many of these books freely available in digital form.
And a little personal favourite to finish. This little manuscript, MS A.IV.35, was written in the 12th century and contains Bede’s life of Saint Cuthbert and other accounts of Cuthbert’s life and miracles. It is particularly special because exquisite pictures of three of our northern saints are painted onto its edges: Cuthbert, Oswald and Aidan (shown below). It illustrates for me how the northern saints were connected to each other and how much they have continued to inspire people in the centuries since.
If you’re interested in walking one of the Northern Saints Trails, you can find more information on the This is Durham dedicated website here. Please note that given the current global landscape, not all businesses along the trails will be open and it is important to follow the countryside codes as you’re walking the routes.
It is also worth pointing out that the cathedral is taking a phased approach to reopening, so at present the Shrine of St Cuthbert is not open and neither are the toilet facilities or other visitor amenities (such as the restaurant, shop, Central Tower, Open Treasure or library). We are however working on making the Shrine accessible in the coming days, as a sacred space to welcome pilgrims who have travelled to Durham. Keep an eye out for updates on www.durhamcathedral.co.uk
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