Cuthbert of Northumbria,
Bishop of Lindsifarne
St. Cuthbert was a Northumbrian, born
about AD 634 in the Vale of the River Leader on what is now the
Anglo-Scottish border. He was raised by his foster-mother, Kenswith, and, in
childhood, he was the leader of all the sports and pastimes of his
companions, excelling in them all. Yet, even then, his future lot as bishop
was foretold by one of these play-fellows.
From here, Cuthbert passed to the rough life of a shepherd lad amongst the
Scottish lowland hills. There, in the solitary nights and days passed on
those wild uplands, he drank in the lessons which nature and solitude can
teach so well. Cuthbert spent long hours in prayer, alone with God. One
night, in AD 651, he saw the Northern Lights streaming across the sky and
shining as the choirs of the heavenly host coming down to earth and carrying
the soul of St. Aidan back to heaven. It
thus seemed to Cuthbert that the spirit world had opened to him.
So, as time went on, the young Cuthbert longed, more and more, to withdraw
from the World and worldly things. This was no doubt helped by a short
period of enforced military service, probably during King Oswiu of
Northumbria's campaigns against Penda of Mercia, which concluded at the
Battle of Winwaed in AD 655. At length, therefore, Cuthbert's mind was
decided and, with a single attendant, he rode across the hills and presented
himself, one morning, at the Abbey Church of Melrose, with the request that
he might be taken in as a monk. There, he lived and laboured for many a long
year and many a glimpse of his life is recorded in the pages of Bede.
Cuthbert rose to the rank of Prior, in AD 661, after the death St.
Boisil, but, six years later, transferred to a newly established
monastery at Ripon. The little community there was broken up, however, upon
the arrival of the Romanist, St. Wilfred,
and the Scottish monks, with Cuthbert among them, wandered back to their
After the great Synod of Whitby in AD 664, Cuthbert was called away from
Melrose. He accompanied his superior, St. Eata, to Aidan's monastery on the
Isle of Lindisfarne, where he was made Abbot upon the transference of the
old Northumbrian see to York. As prior, Cuthbert was placed in charge of the
monks, to whom he quickly endeared himself. He even won over, by his
gentleness and patience, those who were, at first, inclined to resist him
and dispute his authority. Cuthbert, however, seems to have longed for the
solitary life that he had learned to love in his boyhood by the banks of the
Leader. Eventually, he forsook his monastery for the life of a hermit, first
on the tiny St. Cuthbert's Island and then upon Inner Farne nearby (AD 676).
Men said that the evil spirits fled upon Cuthbert's coming and left the
Island to the saint of God. There, "with the deep sea tolling at his
feet and the gulls wailing about his head, he built himself one of those 'Picts'
Houses', the walls of which remain still in many parts of Scotland - a
circular hut of turf and rough stone - and dug out the interior to a depth
of some feet, and thatched it with sticks and grass; and made, it seems, two
rooms within: one for an oratory and one for a dwelling-place; and so lived
alone and worshipped God." His retirement was occasionally broken by
visits from the Lindisfarne monks, for whom he built a larger house near the
landing-place of the Island. At first, he would go out and welcome them,
ministering to their necessities with his own hands; but, in time, even
their visits seemed to him an interruption and he shut himself up in his hut
and only spoke to them through the window. Till, at length, he shut this up
too and never unclosed it except for the sake of giving his blessing or some
other great necessity.
But God, apparently, had active work still for him to do and, after about
eight years, in AD 685, Cuthbert was drawn forth from his retreat and
persuaded, by the prayers of the King of Northumbria to accept a bishopric.
Earnestly, he begged to be allowed to decline. However, in spite of his
great reluctance and upon the authority of Archbishop
Theodore, Cuthbert was, at last, dragged before the Synod of Twyford
(Northumberland) and his own will was overcome by the unanimous decision of
all assembled. He was thus constrained to bow his neck to the episcopal
yoke. However, though elected to the see of Hexham, he would only agree to
leave his seclusion for his beloved Lindisfarne; and, thus, it was arranged
that Cuthbert should swap offices with his old friend, St. Eata.
Having yielded, Cuthbert threw himself, heart and soul, into the work that
lay before him as Bishop of Lindisfarne. Though now an advisor to Kings, he
travelled throughout his diocese in order to acquaint himself with the
lowliest of his congregation and, around this time, made his famous visit to
Carlisle. As Bede tells us, Cuthbert "protected the flock committed to
his charge by assiduous prayer and called them to things of heaven by
wholesome admonitions; and what above all is charming in those who teach, he
showed the way by being the first to practice what he taught. He rescued the
friendless from the hand of the more powerful, the needy and poor from the
hand of the oppressor. He diligently comforted the sad and feeble-minded;
nor did he neglect to call back those that rejoiced amiss to that becoming
and godly sorrow which is according to God. He was diligent in practicing
his wonted self-denial, and rejoiced, amid all the assemblage of crowds, to
observe with regularity the rigour of monastic life. He gave food to the
hungry and clothing to those that were shivering with cold; and all his life
was marked with signs that betokened a bishop indeed."
For two years this continued. Years that must have often recalled to
Cuthbert the old days of missionary excursions over the heather moors of the
Scottish lowlands, as he now journeyed over the mountainous and wild
districts of his diocese, on his confirmation tours, through regions where
churches were few and far between. On at least one occasion, tents had to be
erected by the wayside for him and those that flocked to his side. The
congregation cut down branches from the forest trees and wove them into
booths for shelter, staying there for two days while the saint laboured
among them in preaching, baptising and confirmation. But at the end of two
years, the old passionate craving for solitude came over Cuthbert again with
an irresistible force. He laid down his office and bade farewell to the
monks of Lindisfarne, before retiring to his dearly beloved hermitage.
"And when," they cried as he bade them farewell, "may we hope
for your return?" "When you shall bring my body hither," was
the answer; and a true one it proved, for he never left his rocky isle
It must have been only a short time after Cuthbert's retirement when some of
the monks, on paying him a visit, found him seized with a sudden illness and
scarcely able to move. He had dragged himself down to the larger house he
had built for them by the landing-place, and had lain there for five days
during a raging storm, worn out with want and sickness. They would not leave
him again. All they could do was to tend him lovingly and he, thoughtful and
considerate to the last, chose as his special companion one who could hardly
have looked for this honour: a poor monk, troubled with a distressing and
painful disease that had long baffled the skill of the physicians. Thus some
days passed on as he gradually sank to rest, giving his last injunctions to
those around him and ministered to by loving hands. About daybreak on the
morning of 20th March AD 687, after a wakeful night of prayer, with eyes
lifted up to heaven and hands extended on high, his soul, intent on heavenly
praises, finally departed to the joy of the kingdom of heaven.
Cuthbert was buried in his beloved monastery on Lindisfarne, though Viking
Raids later forced his brethren to move inland, taking his body with them.
They travelled to Norham, Chester-le-Street and, finally, Durham, where he
reposes to this day.