The Gospels Story
St Cuthbert’s Book or, to use the more common name, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was created on Holy Island around 700AD. Lindisfarne or Holy Island lies off the Northumbrian coast near the Royal burgh of Bamburgh. A monastery had been initially established there by St Aidan, who was from Iona in Scotland, at the invitation of the Oswald, the Northumbrian Christian King.
The island is isolated twice a day by the high tide, but it was not remote even in those days. It was an easy boat trip from Bamburgh, one of the main centres of the Kingdom of Northumbria.
The Gospels were made by the first known English artist/craftsman, the Northumbrian Eadfrith and were dedicated to ‘God and Saint Cuthbert’. The glories of the work are the illuminated pages and initial capital letters. The colours Eadfrith used had to be carefully extracted from minerals, plants and insects. The Gospels are truly a testament to the skills, organisation and resources of the mid 8th century Northumbrian Golden Age. Yet in his humility lest it be found perfect, Eadfrith left small parts of the Gospels unfinished. These deliberate blemishes perhaps bring us closest to understanding the men praising God and Cuthbert on Lindisfarne. Later Aethelwald bound it and Bilfrith added ornamentation of precious stones and metals.
The Durham historian Simeon said of the men who made the Gospels, “These persons, influenced alike by their affection for this confessor and bishop (Cuthbert) beloved of God, left in this work a monument to all future ages of their devotion towards him.”
Saint Cuthbert himself was a major figure during a period when the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria was leading the way in promoting Christianity and learning throughout Britain and Europe. St Cuthbert agreed to become Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684. He was popular because of his preaching, the simplicity of his life, his gift of seeing the future and because his body was found to be incorrupt years after his death in 687. Pilgrims visited his shrine and miracles were credited to him.
In the year 875, the community fled Lindisfarne in fear of renewed Viking attacks. They took Cuthbert’s body and the Gospels with them and for seven years they travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria leaving a legacy of more than 50 churches named after the saint.
It is said that at one point during their flight the community attempted to set sail for Ireland. They were driven back and "the copy of the gospels, adorned with gold figures, fell overboard, and sank to the bottom of the sea." Miraculously, according to the Durham chronicler Simeon, the book was found. It “had lost none of the external brilliancy of its gems and gold, nor any of the internal beauty of its illuminations, and the fairness of its leaves.”
Before reaching what was to be its final home the community spent over 100 years at Chester-le-Street. It was there that Aldred carefully inserted an Anglo-Saxon translation, in the Northumbrian dialect, between the lines of the Latin in which the Gospels had been written. With this addition the Lindisfarne Gospels are the oldest surviving English Gospel.
Eventually, some 120 years after leaving Lindisfarne, the community of Saint Cuthbert settled in Durham. After the Conquest, the Normans, recognising the importance of Saint Cuthbert, built the Cathedral we know today to replace the previous Anglo Saxon church. The Lindisfarne Gospels were kept in the Cathedral alongside Saint Cuthbert’s remains. The link between the saint and the Cathedral was formally re-established when the Dedication reverted to The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham in a service on Sunday 4 September 2005.
At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the sacred shrine at Durham was looted by King Henry VIII’s commissioners and the Gospels, after 800 years in the North, were removed to London. The ornately jewelled binding was lost presumed looted by those empowered by Henry. In the early 17th Century it is said a keeper of the Tower of London took it upon himself to sell the Gospels to a private collector - Sir Henry Cotton. Cotton’s grandson subsequently gave them to the newly established British Museum in 1753 to hold on behalf of the nation. At the end of the 20th century, they were passed on to the then fledgling British Library and there they remain today.