The Journey of Saint Cuthbert’s Coffin
Cuthbert had said, "I would rather that you should take up my bones, and leave these places, to reside wherever God may send you, than consent in anyway to the wickedness of schismatics."
In 793 AD Lindisfarne was attacked by Vikings. Saint Cuthbert’s coffin was not disturbed at this time.
Further Viking raids on Northumbria occurred. In 844 they killed King Raedwald of Northumbria. Around this time the coffin was moved to Norham for a while.
In 867 Vikings captured the Northumbrian centre of York and king Aelle was killed and butchered with the Viking “Blood eagle”. In 875 the Bishop of Lindisfarne, Eardulf, decided in consultation with the Abbot of Carlisle, Eadred, to take up the coffin of the saint and leave Lindisfarne. In this they were obeying the words of the saint.
They took with them very many relics of other saints, the Lindisfarne Gospels, known then as “Saint Cuthbert’s book" and incredibly a stone cross.
"Raising then the holy and uncorrupt [sic] body of the father, they placed beside it in the same shrine the relics of the saints, that is to say, the head of Oswald the king and martyr, part of the bones of Aidan, the bones of Eadbert, Eadfrid and Aethelwold".
They travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria.
At one stage they were considering going to Ireland but the weather was unfavourable. Here the Saint Cuthbert’s book fell into the sea and was miraculously recovered at Whithorn by Hundred.
Some historians now think that the Community of Cuthbert were visiting their estates to reinforce their position in these difficult times.
Eventually when their persecutor the Viking leader Halfdan died they settled at Chester-le-Street.
After 113 years another threat led them to move to Ripon. The whole community with their cattle accompanied the coffin. When they returned they could not move the coffin past Warden law. A vision to Eadmer told them to go to Durham. Later tradition said they found the place by following a woman and her Dun cow.
The body was placed in “a little church of boughs of trees” possibly on the site of the church called St Mary-le-Bow now a Heritage Centre.
It was then moved to the White Church for three years while a fine church of stone was made, this was dedicated on 4th September 998 AD.
In 1069 AD during the tumult of the Norman conquest when 700 Normans were butchered in Durham the Community took the body of Cuthbert back to Lindisfarne, via Jarrow, Bedlington and Tuggal it took them 4 days, They returned in March 1070 AD.
After the Norman conquest, the French bishop William Carileph replaced the small Anglo-Saxon church with the grand Norman cathedral. The coffin was translated there in 1104AD. At this stage the coffin was opened and the body found to be incorrupt.
A small gospel of Saint John found therein was removed. It is the only early gospel to have its original binding in situ.
The coffin was the centre of the Shrine of Saint Cuthbert.
At the Reformation the coffin was broken open and the body still found incorrupt.
1827 was a time of bitter religious controversy in England over whether Catholics should be allowed to become Members of Parliament.
James Raine, Rector of Meldon and Librarian of Durham Cathedral determined to prove the incorruptibility was a myth. Just two weeks before the Catholics of Durham were to open a church named after St Cuthbert he had workmen break open the coffin. They found only bones.
The original coffin can be viewed today in Durham Cathedral.
There is a rumour that the body was secretly moved and only 3 Benedictine monks know where it lies.
(For more see Cuddy’s Corse)