From Lindisfarne to Durham City and back again, St Cuthbert provided guidance to the monks who carried his body to his final resting place.

IN the year 698 AD, 11 years after St Cuthbert’s death and burial in the simple Celtic church on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the monks there decided to exhume his bones in order to wash them and rebury them wrapped in an expensive cloth. Such an honour was reserved for important people and Cuthbert certainly fell into this category, courted by royalty and churchleaders during his lifetime, his grave afterwards visited by countless pilgrims.

WORD had quickly spread across the North of people who had been miraculously cured of diseases and ailments simply by travelling to pay homage to him where his remains lay on Lindisfarne.

When the monks opened his coffin, they were amazed to find the body looking just as it had on the day he died, Cuthbert still looking as if he were simply asleep.

Disturbing as little as possible, they placed the body in a new coffin, which they left above ground rather than reburying it.

Throughout the following century, the number of pilgrims continued to grow until 793, when Lindisfarne had some extremely unwelcome visitors in the form of marauding Vikings who ransacked the church and murdered some of the monks.

Within a year, these sea pirates returned in such numbers that the monks had no choice but to flee for their lives, leaving Cuthbert’s body behind and unguarded. However, when they felt that it was safe to return they found his tomb completely untouched.

The Danish raiders did not return for 80 years, so in 875, the Lindisfarne community took Cuthbert’s body, as their predecessors had promised they would, along with some of the bones of St Aidan and Eata and the head of King Oswald, and, with some of the islanders, made their way into the unknown.

Although they must have known that they might be gone from their island home for some time, they could never have foreseen that they were destined to travel with Cuthbert’s coffin for seven long years, resting here and there until settling first at Chester-le-Street and finally at Durham.

Wherever they arrived with the cart bearing the coffin and the other relics, they were met with kindness and, often, gifts, everyone they met having heard of Cuthbert.

There were times when the coffin’s retinue was extensive but, throughout its travels, only seven monks were allowed to touch the coffin and the cart on which it was transported.

At some later date, a horse was acquired to relieve these monks of all the pushing and pulling which was required of them.

JOHN de Wessington Prior of Durham in the early 15th Century and a gifted scholar, compiled an itinerary of the places he believed had been visited by Cuthbert’s shrine, his research based largely on churches dedicated to St Cuthbert.

He found six in Northumberland, one in Westmorland, four in Cumberland, 11 in Lancashire, three in Yorkshire, five in Richmond, seven in Cleveland and four in Durham.

In the early 19th Century, the historian James Raine consulted Wessington’s research and reconstructed what he considered to be the route taken by Cuthbert’s guardians.

Having left Lindisfarne, he reasoned, they travelled to Doddington, Elsdon, Bellingham and Haydon Bridge then along the course of the South Tyne to Beltingham.

They then moved along Hadrian’s Wall to Bewcastle and Carlisle and on to Salkeld, Edenhall and Plumbland.

Their convoluted journey around the Lake District took them to Burnsall, Middleton, Halsall, Lytham, Hambledon, Kellet, Furness, Aldingham, Kirkby Ireleth and Hawkshead.

They then decided that they would be even safer from the Viking raids if they crossed to Ireland, so they made their way to Workington, where a ship was made ready for the shrine and the other treasures.

Soon after it sailed, a storm blew up and battered the boat so badly that when the wind and waves died down, the monks concluded that Cuthbert did not want to cross to the Emerald Isle.

During that storm, a jeweldecorated volume of the Lindisfarne Gospels was washed overboard and turned up later, practically undamaged, at Whithorn, in Galloway, southwest Scotland.

The Cuthbert procession made its way there and returned by way of Cliburn and Dufton in the Pennines then down Teesdale to Cotherstone, literally Cuthbert’s stone, where the coffin may have rested before moving on to Marske near Richmond, Forcett and South Cowton.

The community then travelled to Barton, Overton, Fishlake and Ackworth before going north-east to Kildale, Middleton, Marton, Ormesby, Wilton and Kirkleatham, as if heading for the vast mouth of the River Tees.

However, it then turned again inland to Redmarshall, near the modern Stockton, and north to the old Roman fort at Chester-le-Street.

The site of the ancient church of St Cuthbert at Billingham was nearly certainly another resting place for the shrine.

Despite settling in Chester-le-Street for 113 years, with the passage of several generations of monks, the group was eventually forced to uproot itself again by yet another round of Viking raids and hurried south to Ripon.

Their stay there was only brief, but as they travelled back to Chester-le-Street their journey was halted at “Wrdlau”, probably Warden Law, a hill between Houghtonle- Spring and the coastal village of Seaham.

Leading the party at the time was Bishop Aldhun, who was as amazed as his followers when the cart carrying Cuthbert’s shrine suddenly refused to move and all their efforts to free it over the next three days were to no avail.

During that time, one of the monks, Eadmer, had a vision in which it was revealed to him that Cuthbert’s shrine had to be taken to a place called Dunholme, but when he shared this information with the rest of the monks, it transpired that nobody knew where Dunholme was.

Soon afterwards, two girls passed the place where the cart was stuck, one happening to ask the other if she had seen her lost cow, a brown beast.

She had. It was, she said, at Dunholme.

As the monks set off in the direction the girls had shown them, the cart could be moved easily and it was not long before the Cuthbert fraternity arrived at a piece of high ground surrounded by a great loop of the River Wear.

The site was naturally defensible but overgrown by thick woodland, with the exception of a small plain in the centre which had previously been cultivated for crops. The year was 995.

ONCE the word was put about that Cuthbert’s remains had arrived at their new home, people travelled from all over the area to help the monks to clear the site.

The first job for Cuthbert’s guardians was to erect a shelter for the shrine – a “little church built quickly of rods”.

Next they built a more permanent wooden church.

Their work continued and on September 4, 999, four years after the monks’ arrival at Durham, Aldhun dedicated a large stone church into which Cuthbert’s remains were placed.

This White Church, as it became known, complete at the time except for its western tower, was cruciform in plan and designed to have two or three towers.

John Sykes, in his “Local Records”, writes that the White Church had two towers, one central and another at the west end, with brasscovered pinnacles.

As time passed, more holy relics were deposited at the church in Durham.

Early in the 11th Century, a priest called Elfrid, sacrist at the monastery and sometime guardian of Cuthbert’s body, convinced himself that it was God’s will that he should travel around Northumbria collecting – some might say stealing – the remains of holy people.

During this quest, he stole the remains of two hermits, two bishops of Hexham, two abbesses and a king, and even removed the bones of St Boisil from Melrose.

There was, however, one set of bones he coveted greatly, those of the Venerable Bede, which were at Jarrow where, it must be supposed, the monks were wise to Elfrid’s plans.

For several years they foiled his attempts but in about 1020, after days spent there in prayer and meditation, or so it appeared, he left Jarrow taking with him Bede’s bones.

It was many years after Elfrid’s death that the hiding place of the relics was discovered – he had placed them in the coffin with the body of Cuthbert.

JUST when it seemed that Cuthbert’s odyssey was over, the monks heard that their new Norman king, William, was sending armies to the North to avenge the deaths of some of his soldiers who had been killed by the Saxons.

Fearing for Cuthbert’s safety, they took his body and the other holy relics and fled back to Lindisfarne by way of Jarrow and Bedlington.

After spending four months there, they returned to Durham, to find the whole area had been ravaged by William’s army.

In 1104, Cuthbert’s shrine was placed in the new Norman cathedral, where his bones still rest today behind the high altar.

Bede’s remains are also in the cathedral, but at the west end.