The Life of St Cuthbert
St Cuthbert was born during Anglo-Saxon times near the River Tweed in Northumbria in 634 or 635 AD. He was part of a Celtic-Christian tradition brought by Columba in the fifth century from Ireland and there was much religious change and political conflict throughout his lifetime.
Recognised as the first of the British born saints, St Cuthbert was seen from an early age as having a special vocation. He caught the plague as a young man – an illness which left him with a legacy of abdominal pain – and his survival was seen as one of many examples of his special relationship with God.
Holy man, healer and miracle worker, St Cuthbert was spreading the word of God in a hostile environment. However, as a speaker of the local languages, he was a well-respected figure and popular preacher. St Cuthbert set the example of living extremely austerely, in difficult physical conditions and on little sleep. Periods of energetic travelling and evangelising were balanced with long periods of prayerful solitude.
Contemporaries saw him as a peaceful man of charm and good humour, able to heal physical and mental illness, and an able leader of the religious communities that were his responsibility. In addition, he showed a special affinity with animals, befriending sea otters, seals and ducks on the coast where he prayed. To this day, Eider ducks are called Cuddy’s ducks in Scotland. He is often represented being tended by swans or an eagle.
The special qualities of his life continued to be an inspiration after his death and Cuthbert came to be revered as one of the Celtic saints.
Stories from the Life of St Cuthbert
There are many stories of miracles associated with the life of St Cuthbert, that show us his special relationship with God, his prayerfulness, his gift of healing and his special way with animals. Monks kept these stories alive, which were enjoyed and revered, after his death.
- As a teenager, St Cuthbert witnessed a group of monks in difficulty, being blown out to sea in a storm. The local people were jeering at and deriding the monks because their God could not save them, but Cuthbert began to pray fervently for their safety. At once the wind died down and the rafts were able to get back to the shore.
- The night that St Aidan died, in August 651, Cuthbert, who was a shepherd, had a vision of ascending angels. He immediately woke his fellow shepherds and prophesied that it must be the death of some important person. Sure enough, within a few days they heard that Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died at that time. As a result of this vision, Cuthbert left secular life and entered the monastery at Melrose.
- Abbess Ælfflaed of Whitby had been afflicted with a crippling disease for some time. One day she thought about Cuthbert and wished she had something belonging to him, for she was certain that would help her. Soon afterwards a messenger arrived with the gift of a linen girdle from Cuthbert. She put this on and within three days was restored to health.
- During one of his missionary journeys along the Teviot River, Cuthbert was asked by a young companion where their mid-day meal would come from. Cuthbert assured him that God would provide the food they needed. Presently they saw an eagle sitting on the riverbank with a freshly caught salmon. Cuthbert told the boy to take a share for them and to leave a fair share for the eagle.
- While on a pastoral visit to a monastery at Coldingham, Cuthbert was observed slipping quietly out at night. A monk followed to see where he was going and saw him go down to the sea and into the water where he spent the night praying and singing hymns. In the morning when he came out of the water, some sea otters followed him onto the beach and rolled and played around his feet until they were dry and warm.
- The monk was so awed by what he had seen that he confessed to Cuthbert that he had been watching him. Cuthbert readily forgave him but asked him not to tell anybody else about what he had seen while Cuthbert was still alive.
Timeline of St Cuthbert
634/5AD – St Cuthbert was born around this time. He became a shepherd.
651 – Entered monastery at Melrose.
655 – Guestmaster at Rippon.
661 – Prior (second in line to the Abbot) at Melrose.
665 – Prior of Lindisfarne, where he persuaded the monks to accept Roman monastic traditions decided at the Synod of Whitby when all the churches of the British Isles were brought under a single authority. Over this period, St Cuthbert travelled extensively among local people who were unreceptive to the Christian message.
676 – Became a hermit on Inner Farne, a small island near Lindisfarne.
684 – Reluctantly accepted election as Bishop of Lindisfarne. With deteriorating health, St Cuthbert resigned as Bishop and went back to Inner Farne. He died there and was buried at Lindisfarne. The monks fled from Lindisfarne during the Danish Invasion, taking the coffin of St Cuthbert with them. They wandered for seven years.
883 – The coffin was placed in a church at Chester-le-street, near Durham.
998 – The coffin was moved to Rippon. A miracle indicated Durham was to be the final resting-place and the coffin was placed in a chapel completed about 999. Later, the coffin was shifted again. It was finally returned to the shrine behind the High Altar in the present Cathedral. The body was found to be in good condition and this was perceived to be a miracle. From that time the shrine became a centre of devotion until the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
St Cuthbert in the 21st Century
The meaning and example of St Cuthbert’s life is encapsulated in the College motto, By Love Serve. Students are encouraged to share, respect the needs of others, accept different viewpoints and negotiate peacefully. They are encouraged to work hard and also take time for spiritual reflection.
The Christian lives lived by students, parents, Old Girls and staff through the Values programme, philanthropy and time given to helping others is consistent with the messages of St Cuthbert.