The Golden Age of Northumbria by H.E. Davidson (1958) [Part 5: Cuthbert, Servant of God]

The Golden Age of NorthumbriaWhen good old bishop Aidan died, there was a young man watching his sheep on the hills up in the north. As he lay there with his sleeping companions, he seemed to see a great light, and angels coming down to earth to welcome a new spirit into the kingdom of God. the morning after this, he heard that the holy Aidan, whom all men loved, had died in the night. This was a sign to him, and he decided straight away to enter a monastery and live for Christ as Aidan had done.

This young man, Cuthbert, was tall and strong, and as a boy he had beaten all the other children in races and jumping and wrestling. He decided to enter the Abbey of Melrose, for he had heard that its abbot was a wonderful teacher. He rode up to the door like a young warrior, with a spear in his hand. As he saw him come, the abbot turned to one of those standing by and said: “behold a servant of God.” So Cuthbert became a monk, and just as he had outdone all the other boys in sports, so now he had such strength and energy that he could outdo the rest at reading, writing, watching, praying and all the tasks of the monastery.

Melrose was a monastery like Iona, a collection of little huts, where the monks lived a hard and simple life, working hard as well as praying. Like the monks of St. Columba, Cuthbert did not always stay in his monastery; he made many journeys, preaching and teaching the people in wild and lonely places. One day when it began to get dark, he was walking to a distant village far over the hills with only a boy as his companion, cuthbert asked the boy if he knew anywhere where they could stay the night, or get a meal, but the boy knew no one, and they had brought no food with them. But Cuthbert had no anxiety; he told the boy to learn faith and trust in God. soon afterwards they saw an eagle fly over and come down on the bank of a river not far away, and Cuthbert sent the boy over to see what he could find. To his delight he found a large fish which the eagle had caught; he brought it back to Cuthbert, but Cuthbert did not forget the eagle. “Why have you not given part to God’s handmaid?” said he. So they cut the fish in two and the eagle received her share.

The Meeting at Whitby


When Cuthbert had been a monk for some years, there was a great meeting held at Whitby to settle some quarrels in the Northumbrian Church. (The meeting was in the year 664: how long was this after the conversion of Edwin?)  

The main trouble was that the monks of St. Columba lived differently from the monks who had been taught by men from Rome. they looked different to begin with. Look at these two men in the picture:

The Golden Age of Northumbria 2 monks

The monks of Rome had their heads shaved like the man on the left, while the Western monks had their heads shaved in a different way, something like the man on the right. Also, each monk from the West obeyed his own abbott and took little notice of what bishops and archbishops said, and no notice at all of the Pope of Rome.

The third problem was that they had different ways of working out the date of Easter. This could make things very difficult. One year the King of Northumbria, who had been taught by Bishop Aidan, was celebrating Easter with much rejoicing, while the queen who had been taught by priests from Rome, was still keeping Holy Week, and fasting.

The meeting was held in the year 664 in the great hall of the monastery at Whitby, where Abbess Hilda ruled, for everyone admired her wisdom and good sense. It was a wonderful gathering of famous people, such as had seldom been seen in Northumbria. King Oswy and his queen were there, of course, and the king’s councillors. The priests and monks who followed the ways of Rome were there also, and as their leader was a Frankish bishop, and not too good at speaking Anglo-Saxon, Wilfrid was asked to speak for them. He was still quite a young man at this time and very brilliant at argument, but not a very tactful person. He had not patience with the monks of the West; he thought they were old-fashioned and out of touch with the great world, for he had travelled to Rome, and knew how things were done abroad.

On the other side was Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne, of whom the king was very fond. He had been taught at Columba’s monastery at Iona, and was quite sure that what Columba had believed must be right. He felt that some of the things Wilfrid had said about that great saint were neither fair nor just. Cuthbert was there, too, and others followers of Columba.

It was not a very happy meeting, for both sides were sure they were right, and some men could not keep their tempers. Wilfrid spoke for a long time, and Colman replied, but most felt that Wilfrid was having the best of the argument. He showed that many of Colman’s ideas did not agree with the oldest teaching of the Church, and he told them that everyone in Italy, France, Africa, Asia and Greece kept Easter at the same date. “Only the Picts and the Britons”, said Wilfrid, referring to the monks of the West, “stupidly maintain their opinion against the world.” This made the Western monks very angry indeed, but though they did not like Wilfrid’s arguments, most people thought they were good. He finished his speech by a question: “Is Columba to be preferred before St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, to whom Our Lord said, ‘Thou art Peter, and to thee will I give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven’?”

King Oswy had been listening and thinking hard, as King Edwin had listened and thought at that meeting with Paulinus long ago. He did not perhaps understand all the learned arguments, but he knew that if the Church in Northumbria went on being different from all the rest of the world, it would be a bad thing for Northumbria. So he said, “Is it true, Colman, that these words were spoken by Our Lord to Peter?” “Is it true, O king,” said the bishop. “And was such power ever given to your Columba?” asked the king. Colman had reluctantly to say “No.” Then said the king, with a smile, “Then since Peter is the doorkeeper of Heaven, I will obey his decrees, lest when I come to the gates of Heaven he refuse to open them to me.”

King Oswy knew that he had some very angry men in front of him, and he was trying to make things a little pleasanter for everyone. But he knew, and all knew as they heard him speak, that this was one of the most important things that had been decided in Northumbria since the meeting in Edwin’s hall. From that time there was one Church in England, and it was in agreement with the Church in Rome. it seemed a hard decision to some of the men there, who had been taught in the way of St. Columba, but it was a good thing for Northumbria, and there were great days ahead for its Church.

To Bishop Colman it was a sad day, and he gave up his bishopric and left for Ireland. Many of the Western monks went with him, but Cuthbert and some others thought they ought to stay and work for Christ in the new way. So Cuthbert stayed, and in a few months he became the prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne. It was hard work to persuade the monks there to keep the new rules instead of the old, but everyone loved Cuthbert. He went up and down Northumbria teaching the people, like Aidan and Colman before him. Crowds came to hear him. People said that when he talked of Christ, such light came into his face that it was as if they looked on the face of an angel. He was so good-tempered and patient that when there was much argument and rebellion in the monastery over the new rules, he would just get up quietly and end the meeting; next day he would say the same things over and over again as if no one had opposed them. In this way he persuaded all the monks in the end to accept the new rule for the monastery.

Holy Island


Cuthbert stayed at Lindisfarne twelve years. He still liked to go out alone as he had always done, down to the edge of the sea to spend a whole night praying and thinking about God. one night another monk followed him secretly, and watched Cuthbert wade out into the water while he sang psalms to God. Then he was amazed to see two little seals following Cuthbert out of the waves: they lay down on the sand beside the prior, breathing on his feet and rubbing them with their fur to dry them. Cuthbert blessed them, and they returned to the sea.

All men believed Cuthbert to be the best prior Lindisfarne had ever had, but he never stopped wishing to be free from the business of a monastery. At last he was given permission to retire, and very joyfully he found a lonely spot outside the monastery and set up a little hut there. But people were always coming to see him, so he moved further out still, to a little rocky island called Farne, some way out to sea. No one had ever dared to live there before, for the Northumbrians believed it was haunted, perhaps because of the great black cormorants who made their home there.

He rowed out to this island in his boat, and built a little house there. It was almost round, about seven feet high inside, with the roof roughly thatched with straw. The walls were built of stone and turf, dug out from inside. Men who saw his hut could not imagine how he had moved such large stones without help, and they thought angels must have some to aid him. Sometimes the sea helped him, by bringing ashore wood for his house, and the monks would bring him out food and tools from the monastery. In one part of the house Cuthbert made a little chapel, where he prayed. This little house was only big enough for Cuthbert himself, but he also built a much bigger house nearer the shore, beside a stream of fresh water, where the monks who visited him could sleep.

The monks often came to see Cuthbert, for they were anxious about him living on this lonely island by himself, but in rough weather it was often impossible to take a boat across, and they had no news of him for several weeks. When they came, he welcomed them and washed their feet with warm water, and talked to them as he used to do at Lindisfarne, but he would never agree to go back with them. After a time he thought he would try to grow his own food, so they brought him a spade and some wheat to sow. But it would not grow in the poor soil, so Cuthbert asked for Barley instead. This time the seeds came up, but the birds came and ate the young shoots. Cuthbert had always loved birds, and now he came and talked with them, and told them that they must not steal his barley, unless God had given them leave. After that he had no more trouble, and he was able to make some rough bread from his own barley.

Another time he had to scold two crows for stealing straw from the house where his visitors used to sleep.  Soon afterwards one bird flew up with drooping wings, as if to ask his pardon, and then they both came to him, bringing him a lump of lard, as if to make up for their mischief. He used this lard to grease his friends’ shoes to make them waterproof, and always told them the tale of the birds’ repentance.

As time went on, more and more people in Northumbria heard of this holy man living on the island, and came out to see him, telling him their troubles and problems and confessing the wrong things they had done. And no one went away without feeling happier and better for his wise words. So in summer-time you could often see many little boats on the stretch of sea between the mainland and Cuthbert’s island. When the time came to find a new bishop of Lindisfarne, all wanted Cuthbert. They sent messages to him, but he would not be persuaded to leave his island. At last a boat came out over the sea, and from it a very noble company stepped out on to the shore. The king himself was there, and with him a very holy bishop and some of the greatest nobles. They walked up to the little hut, and there all these great and rich men knelt down and begged him, weeping, to come and be their bishop. Cuthbert wept with them, and could refuse no longer, much as he hated to leave his island.

He was as good a bishop as all had believed he would be. He preached and helped the people as he had always done. As men had said of Aidan, so now they said of Cuthbert that he did not ask anything of them which he did not do himself. He helped the poor and those in trouble, and stopped rich men from treating them harshly. His life in the bishop’s house, though surrounded by servants and by messengers coming and going–for it was an important thing now to be a Northumbrian bishop–was as simple as if he were still in his little hut on Farne Island.

When Cuthbert grew old and knew he had not much longer to live, he persuaded the Archbishop to let him go back to his island. As he was getting into the boat to row back, an old monk asked him when they might hope to see him again. He replied without hesitation, “When you shall bring my body back here.” He stayed in his little hut for two months, enjoying the peacefulness, and then he was taken ill. Before long the Abbot of Lindisfarne came over to see him. Cuthbert did not leave his hut, only coming to the window to speak with him. He said he was not very well, but made no fuss, and told him to go back while the wind was favourable, “God will tell you when to return”.

For five days the sea was so rough that they could not cross to the island. When the abbot returned, he found Cuthbert very weak. He had a swollen foot, so that he must have been in terrible pain; he and only kept alive by tasting a few onions which he had within reach. They stayed with him and did what they could, and he talked to them. He told them it was right that they should keep the rules of the Church which were agreed in Whitby, and that they must work to keep the Church united.

That night there were monks watching outside the monastery at Lindisfarne, anxious for any news of their beloved Cuthbert. In the night they suddenly saw a light shining across the waves; one of the men with the abbot had climbed to the highest point of the island with two torches, to signal to those left behind. Then they knew that Cuthbert was dead. It was the year 687.

All Northumbria heard of the saint’s death, and all men were sad. Many came to Lindisfarne on pilgrimages to his grave, and there were many stories of wonderful cures done to sick men. Just as Cuthbert had helped men through his life, so it seemed that he was still able to help them after death, because of his great holiness. Cuthbert’s body was placed in a wonderful coffin. He was wrapped in rich robes, and on his breast was a beautiful cross, studded with jewels. But Cuthbert’s body was not allowed to rest in peace for long.

The End of the Golden Age


One day a little group of people could be seen going slowly along the roads of Northumbria. They went on foot, pushing a little cart on which a burden rested. When they reached a village, they were welcomed with joy; many came to kneel before the burden which they carried, and all brought them gifts, even the poorest offering them a little food. This little band were all that remained of the monks of Lindisfarne. Their monastery had been burned by fierce men from Norway called Vikings. Many monks had been killed, while their treasures and books had been destroyed or carried off as plunder. Here is a picture of some of these fierce Vikings, who swept across the sea to burn and pillage the villages and monasteries of the Anglo-Saxons. It was carved on a stone at Lindisfarne:

The Golden Age of Northumbria vikings

The Vikings were not Christians, and they greedily stripped the church of all its gold and silver. But they left the coffin of St. Cuthbert, the monastery’s greatest treasure, and when some of the survivors came back to the ruins afterwards, they found it untouched. It is said that one monk hid inside St. Cuthbert’s shrine, protected, he believed, by the saint himself, he watched the Vikings collect their plunder and vow to return before long. The monks were determined that the body of their saint should be saved, and they set off to the hills, carrying the coffin with them.

So began a journey that lasted many years. They wandered far into Northumbria, but found no safe place where it could remain. Once they tried to sail it to Ireland, leaving the Northumbrians on the shore grieving bitterly at the thought that St. Cuthbert was leaving them to their fate. But the winds changed, and blew them back again, so, feeling that God did not wish them to go, they took up their wanderings once more. The book of the Gospels, which was brought from Lindisfarne with the coffin, was dropped overboard during this storm, but the sea carried it ashore, and it was recovered with very little damage. We still have the book and the marks of water can be seen on it.

The Golden Age of Northumbria book of gospels

For some years they found a home for the saint’s body at Chester-le-Street, but again they had to fly from the Vikings, who had now conquered much of the North of England. Once more they took up their wanderings, and reached Ripon; after a few months there, it seemed safe to return to Lindisfarne, but on the way they stopped at the place which is now Durham. There was no church there then, but, according to the tale, the coffin of St. Cuthbert, once set down there, could not be moved. They thought that this must be the place where it was meant to stay, so a little church was built to hold it. Now a great cathedral stands there. Here is the coffin of St. Cuthbert as you can see it today in the Cathedral library:

The Golden Age of Northumbria cuthbert coffin

The terrible raids of the Vikings ended the Golden Age of Northumbria. The flight of the monks with the coffin of the saint they had so loved was a heroic attempt to rescue some of the treasures of that age, which seemed to be disappearing before their eyes. During the Golden Age, many wonderful things came to the Northumbrians. Their fine churches and splendid carved crosses, their books and their great learning, were the wonder of the Christian world. Christianity gave them a faith that brought them courage in those dark and stormy times, and it inspired them, too, to do great things, and to make their country glorious. It was an age of heroes, heroes as great as any of which the Northumbrians told in their halls in the old days before Christ was known to them. These new heroes were faithful to Christ, even as the old warriors were faithful to their earthly kings.

  • Cormorant – Black sea bird which dives for fish.
  • Prior – Second in command in a monastery.
  • Shrine – Holy place where relics are kept.

Saint Cuthbert


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