December 18, 2009

Saint Cuthbert: A great Northumbrian

By Dr Clive Dalton

St Cuthbert's church in Bellingham, Northumberland.
I was christened here, tolled the bell and pumped the organ.
Photo: The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

St Cuthbert on the Net
It's staggering how much information there is about ' Saint Cuthbert' on the Internet - he would be gay pleased aboot that if he has access to it from his tomb in Durham cathedral. It makes you wonder who wrote it all doon for the sake of posterity. It would have been a gay slow process at the time with quill and knife. Nee delete, undo or cut and paste buttons back then.

These are my favourite bits of his story - having been christened by Rev W.J. (Daddy) Flower in St Cuthbert's church in Bellingham, Northumberland. He used water from 'Cuddy's well' below the church to wet me heed, using a large tropical sea shell he brought back from Ceylon.

The church was first built in the mid 1100s and then after many burnings by the thieving Scots, it was rebuilt in 1609 with a stone fireproof roof and stone vaulted nave needing buttresses to support the weight, and a bell tower which the first model didn't have.

It's worth Googling 'St Cuthbert's churches' for a fascinating history of them all.

As Church of England kids we were regularly told St Cuthbert's story, and we all felt a special relationship with 'wor Saint' though, as we were oft reminded, we were far from being 'little saints' worsels!

A 'Daft Laddie"
Now Cuthbert was not the son of an Irish king - and Aa bet he was pleased aboot that, as it could have caused him a serious lot of problems. He was in fact a shepherding 'Daft Laddie' on 'the Scotch side', heordin sheep aroond Melrose Abbey. Nuw I feel great empathy with him in this, as I started as a Daft Laddie chasin sheep 12 miles on the English side - but a bit later in time mind you.

While heordin, you can imagine him having a few canny cracks with the monks aboot the state of his yowes, his gimmers and hoggs, and where he was gana git a decent tup for the season, as the tup sales at Hawick, Lanark and St Boswells wouldn't be ganin in them days.

And Aa bet he pulled the monks' legs about the antics of the tups in their human flocks around the district, if they were allowed ootside the monastery te keep an eye on things.

St Aiden and the angels
Then whaat seemed to trigger an interest in the chorch for a job, was the image he saa of St Aiden being carried up to heaven by angels. Nuw that must hev given him a canny gliff and got him thinkin. It wad anybody eh!

But before he decided whaat te dee, he did his national service in the army to help the local lads protect Northumbria from King Penda from Mercia - that other kingdom doon sooth below Northumbria. You would have thowt that seein the angels would have made him fancy joinin the airforce, but AD 660 was mebe orly days for that.

Anyway, after demob, back to Melrose he went and then to Ripon as the heed man - the 'Master'. I wonder how on earth he got there? He probably waalked a canny bit of the way in his sandals, as he wouldn't have had a decent pair of Rogerson's 'heather louper' shepherd's boots with hob nails and turned up toes (that we lads used to wear), to help him through the potholes and sporlins on the road. Hopefully somebody lent him a powny te save his legs.

There is now a walkway called 'St Cuthbert's Walkway' from Melrose to Lindisfarne commemorating his historic journey - but fortunately for today's walkers, it doesn't include the diversions he had before he finally got to "Holy Island".

Backin a loser
But the poor lad backed a loser - big time. At Ripon, he went with the 'Roman Rite' in the Catholic Church, rather than wi the 'Celtic' rite. He seemed to have tean the huff ower this and went tappy lappy back to Melrose where in AD 664 he became Prior to get away from them Romans. Ye can sartainly understand this, because there'd be plenty of reminders of Roman rule left aroond the coonty when they'd cleared off, leavin the local lads wi that muckle useless waall and aall their netties te clean oot.

But in AD 664, the old gadgees in the Synod of Whitby voted te gan for the Roman Rite, so Cuthbert had to swally his pride and just keep tewin on supporin the team he didn't like. It's happened a lot in history - Aa remember folk that even changed from Newcassel to support Sunderland! Can ye imagine owt warse than that?

Now on Lindisfarne there was a fair row ganin on between the Catholics and Celts, so Cuthbert was picked to be the lad te gan and sort them oot - him having been a Celtic supporter afore that so he knew the score. The story says that he had a 'lot of tact and patience' - soonds that if Newcastle United had him on the board, they'd still be in the Premiers man.

Hermit on Farne - 'Cuddy's ducks'
But Cuthbert clearly wasn't happy in the job, so in AD 676, he must have had a meein with his boss the Abbott who granted him leave te gan te the Inner Farne islands, not far from Lindisfarne, to be a hermit. He clearly wanted te git away from it aall and commune wi God.

Nowt rang wi that mind ye. The poor sowl obviously had things to sort oot in his heed, and there are plenty of folk aboot the nuw who will understand this. Aa knaa plenty of parents who would'nt mind a bit time away as a hermit when the bairns are teethin!

Mind Cuthbert would be aall right on Farne, as there were plenty of sea bords and fresh free-range eggs to live on. The Farne Eider ducks are called 'Cuddy's ducks' after him. Google 'Eider duck' for fascinating details about the birds and St Cuthbert.

And there'd be plenty of fresh fish if he'd tekin some gear alang. Nee reason he cudn't have netted and smoked a few herring and made them inte kippers and bloaters. He wadn't have needed the Eyemouth fish man te caall each week like we later locals did.

Consecrated at York
Then the bosses were at him again to gan back to Lindisfarne and tek the Bishop's job, but it meant he had te gan te York to be consecrated. If it had been me, Aad hev torned the job doon. It would have been another hell of a lang waalk in sandals, but hopefully somebody would have had the goodness of heart to lend the lad a powny te save his feet and legs.

Why cudn't he git dun at Newcassel as they had a canny chorch there? Aa doot it wud have made any difference to God. Hopefully he negotiated gud pay and conditions in his new job, alang with a hefty bonus and a regular supply of tetties and swedes te gan with his ducks and fish!

Anyway, summat must have gaen seriously rang wi the lad, and he must hev felt bad enough te realise that his time on this orth was ganna end. So off he went back ower to his beloved Inner Farne where he passed away on March 20, 687.

Poor lad - he really must have been feelin bad. Nee chance of a rescue helicopter ride to the RVI in Newcassel in them days. As a former shephord, I bet he mused on the fact that he was ganna dee just as the inbye lambin was cumin in. Somebody must hev fund him and took his body back to Lindisfarne for buriel.

Cartin Cuthbert aboot
But now his story takes another loup. Things were ganin canny with aall sorts of folk ganin ower te the island te worship at his grave - a real magnet for 'pilgrims' apparently. (See my blog aboot me chorch days and ganin as a pilgrim to Lindisfarne). Some folk even reported miracles when they visited the grave - sadly there wor nen on my trip.

Then his lads (the monks) got the wheeze that the Danes were cumin ower again for more rape and pillage (wor they any gud at owt else), so the lads fled from Lindisfarne with their prized possessions, including St Cuthbert of course, and humped them aboot the North East for seven lang years.

Imagine that for a job! I bet they didn't get time and a half at weekends, or wet days off. You wad hev thowt theyd' have gitten a barrow te cart him aboot, and save thor showlders and backs. No, them grand lads did it the hard way - six of them at a time in aall weathers.

Anyway, eftor thor lang waalk, they ended up in a chorch at Chester-le-Street, varry handy for Durham. But then the damned Danes came ower again in the late 900s, so they moved the lad to Ripon for safe keepin.

Nuw if ye work this oot, it's 300 years after he went there to work as Master. Pity that he was deed or he cud have had a great time catchin up on things.

But after only a few months at Ripon, which after aall was in what was to become Yorkshire, (where they aall talked funny), they heeded off back to Chester-le-Street, stopping off at Durham.

Nuw summat vary queer happened here as the lads got a 'sign' to say Cuthbert would like to bide there. It's not mentioned whaat the sign was - nowadays they'd git a text or a tweet! Maybe they hord some morse from his coffin! Anyway, it was serious stuff and they took heed.

So at Durham, a series of chorches (not just one) were built to house aall the treasures from Lindisfarne, the first chorch being built on the site of the present cathedral and consecrated in AD 999 which soonds like a memorable year to finish a job. You would have thowt they'd have kept the job ganin for one more year, to roond off the numbers and leave 999 for emergency phone caalls later on.

The 'Harrying of the North'
Yill remember 1066 and aall that. Well in 1069, that uninvited Froggy guest 'William the Lionheart' from ower the watta in Normandy who knackered wor Harold at Hastings, must have got sare worrked up and decided te gan and sort oot the Northern lads that had been playin up a bit.

It was probably nowt much - just a few ower many of what in later history would become Newcassel broons. The northern lads didn't like whaat this daft Frenchman was dein doon sooth - and which wor also affectin them up north, and especially wi wor language. So Froggie Willie thowt a good harrying wad de the trick. Hard luck bonny lad - in the end he had a lang waalk for nowt!

But it's worth rememberin, the one great thing Harold started for us aall, and carried on by wor 'Ethelread the Unready' was to protect wor English language. Can ye imagine readin this tale in Frog speak? Nee body wud understand a woord. Yiv got te admit that any language that dictates the sex a bike, a wheel barra and a pair of kippers, has got to be totally barmy!

Howay lads - back te Lindisfarne
Then to avoid the harryin, Cuthbert's lads took him back to Lindisfarne again for safety. Cuthbert must have put sum miles in by nuw - both deed and alive. Fortunately the hu-ha was soon ower and they took his bones back to Durham where in 1104, they laid his remains doon in the new Cathedral intiv a proper shrine. Even though he was deed, his owld bones must have been gay pleased to rest at last.

Then summat queer happened - again! During the shift, some of the lads must have have a bit keek inte the coffin, and loo and behold they fund that his body was porfectly preserved - not quite as good as new, but sartainly a lang way better than mowldy dust. He was declared to be 'incorrupt' - Grade A, top shelf, double top! A state very rare in today's politicians aroond the world.

St Oswald's heed
Now here's another the bit of the story I like. When they opened Cuthbert's coffin - lyin there was the heed of St Oswald, King of Northumbria from 605-642. Whaat a gliff that wud hev given them Aa bet. St Ossie is weell worth a Google anall te see what an amazin lad he was. He did a grand job for us Northumbrians.

Then, somebody had the idea of using St Oswald's heed as the symbol of St Cuthbert. I suppose that seemed a gud idea at the time, but why cudn't they just have used St Cuthbert's own heed? It wud hev been a bettor fit you would hev thowt and more like him.

Now imagine the scene when the lads were packing up on Lindisfarne, with the Danes just ower the horizon sniffing more rape, pillage and Newcassel broon. The monk that fund St Owald's heed must have said something like.

"Hi lads, whaat are we gana dee wi this?
The reply must have been - ' whaat is it Brother'?

There had to be some smart Alec who would reply - 'Why whaat the hell de ye think it is man- a Swede tornup wi hair on'?

You can imagine suggestions like - 'Oh just put it in a Co-op broon paper carrier bag' or, 'find an owld tettie sack man' (nee plastic bags which would have done the job) or, 'Just wrap it an owld fisherman's gansey', as there wud be plenty lyin aboot on Lindisfarne at the time!

Then somebody must have said in haste:
'Hey lads, get yor skates on and just hoy it in with Cuddy'.

'Champion idea' would be the reply -'Nuw lets' git gannin afore them big hairy buggas wi cuws' horns on thor heeds git heor from ower the watta'. 'Aa can see thor sails just off the Farnes'.

The English Reformation- and plunder
Remember the Reformation in the Middle Ages? You can imagine what a draw-card St Cuthbert's tomb must have been to the plunderers of the time, as there would be no charge for entry to Cathedrals in those days.

The story goes that during the Reformation, St Cuthbert's tomb was plundered, but then another version says that the monks knew it was cumin so hid his body in the Cathedral beforehand - which was a canny idea you wud have thowt.

Only one problem though - and it happens today despite sophisticated computer systems and data backups - some daft goniel forgot to record where the hidey hole was.

It's all right lads - we've fund him
Then in 1827 - what took them so long, a secret tomb was found in the Cathedral - complete with a body. But, whees was the body inside - was it that of St Cuthbert? Huw would anybody knaa?

Even today, DNA would be no good without a relative's DNA for comparison or some guaranteed proof of some sort from his clothing. And monks weren't supposed to leave progeny and it would be hard to find any of his owld claes or his hairbrush or toothbrush on the Farnes.

Maybe the answer would be to clone him from his remains ( a future possibility for sure), and then we could compare his facial features with the old ones in the engravings and paintings. But hing on a bit, did you ever knaa anybody who looked like their passport photo nivor mind an engraving?

So for better or for worse, the bones on display in Durham Cathedral are declared to be the authentic bones of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Farnes - Wor Cuddy!

The Lindisfarne Gospels
St Cuthbert's name is always associated with this great literary and artistic treasure. It is considered by scholars to be the best surviving example of Celtic calligraphy and illustration. It is now safe in the British Museum in London. (Google its history which tells how lucky it was to survive).

What I like to ponder is the prospect of there being no deadlines for the journalistic monks who did the great works, no concern about whether there was enough advertising to cover the cost, and no fear that the information could be pirated for distribution on the Internet!

St Cuthbert must have been an aaful a canny lad and we Northumbrians are very proud of him. It would have been nicer te hev had his bones in Northumberland, but if he's happy in Durham - we'll just let him lie. One things for sure though, if he ever does need another shift, his bones will sartainly knaa their way heme.

St Cuthbert's Day is March 20th.

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1 comment:

  1. This post made my day! I am only a wannabe Northumbrian in far off British Columbia but Saint Cuthbert's number one fan. Posting this link to my Facebook group for Saint Cuthbert and saving it for a later post to my blog as well.