Saturday, 27 May 2006

The Cuthbert Code

Durham Cathedral must be one of the most beautiful churches in England. Despite the destruction of the sixteenth century, it still feels quite Catholic since visitors can pray at the site of the 'shrines' of two great Saxon saints - St Bede and St Cuthbert.

The story of St Cuthbert, the great seventh century bishop of Lindisfarne, doesd not need repeating here, but few are aware of the dramatic history surrounding his relics. Initially buried at Lindisfarne, the Viking raids of the late ninth century necessitated the move of the relics to the mainland. In 1104 they eventually found a splendid resting place in the new Durham Cathedral. On inspecting the body, the authorities found it to be incorrupt and flexible. This seems to have been still the case in the 1530s when the shrine was opened and despoiled by Henry VIII's commissioners.

There are two versions of the story concerning the fate of St Cuthbert's body at the Reformation. One relates how the saint's body was reburied in 1542 on the site of the shrine. This tomb was excavated in 1827 and various treasures were found, some of which undoubtedly date back to the seventh century. These include a pectoral cross and episcopal ring (probably medieval in origin, since Saxon bishops didn't wear rings, and subsequently given to Ushaw).

Version Two is that the saint was buried by the monks in a secret location and that a substitute skeleton was placed in the tomb later discovered in 1827. Similar stories are sometimes told about Becket's shrine. According to this tradition, the secret is still closely guarded by the English Benedictine Congregation - and that no more than three monks know of the true location at any one time. This is referred to in Sir Walter Scott's Marmion:

There deep in Durhan's Gothic shade
His relics are in secret laid,
But none may know the place
Save of his holiest servants three
Who share that wondrous grace.

Others say that two people have this privilege ex officio -the Abbot of Ampleforth and the Archbishop of Westminster. There is a story concerning the late Cardinal Basil Hume (a former Abbot of Ampleforth and Archbishop of Westminster) who once visited Durham Cathedral with a group of English bishops during a meeting that was being held at Ushaw. At one point the Cardinal slipped away and disappeared to a quiet corner - was he making a pilgrimage to the secret site of St Cuthbert's shrine?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:06 am  

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