The Northern Saints
Durham Cathedral owes its existence to the lively faith and spirituality of the early northern saints, in particular St Cuthbert. We celebrate him at St Cuthbert's-tide each March and on 4th September 2005, the 901st anniversary of the translation of his relics to Durham Cathedral, his name was restored to the historic dedication of the Cathedral, having been removed by Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monastery. Cuthbert was born about 625 and died in 687, he entered a monastery and became successively Prior of Melrose Abbey, Prior of Lindisfarne and finally Bishop of Lindisfarne where he spent most of his days, ending his life as a hermit. After his death and in the face of Viking invasions, the monks of Lindisfarne carried his body on their wanderings until finally they came to Durham in 995 and built a shrine for him in the White Church which was later replaced by the present Cathedral. He is described by Bede as a man of God, a skilful speaker, ‘afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer and kindly to all who came to him for comfort’.
There are altars in the Cathedral dedicated to other northern saints. Aidan, whose death in 651 inspired Cuthbert to enter monastic life, was Bishop of Lindisfarne. He had come to Lindisfarne from Iona at the request of King Oswald of Northumbria, and with his fellow monks restored Christianity in Northumbria and extended his mission further south. Known for his generosity to the poor, he walked rather than rode through the countryside, and the altar frontal in the Cathedral reflects the natural world that he loved.
Hild was a contemporary of Aidan and Cuthbert. Of royal blood, she decided to enter monastic life and was appointed Abbess of Hartlepool by Aidan. Later she founded a double abbey at Whitby, where both nuns and monks lived, and became known for her prudence and good sense and was sought-out by kings and other leaders for advice. She oversaw the Synod of Whitby in 663 when divisive issues between the Celtic and Roman Christian traditions were resolved. Many of her monks became bishops or scholars of Scripture, she encouraged the servant Caedmon to become the first English poet, and was universally known as ‘mother’. She died in 680.
The Venerable Bede
Bede, who wrote the first history of the English people, lived from 673-735. He lived most of his life at the monastery in Jarrow where he was a scholar, teacher and writer, and died whilst dictating a vernacular translation of the Gospel according to John. He was the greatest scholar of his time in the western church, writing commentaries on Scripture and various historical works of which the most famous is ‘The Ecclesiastical History of England’. One hundred years after his death he was given the title ‘Venerable’, legend has it by an angel who filled in an inscription on his tomb. His body was removed to Durham around 1020.
Margaret was born in 1045 and married King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1070. She was influential in the revival of religious life in Scotland, favouring the Roman Catholic to the Celtic church, and she rebuilt the monastery at Iona, built a Benedictine abbey at Dunfermline and a chapel at Edinburgh Castle, and improved pilgrim routes. The painting in the Chapel of the Nine Altars shows her reading scripture with her son David sitting at her feet. He later succeeded to the Scottish throne and extended Margaret's abbey at Dunfermline with the intention that it should become the most important abbey in Scotland.
Oswald was king of the Northumbrians. On coming to the throne he sent to Ireland for a bishop to teach his people the Christian faith and Aidan came. Oswald accompanied Aidan on many of his travels, acting as translator when Aidan preached. As the Christian faith spread in Northumbria, churches were built and Oswald endowed several monasteries. He was known for his piety and his generosity in giving to the poor. Despite his work to bring peace to warring provinces, he was killed in battle in 642 and tradition holds that his head is buried in Cuthbert's tomb.