For centuries, St Cuthbert (c634-687) was the most worshipped saint in England, revered for his virtuous life and his miracles. Even centuries after his death, stories were told of his body remaining ‘incorrupt’ in his tomb. What we know about his work and character comes from the records and significantly from the writings of the Venerable Bede (673-735). His Life of St Cuthbert (published in 721) was part of the tradition of hagiography, a reverential biography of a saint. Bede diligently collected accounts, both written and word of mouth, to compile his work. Probably born in Northumberland and educated by monks – initially at Melrose Abbey – Cuthbert’s religious practice, unusually, encompassed activities as monk, bishop, and finally hermit. The numerous reports of his piety, his virtue, his ascetism and a reputation for healing made him a respected figure in his lifetime. These were difficult political times and he clearly had diplomatic and administrative skills as well, which led to his appointment as Bishop of Lindisfarne. However, his personal monastic leanings made him unhappy to occupy such a worldly position, and after a short time he resigned. Feeling his death was imminent he retired to his cell on Inner Farne island where, after a period of illness, he died. Bede’s endearing ‘Life’, written within living memory of its subject, presents an untarnished view of St Cuthbert, whose shrine in Durham Cathedral, nearly 1400 years on, continues to attract visitors and pilgrims. Translated by J. A. Giles.
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