Saintly Sisters at Durham Cathedral

Following the success of the Cuthbert’s Treasures exhibition back in the summer at Durham Cathedral, the end of the November sees the opening of another important new exhibition: Saintly Sisters (28 November 2017-3 February 2018). Exploring saintly women from the north of England, this exhibition is largely, though not exclusively, focused on Anglo-Saxon holy women, revisiting well-known figures such as Hilda of Whitby, and restoring other more obscure early saints to visibility.

Saint Æthelthryth of Ely as depicted in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (London, British Library, Additional MS 49598). Image: Public Domain

One of the most renowned Anglo-Saxon female saints, Etheldreda of Ely (c. 630-79), has early associations with Northumbria which this exhibition brings back into relief. Born into a royal household in East Anglia, her second marriage to King Ecgfrith of Northumbria brought Etheldreda to the north where her saintly inclinations began to reveal themselves in her insistence upon a chaste marriage. Eventually granted permission by her husband to live as a nun, she was professed at Coldingham (now in Berwickshire) at the double monastery founded by St Aebbe. She later returned south, founding a monastery at Ely. After her death, her body was found to be incorrupt and reputedly miracle-working, and her shrine became one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman England. The exhibition describes ‘St Etheldreda’s chains’: coloured necklaces of silk which could be purchased at her cathedral fair annually in memory of the neck tumour which caused her early death.

Despite her friendship with St Cuthbert and mentoring of Etheldreda, St Aebbe (615-83) is a more problematic figure, not least because, soon after her death, Bede relates how her monastery at Coldingham was burnt to the ground as a sign of God’s displeasure with the sexual misdemeanours of the monks and nuns there. Nonetheless, after Coldingham was refounded as a Benedictine priory in the late eleventh century, and colonised with monks from Durham Cathedral priory, there was a need for a local cult. Consequently, Aebbe’s coffin was fortuitously unearthed by shepherds, and taken to the priory where it began to work miracles. Not long afterwards, Aebbe appeared in a vision to a local layman and instructed him to build an oratory in her honour on St Abb’s Head.

St Abb’s Head as seen from the village of St Abbs. Image: Public Domain

Initially, the reluctant visionary did nothing about it, and Aebbe retaliated by rendering the land infertile. After he complied, she began a posthumous healing ministry and seems to have specialised in healing women: she is particularly known for restoring the voices of women stricken with dumbness. The exhibition shows us a Latin legend of Aebbe in the early sixteenth-century nationalistic legendary known as the Nova Legenda Anglie, and charters issued by Coldingham Priory.

Victorian relief of St Hilda in Whitby. Image: Public Domain

Cuthbert found further female friends amongst the nuns and abbesses of Whitby monastery. The most famous of these, Hilda (c. 614-80), plays a prominent part in the exhibition. Her textual legacy is represented by a late medieval copy of Bede’s Historica ecclesiastica, which relates most of the near contemporary information that we have about the saint – her founding of a series of monasteries, most famously Streoneshalh (Whitby), her presence at the Synod of Whitby, and her patronage of the lay brother Caedmon, the legendary father of Old English religious poetry. An extract from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, Marmion (1808), affords us a glimpse of later legends that grew up about Hilda. Reputedly, her nuns at Whitby were terrorised by a plague of poisonous snakes and didn’t dare leave their cells. Hilda boldly prayed to God to rid them of this pestilence, and the snakes immediately turned tail to the sea shore, coiled themselves into spirals and turned to stone. This story, which was certainly known by the fourteenth century and probably much earlier, is an imaginative myth of origin for the ammonite fossils that can still be found on that coastline. The exhibition includes some of these fossils from Whitby, creatively named Hildoceras in honour of Hilda and her legend.

The 19th-century Vision of St Bega by Josefina de Vasconcellos at St Bees Priory. Image: Dougsim/CC BY-SA 4.0

Another little-known saint from the north is described in her thirteenth-century Vita as a close friend of Hilda. St Bega, a somewhat mythical seventh-century Irish princess, evaded an arranged marriage in Ireland with the aid of a magic bracelet, then sailed across the Irish sea in a coracle and lived in religious reclusion in Copeland, Cumbria. Subsequently summoned by St Aidan to be professed as ‘the first nun in Northumbria’, she travelled east, leaving her bracelet which later became a wonder-working device in its own right. She founded a monastery at Hartlepool, and this was later passed on to Hilda. Shortly after, she re-emerged (possibly a conflation with another Begu) as a nun at Hackness, the daughter house of Whitby. Here, one night, she heard a bell ringing and was granted a vision of St Hilda’s soul being carried up to heaven by angels (Hilda had died that night, many miles away in Whitby). Although Bega’s cult never really took off on the north-east coast, she was venerated enthusiastically in the north-west, at Holme Cultram and St Bees, where her bracelet continued to defend the interests of the priory until late in the Middle Ages.

St Cuthbert’s Tomb at Durham Cathedral. Image: Public Domain

Despite the presence of these enterprising seventh-century abbesses and female hermits, and St Cuthbert’s friendships with several of them (the exhibition also mentions other abbesses of Whitby), events took a more misogynist turn at Durham Cathedral in the late eleventh century. After a new cohort of Benedictine monks were brought in to tend Cuthbert’s shrine there, monastic historians began to circulate stories about Cuthbert’s antipathy to women – partly, it is supposed, to protect the purity of the monks. New miracle stories graphically portrayed what happened to women who strayed onto Cuthbert’s cemeteries or into his churches – very few lived to tell the tale. A strange blue line of marble inset into the floor of the cathedral near the west end, and still there at the beginning of the sixteenth century, seems to have acted as a kind of boundary marker, prohibiting women from advancing any further into the cathedral.

Since female pilgrims were a lucrative source of income, it made no sense for them to be discouraged from coming to the north altogether. St Godric of Finchale, a twelfth-century hermit whose cult was controlled by the Durham monks, may have been deliberately developed in a way which countered that difficulty. Skilled at transiting female souls from purgatory to heaven, and receptive to visions of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalen, Godric’s shrine seems to have specialised in healing services for women, and to have attracted unusually high numbers of female pilgrims for a male saint.

Wynkyn de Worde’s Vitas patrum (1495).

Despite the misogyny of the medieval cathedral, some of the most intriguing displays of the exhibition concern the female groups who emerged from it and were supported by it in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Society of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin (SCBMV, founded 1884) was a body of volunteer nurses, later ordained as deaconesses, who ran almshouses and mission houses in the county for more than sixty years. Labelled ‘daughters of St Cuthbert’, these women seem to have lived a quasi-monastic life, wearing Cuthbert’s pectoral cross around their neck, following a daily routine of prayer and abjuring marriage. The exhibition unearths documents, artefacts and atmospheric photographs associated with these forgotten ‘daughters’.

Durham cathedral may have regulated and restrained the desires of female pilgrims for several centuries before the Reformation, but this exhibition offers a powerful northern counter-narrative by bringing to light multiple Anglo-Saxon and modern stories of saintly founding abbesses, wonder-working female hermits, and charitable deaconesses, who continue to inspire and challenge viewers into the present day.

Christiania Whitehead
FNS Senior Researcher

Saintly Sisters will run from 28 November 2017 to 3 February 2018. Tickets range from £2.50-£7.50 and are available from the Visitor Desk in the Cathedral, the Open Treasure Welcome Desk, and in advance on the Cathedral website.

The Treasures of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral

The Treasures of St Cuthbert is a sumptuous display of medieval artefacts not to be missed. After a long period away from the public view, Durham Cathedral is making available again – in a much improved setting – many of the pre-Conquest treasures associated with the medieval cult of St Cuthbert. These treasures include not only the saint’s coffin, but also its many varied contents, augmented at various points between 698 and the early twelfth century.

The wooden coffin itself was originally built to contain Cuthbert’s body during the elevation of his relics on Lindisfarne in 698, eleven years after the saint’s death. It is engraved with the twelve apostles on one side (in two tiers), the archangels on the other side, and the Virgin and Child at one end, accompanied by inscriptions in both Roman and runic lettering. Ernst Kitzinger, who reconstructed the fragments of the coffin in the late 1930s, interpreted these engravings as a ‘litany in pictures, invoking the protection of those represented for the relics inside.’

St Cuthbert’s coffin. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

The coffin had a long and eventful history. It was carried around the north of England through the late ninth and tenth centuries by descendents of the Lindisfarne monastery to protect the cult and its precious objects from Viking raids. Twelfth-century historians at Durham, looking back on this peripatetic interlude, supply it with meaning and grandeur by likening it to the exile of the Israelites in the desert carrying the precious Ark of the Covenant.

Two apostles depicted on St Cuthbert’s coffin. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

In line with this perception of the power of the coffin and its contents, it was seen to acquire a kind of agency in its own right. Having survived trips to Whithorn in Galloway, an abortive sea journey to northern Ireland, and a long interim stay in Chester-le-Street, now on the road again it became enormously heavy and impossible to shift on the horseshoe peninsula in the River Wear. This, the medieval Durham historians tell us, is where Cuthbert wished to be laid to rest; this is the spot for a new great church dedicated to his cult – the remarkable early Anglo-Norman structure of Durham Cathedral.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image: Public Domain

The Cuthbert pectoral cross. © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Embedded in the garments close to the saint’s body, and probably placed there in 687 or 698, is a gold and garnet pectoral cross, also on display. An outstanding example of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon jewellery, its design shows close similarities with monastic manuscript illumination, in particular the interwoven decorations that fill the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Another seventh-century artefact, added to the coffin treasures at some stage, is a small portable altar that may have been used by St Cuthbert as he travelled around Northumbria as a monk or, later, a bishop. Originally a plain wooden oblong, engraved with crosses and an inscription (‘In honour of St Peter’), the altar was later covered with foliated silver plate, and, finally, a central silver roundel, sometime in the eighth or ninth century.

The portable altar. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

In the tenth century, Cuthbert became an object of interest and veneration for the Wessex royal dynasty. Kings Athelstan and Edmund visited his shrine, then at Chester-le-Street, in the 930s and ’40s, bringing expensive gifts. These gifts included beautiful ecclesiastic vestments: a stole and maniple embroidered with figures of popes and saints, on display in the exhibition, and a famous silk known as the ‘Nature Goddess’ silk, of Byzantine manufacture. This bears traces of Greek inscriptions and seems originally to have arrived in England as a diplomatic gift.

Maniple end with depiction of John the Baptist. Image © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Further sumptuous silks, some possibly from Islamic Spain, were added at the time of the coffin’s opening in 1104, which took place in order to re-verify its contents in front of Anglo-Norman ecclesiastics, before the coffin’s ceremonial re-translation to an elevated shrine in the feretory of the newly-built cathedral at Durham.

Alongside these beautiful silks and jewels are one or two more intimate items, including St Cuthbert’s comb. Legend has it that this seventh-century, double-toothed comb made from elephant ivory was used by the saint himself to comb his hair before mass after donning his ecclesiastical vestments. One of the singularities of Cuthbert’s cult is that his body is supposed not only to have remained incorrupt, but also flexible, and that his nails, hair, and beard continued to grow within his coffin long after his death.

Reginald of Durham, the twelfth-century hagiographer, described how a devoted eleventh-century sacristan at the shrine used to open the coffin in order to ‘cut the overgrowing hair of [the saint’s] venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb, and to cut the nails of his fingers.’ The hairs removed from the saint’s head during these grooming sessions had immutable powers in their own right, shining like golden wire and proving inflammable when held within a flame. After he had finished, so Reginald tells us, the sacristan replaced the comb in the coffin.

St Cuthbert’s comb. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

Cuthbert’s feretory. Image: © Chapter of Durham Cathedral

After 1104, the coffin seems not to have been reopened until 1539, when Henry VIII’s church commissioners arrived at the cathedral to destroy all signs of the saint’s cult. On climbing up to the tomb and opening the coffin, however, it is reported in the Rites of Durham that ‘they found [St Cuthbert] lyinge hole vncorrupt wth his faice baire, and his beard as yt had bene a forth netts growthe, & all his vestm[en]t vpo[n] him as he was accustomed to say mess’.

Apparently impressed, they left the coffin and its contents undisturbed, and it was later reinterred under a stone slab in the feretory beneath the site of the original elevated shrine, not to be opened again until the antiquarian investigations of the nineteenth century.

Christiania Whitehead
FNRS research fellow

The Treasures of St Cuthbert will be on display in the Great Kitchen of Durham Cathedral from 29 July 2017. Visitors to the Treasures exhibit can also enjoy access to the other Open Treasure exhibition spaces, including the Monks’ Dormitory and the rolling programme of exhibitions in the Collections Gallery.

Tickets: £2.50-£7.50, available online or from the visitor desk on the day of your visit. Click here for opening times and further information about Open Treasure.

All images © Chapter of Durham Cathedral, unless otherwise stated.

A Tale of Many Heads: Oswald in Vienna

Travelling from Switzerland to Vienna at the end of March to present my recent research on St Oswald of Northumbria, King and Martyr, at the International Medieval Translator conference, I felt that I was bringing a very English, even nationalistic, story of sanctity to Vienna. The seventh-century king is famously credited with effecting the Christian conversion of Northumbria by summoning missionary assistance from St Columba’s monastic community on Iona.

St Oswald’s Church, Heavenfield (near Hexham). Site of Oswald’s initial battle victory over Cadwallon.

Provided with Bishop Aidan, Oswald travels with him around his kingdom, reputedly translating his Irish sermons into Anglo Saxon. By the same token, Aidan lauds Oswald’s charity to beggars and predicts his future saintly incorruption. Bede celebrates Oswald as a Christian warrior-king, a kind of English Constantine, waging battle to vanquish the pagan and bring Christianity to the north. Ambitiously and ambiguously, he describes Oswald’s rule extending over ‘all the peoples and provinces of Britain’ (Historia ecclesiastica, III.6), seeming to see in him an ideal of Christian kingship for England.

I was interested, not only in the story of Oswald as a regal translator into Old English, but also in the translation of his Life into Middle English in the late thirteenth century, in the South English Legendary. Scholars have long detected a nationalistic flavour to this legendary, and it is certainly the case that Oswald becomes more English and more southern leaning within it, his contacts with Irish Christianity and South West Scotland minimised, and his northern head-relic cult expunged in favour of his east midland veneration at Peterborough.

St Cuthbert holding St Oswald’s Head, Hexham Abbey wood panel, 15th century

So, this was a tale of royal English sanctity far removed from both the Swiss cantonal systems of governance, where I began my journey, and the imperial Habsburg grandeur of Vienna, where I got off the plane. Or was it ? Bede and the South English Legendary play up Oswald’s national credentials, but in fact his cult is remarkable for its rapid dissemination into mainland Europe. Willibrord, the Northumbrian missionary known as the ‘apostle to the Frisians’, brought Oswald’s cult (and reputedly his head relic) to Echternach in modern-day Luxemborg by the early eighth century. By the eleventh century, further relics were venerated at the Abbey of St Winnoc in Flanders, and at Weingarten in Bavaria, and by the High Middle Ages his cult was being celebrated all the way from Iceland in the north (where we find a late ‘Osvald’s saga’), through the German-speaking lands of central Europe, into Poland and Hungary.

More particularly, in relation to my own European travels, it turns out that Oswald of Northumbria is also an inhabitant of the Swiss canton and city of Zug. Yet another of St Oswald’s several heads reputedly made its way here, and his iconography retains pride of place in the magnificent late fifteenth-century St Oswald-Kirche.

St Oswald Kirche, Zug, Switzerland

Nor have I left Oswald behind in heading for Vienna. In addition to the prose legend of Oswald’s Northumbrian churchbuilding and eventual martyrdom on the battlefield, cherished in England, there is another continental story about Oswald in which he exports his military zeal abroad, splices it with romantic fervor, and sails to the Middle East to fight a pagan king for the hand of his Christian daughter. All kinds of fantastical elements find their way into this narrative, including a talking raven who carries letters and love tokens between the two lovers. This story exists in several vernacular versions, including the ‘Vienna Oswald’, a substantial fourteenth-century poem in the Silesian dialect, in which Oswald is re-identified as the King of Germany. As well as participating in what is essentially a crusading romance, Oswald and his raven clearly catch the popular Austrian imagination, and the king is venerated in sites across the Tyrol as a patron saint of agricultural plenitude who works together with his raven to ensure favourable weather.

17th-century monastic church, Klosterneuberg, Austria

All this seems a very long way from the Oswald of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. But on my last day at the conference, joining a trip to the spectacular Augustinian monastery of Klosterneuberg, just outside Vienna, we were granted access to a selection of the manuscripts from its medieval library, still the largest private library in Austria. There, staring out at me from an enormous Latin legendary, was Oswald once more, abbreviated but intact – back in the form in which Bede presented him, and intriguingly surrounded by a sprinkling of other Anglo-Saxon saints as well as the normal continental throng. Time is too short to digest this find properly – I’ll have to go back and take another look! What are all these Anglo-Saxon names doing in this central European legendary? How will Bede’s Oswald have been experienced in a milieu apparently more familiar with his repurposing as a crusading suitor ?

Monastic library, Klosterneuberg

Whatever the scholarly answers to these questions, they leave me reflecting on the way in which this apparently most English of royal saints overflows his regional and national boundaries, and bursts joyously onto the continent in new guises and genres, multiplying heads and avian helpmates as he proceeds. There is really no such thing as a straightforwardly regional or national saint; cults show a protean ability to endlessly reconstitute themselves. Despite attempts to commendeer them to nationalism, they have an uncomfortable habit of popping up behind enemy lines. The story of Oswald in Europe demonstrates how one country’s saint becomes another country’s saga hero or crusader, and how vibrantly creative and productive those transformations can be. In our current milieu in which national boundaries are being reasserted around the world (and history often abused in the process), Oswald serves as a timely reminder of a regional and national icon who is also, through many towns and vernaculars, a fully assimilated European!

Christiania Whitehead

Head Reliquary of St Oswald, 1170s, Hildesheim Dommuseum