Ijov’s Blog

January 27, 2011

Saint Cuthbert’s body remained incorrupt for over 850 years!

The Miraculous Relics of Saint Cuthbert the Great of England

Saint Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne, the miracle-working Saint of the Orthodox and Catholic English par excellence.

The relics of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne have a particularly colorful and well-documented history beginning with the story of the initial discovery of the saint’s incorrupt remains as related by the Venerable Bede:

CHAPTER XLII

HOW HIS BODY AFTER NINE YEARS WAS FOUND UNDECAYED

Now Divine Providence, wishing to show to what glory this holy man was exalted after death, who even before death had been distinguished by so many signs and miracles, inspired the minds of the brethren with a wish to remove his bones, which they expected to find dry and free from his decayed flesh, and to put them in a small coffer, on the same spot, above the ground, as objects of veneration to the people. This wish they communicated to the holy Bishop Eadbert about the middle of Quadragesima; and he ordered them to execute this on the 20th of April, which was the anniversary of the day of his burial. They accordingly did so; and opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing. As a proof of the uncorrupted state of the clothes, they took a portion of them from one of the extremities,-for they did not dare to take any from the body itself,-and hastened to tell what they had found to the bishop, who was then walking alone at a spot remote from the monastery, and closed in by the flowing waves of the sea. Here it was his custom to pass the Quadragesima; and here he occupied himself forty days before the birthday of our Lord in the utmost devotion, accompanied with abstinence, prayer, and tears. Here, also, his venerable predecessor, Cuthbert, before he went to Farne, as we have related, Spent a portion of his spiritual warfare in the service of the Lord. The brethren brought with them, also, the piece of cloth in which the body of the saint had been wrapped. The bishop thanked them for the gift, and heard their report with eagerness, and with great earnestness kissed the cloth as if it were still on the saint’s body. “Fold up the body,” said he, ” in new cloth instead of this, and place it in the chest which you have prepared. But I know of a certainty that the place which has been consecrated by the virtue of this heavenly miracle will not long remain empty; and happy is he to whom the Lord, who is the giver of true happiness, shall grant to rest therein.” To these words he added what I have elsewhere expressed in verse, and said,

” What man the wondrous gifts of God shall tell?
What ear the joys of paradise shall hear?
Triumphant o’er the gates of death and hell,
The just shall live amid the starry sphere,” &c.

When the bishop had said much more to this effect, with many tears and much contrition, the brethren did as he ordered them; and having folded up the body in some new cloth, and placed it in a chest, laid it on the pavement of the sanctuary.

Saint Cuthbert´s chapel on Inner Farne

In 875, after the second Viking raid on Lindisfarne, the monks fled, carrying with them the relics of St. Cuthbert. His body was carried to several places, including Melrose Abbey, until after seven years’ wandering, it came to rest at Chester-le-Street where it (and the seat of the itinerant Diocese of Lindisfarne) remained until 995, when another Danish invasion necessitated its evacuation to Ripon. According to local legend, the monks followed two milk maids who were searching for a dun cow and were led into a peninsula formed by a loop in the River Wear. At this point St. Cuthbert’s coffin became immovable and this was taken as sign that the new shrine should be built here. After being housed in a succession of ever-sturdier structures, a stone building — the so-called White Church — was built to contain the relics and they were enshrined there on September 4, 999. King Canute was an early pilgrim. King William the Conqueror also visited St. Cuthbert’s shrine in 1069. Ultimately, St. Cuthbert’s body was enshrined in Durham Cathedral, which was designed and built under William of Calais, who was appointed the first prince-bishop by William the Conqueror. In 1104, after St. Cuthbert had been dead for 418 years, his casket was opened and the body was found to be incorrupt and possessed of a sweet odor; it was translated to a new shrine positioned in the eastern apse of the new Cathedral, behind the High Altar. When the casket was opened, a small (3 1/2″ x 5″) pocket book of the Gospel of St. John, now known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, was found. St. Cuthbert’s vestment was crafted from fine Byzantine silk (pointing to Anglo-Saxon England’s connections to the wider world). An unknown monk wrote of this shrine in 1593:

[The shrine] was estimated to be one of the most sumptuous in all England, so great were the offerings and jewells bestowed upon it, and endless the miracles that were wrought at it, even in these last days. —Rites of Durham

At the Dissolution, the commissioners of King Henry VIII violated the relics of St. Cuthbert and despoiled his shrine. At this time (1537 according to Archdeacon Harpsfield), the saint’s body “was found whole, sound, sweet, odoriferous, and flexible.” From the Rites of Durham, from MS. Hunter, No. 44, copied about 1650 from the original of A.D. 1593, p. 85:

The sacred shrine of holy St. Cuthbert, before mentioned, was defaced in the visitation that Dr. Ley (Lee H. 45), Dr. Henley, and Mr. Blythman, held at Durham, for the subverting of such monuments, in the time of King Henry VIII., in his suppression of the abbeys, where they found many worthy and goodly jewels; but especially one precious stone (belonging to the said shrine, H. 45), which, by the estimate of those three visitors and other skilful lapidaries, was of value sufficient to redeem a prince.

” After the spoil of his ornaments and jewels, coming nearer to his sacred body, thinking to have found nothing but dust and bones, and finding the chest that he did lie in very strongly bound with iron, then the goldsmith did take a great fore-hammer of a smith, and did break the said chest; and when they had opened the chest, they found him lying whole, uncorrupt, with his face bare, and his beard as if it had been a fortnight’s growth, and all his vestments upon him, as he was accustomed to say Mass, and his met-wand of gold lying beside him. Then when the goldsmith did perceive that he had broken one of his legs, when he did break open the chest, he was very sorry for it, and did cry, ‘Alas, I have broken one of his legs!’ Then Dr. Henley, hearing him say so, did call upon him, and did bid him cast down his bones. Then he made him answer again, that he could not get it (them, H. 45) asunder, for the sinews and skin held it that it would not come asunder. Then Dr. Ley did step up, to see if it were so or not, and did turn himself about, and did speak Latin to Dr. Henley, that he was lying whole. Yet Dr. Henley would give no credit to his words, but still did cry, ‘Cast down his bones’. Then Dr. Ley made answer, ‘If you will not believe me, come up yourself and see him’. Then did Dr. Henley step up to him and did handle him, and did see that he laid whole (was whole and uncorrupt, H. 45). Then he did command them to take him down: and so it happened, contrary to their expectation, that not only his body was whole and incorrupted, but the vestments wherein his body lay, and in which he was accustomed to say Mass, were fresh, safe, and not consumed. Whereupon the visitors commanded that he should be carried into the vestry, where he was close and safely kept in the inner part of the vestry till such time as they did further know the king’s pleasure what to do with him; and upon notice of the king’s pleasure therein (and after, H. 45), the prior and the monks buried him in the ground, under the same place where his shrine was exalted (under a fair marble stone, which remains to this day, where his shrine was exalted, H. 45).

Cross of Saint Cuthbert

King Henry VIII allowed the monks to reinter St. Cuthbert’s remains under a plain stone slab, beneath the very spot over which the former shrine had been elevated. This was opened again on May 17, 1827 (though there is evidence that the grave was disturbed between 1542 and 1827), at which time, the body had been reduced to a skeleton swathed in decayed vestments. The designs of the robes matched those described in the accounts of his translation in 1104. A Saxon square cross of gold embellished with garnets was found with the body. This cross, with its characteristic splayed ends, has come to be used as an heraldic device representing St. Cuthbert. According to one tradition, however, the bones unearthed in 1827 were not those of St. Cuthbert, his actual remains having been hidden elsewhere in the Cathedral between 1542 and 1558.

It should be reminded that Elizabeth Barton “the Nun of Kent” claimed that the Virgin Mary spoke to her during her numerous trances; she predicted that Henry VIII would die a miserable death if he persisted in his attempts to divorce Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn (what he did and what resulted in the persecution of the Catholicism in England as for such a divorce he had to separate from Rome). Very soon Henry got tired of Anne and she was accused of adultery being executed. Henry himself died at the age of 55 in 1547 due to the breathing problems and an infected leg. His coffin, lying at Syon on its way to Windsor for burial, burst open during the night and in the morning dogs were found licking up the remains. This was regarded as a divine judgement.

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