St. Cuthbert's coffin
is an oak coffin in Durham Cathedral
The Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham is a cathedral in the city of Durham, England, the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Durham. The Bishopric dates from 995, with the present cathedral being founded in AD 1093...
which between AD 698 and 1827 contained the remains of Saint Cuthbert, who died in 687. The coffin also contained the Stonyhurst Gospel
The Stonyhurst Gospel, also known as the St Cuthbert Gospel or the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, is a small 7th-century pocket gospel book, written in Latin, which was probably placed in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a few years after he died in 687...
(now British Library
The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom, and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known languages and in many formats,...
) and the best surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon embroidery or opus Anglicanum
Opus Anglicanum or English work is a contemporary term for fine needlework of Medieval England done for ecclesiastical or secular use on clothing, hangings or other textiles, often using gold and silver threads on rich velvet or linen grounds...
, a stole
The stole is a liturgical vestment of various Christian denominations, particularly within the Catholic Church and among the various Protestant communions of Anglicanism and Lutheranism. It consists of a band of colored cloth, formerly usually of silk, about seven and a half to nine feet long and...
Maniple may refer to:* Maniple , a division of a Roman legion* Maniple , a liturgical vestment worn on the left arm....
which were probably added in the 930s, and given by King Athelstan. Probable possessions of Cuthbert are an ivory comb, a portable altar, and a pectoral cross
A pectoral cross or pectorale is a cross, usually relatively large, suspended from the neck by a cord or chain that reaches well down the chest. It is worn by the clergy as an indication of their position, and is different from the small crosses worn on necklaces by many Christians, which have no...
with gold and garnet cloisonné
Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects, in recent centuries using vitreous enamel, and in older periods also inlays of cut gemstones, glass, and other materials. The resulting objects can also be called cloisonné...
, a rare and important early example of Christian Anglo-Saxon jewellery.
The coffin is almost the only survival of what was no doubt a very large body of Anglo-Saxon wood carving, being inscribed or engraved with linear images which have tituli
in Latin lettering and Anglo-Saxon runes with names of apostles and saints. The lid shows Christ surrounded by four Evangelists' symbols, and one end has the earliest surviving iconic representation of the Virgin and Child outside Rome from the medieval art of the Western Church, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on the other. The sides show the Twelve Apostles and five archangels. The coffin survives in a number of fragments, supposedly about 6,000, of which 169 are included in the current reconstruction, and many names are illegible.
Few people's remains are as well-travelled as those of Cuthbert. He died on 20 March 687 in his hermit's cell on Inner Farne Island
The Farne Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Northumberland, England. There are between 15 and 20 or more islands depending on the state of the tide. They are scattered about 2.5–7.5 km distant from the mainland, divided into two groups, the Inner Group and the Outer Group...
, two miles from Bamburgh
Bamburgh is a large village and civil parish on the coast of Northumberland, England. It has a population of 454.It is notable for two reasons: the imposing Bamburgh Castle, overlooking the beach, seat of the former Kings of Northumbria, and at present owned by the Armstrong family ; and its...
Northumberland is the northernmost ceremonial county and a unitary district in North East England. For Eurostat purposes Northumberland is a NUTS 3 region and is one of three boroughs or unitary districts that comprise the "Northumberland and Tyne and Wear" NUTS 2 region...
, and was taken back to the main monastery at Lindisfarne to be buried. Eleven years later the coffin was re-opened, and according to his biographies (including prose and verse ones by Bede
Bede , also referred to as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede , was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, today part of Sunderland, England, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow , both in the Kingdom of Northumbria...
from about 720) his remains were found to be "incorrupt" or undecayed. This was a traditional attribute of sainthood and helped greatly in his subsequent cult. He was reburied in a new coffin, which is described in his biographies, and matches the surviving coffin closely.
In 875 the monks managed to escape with the coffin, which was presumably in a shrine in the church, before the Vikings attacked and destroyed the monastery. For seven years they carried it with them to various places in modern Scotland and Northumbria before settling it in the still existing St Cuthbert's church
The parish church of St Mary and St Cuthbert is a Church of England church in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, England. The site has been used for worship for over 1100 years; elements of the current building are over 950 years old...
Chester-le-Street is a town in County Durham, England. It has a history going back to Roman times when it was called Concangis. The town is located south of Newcastle upon Tyne and west of Sunderland on the River Wear...
until 995, when another Danish invasion led to its removal to Ripon
Ripon is a cathedral city, market town and successor parish in the Borough of Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England, located at the confluence of two streams of the River Ure in the form of the Laver and Skell. The city is noted for its main feature the Ripon Cathedral which is architecturally...
. Travelling once again, the cart with the coffin became stuck at Durham
Durham is a city in north east England. It is within the County Durham local government district, and is the county town of the larger ceremonial county...
, which was taken as a sign that the saint wished to remain there. A new stone church—the so-called 'White Church'—was built, the predecessor of the present grand cathedral. The body was moved within the cathedral at various points; perhaps in 1041, in 1096 to escape the Harrying of the North
The Harrying of the North was a series of campaigns waged by William the Conqueror in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate Northern England, and is part of the Norman conquest of England...
by William the Conqueror, in 1104 when the Norman cathedral was constructed, and in 1541 when the medieval shrine which was one of the principal English pilgrimage sites was destroyed during the Reformation
The English Reformation was the series of events in 16th-century England by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church....
In 1827 the coffin was once again removed, having been found in a walled space at the site of the shrine. By then there were three layers of coffin, taken to date from 1541, 1041 and 698, housing a complete skeleton, and other human remains, though many of the contents had been removed earlier. The textiles were removed in 1827. The human remains were reburied in a new coffin under a plain inscribed slab, with the remains of the old coffins, which were removed in yet another opening of the burial in 1899. The coffin and most of the contents are on now view in the Cathedral Museum; the Stonyhurst Gospel is usually also on display in London.
The runic inscription reads:
- ihs xps mat(t)[h](eus)
and possibly the eu
are bind rune
A bind rune is a ligature of two or more runes. They are extremely rare in Viking Age inscriptions, but are common in pre-Viking Age and in post-Viking Age inscriptions....
s. The t
is inverted. Then follows:
is again a bind rune, then:
In Latin letters, followed by runic:
Followed by Latin:
- (RAPH)AEL (M)A(RIA)
The names of Matthew, Mark and John are thus in runes, while that of Luke is in Latin letters. The Christogram
A Christogram is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a Christian symbol. Different types of Christograms are associated with the various traditions of Christianity, e.g...
is notably in runic writing, ihs xps
, with the h
double-barred in the continental style, the first attestation of that variant in England. The monogram reflects a runic variant of a partly Latinized XPS
from Greek ΧΡΙCΤΟC
, with the rho rendered as runic p
and the eolc
rune (the old Algiz
The Algiz is part of the ancient Nordic and Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, often equated to the modern day z, however was traditionally pronounced yr. The letter has come to symbolize many neo-pagan religions and is often worn as a pendant...
) used to render chi
Chi is the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, pronounced as in English.-Greek:-Ancient Greek:Its value in Ancient Greek was an aspirated velar stop .-Koine Greek:...
- Battiscombe, C. F. (ed.) The Relics of Saint Cuthbert: studies by various authors collected and edited with an historical introduction. xv, 561 p.,  leaves of plates (4 fold.) : ill. (some col.), facsims., music, ports London: Oxford University Press, 1956
- Bonner, Gerald, Rollason, David & Stancliffe, Clare, eds., St. Cuthbert, his Cult and his Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1989 ISBN 085115610X ISBN 9780851156101
- pdf J. H. Looijenga's dissertation including comments on the runes.