Saturday, March 22, 2008

Angels on horseback

For no reason, other than that Hilary Mantel is a very good writer and I have a strange fancy for the name Cuthbert--the opening paragraphs of Mantel's review of a new book about the dissolution of the English monasteries:
St Cuthbert had a lucky start in life; lame at the age of eight, he was cured by an angel who came by on horseback, and who recommended a poultice made of flour and milk. A shepherd and a seer, Cuthbert became abbot of Melrose and Lindisfarne, and after a spell as a bishop took refuge from spiritual sensation-seekers on a tiny and remote island, where he lived with demons, seabirds and seals. He died in 687, and his body, taken to Lindisfarne, became an object of veneration; dug up after 11 years in response to pilgrim demand, the corpse was found to be mummified.

After many adventures, Cuthbert came to rest in Durham, where the great cathedral was in effect built around him, first of timber and then of stone. Pilgrims visited from all over Europe, and the site became fantastically wealthy; to take advantage of the enthusiasm, the saint had two feast days. Cuthbert's cult became a marker of regional identity, and the prince-bishop of Durham became a figure of national importance; a large community of Benedictine monks guarded the saint's relics, which included a tooth and a hair impervious to flame. At Flodden in 1513, the English fought beneath Cuthbert's banner. Only women were excluded from Cuthbertian junkets; a blue marble line in the cathedral pavement kept their polluting influence distant from the holy remains.

In the dark winter days of 1539, Henry VIII's commissioners arrived to strip the shrine. They took away an emerald which in the previous century had been valued at more than £3,000, and dispatched the priceless Lindisfarne Gospels to distant London. St Bede's shrine was also at Durham, but when it was opened there was nothing to see. His bones were elsewhere, or had been distributed among the faithful. But the commissioners brought in a blacksmith to smash open Cuthbert's coffin, and "found him lying whole incorrupt 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 withall; and his meet wand of gold lying beside him there". One leg broken in the raid, the ancient saint was bundled into the vestry for a year or two, till he was re-entombed in plainer style. His emerald was never seen again.