On 20 March, we celebrate the feast day of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a medieval monk and hermit who died on this day in 687. He’s considered the patron saint of northern England.
Cuthbert was born in the Kingdom of Northumbria (comprising parts of modern-day northern England and Scotland) during a particularly tumultuous period. Christianity had come to the kingdom about a decade prior, but there were still tensions between the older Pagan way of doing things and the newer (Roman) Christian ways. Cuthbert, like his mother, was a Christian, and from his earliest days there are reports of him performing miracles. Unsurprisingly, he chose a religious life and began travelling around as a priest, winning over converts with his charm and enthusiasm. When he wasn’t preaching, he preferred a very simple, even austere lifestyle.
Cuthbert was eventually made prior of a new monastery at Ripon in 664, and while there he quickly became famous for his charm, generosity to the poor, and gifts of healing. He continued to work as a missionary and founded a small oratory in Scotland that eventually grew into a monastery and then the University of St Andrews.
He retired in 676 and withdrew from the world for a contemplative life on Inner Farne Island (where he instituted special laws to protect the Eider ducks and other nearby seabirds). His withdrawal from public life did not prevent him from being elected Bishop of Hexham, but in order to remain where he was, he swapped the bishopric for that of Lindisfarne. He continued to live on his island until his death.
As with all saints, numerous miracles have been attributed to him, and before long a cult grew up around him that appealed to the converted Danes who had largely settled Northumbria. Never ones to miss a trick, the Normans quickly adopted him after the conquest, and his shrine at Durham Cathedral (largely the reason the cathedral and the town exist) became a popular pilgrimage site throughout the Middle Ages, until it was destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It’s said that the monks at Durham secretly removed his remains as Henry VIII’s commissioners approached and secretly reburied them at Crayke Abbey to protect them. According to the legend, only 12 monks at any time know the whereabouts of St Cuthbert.