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St Cuthbert of Canterbury, reformer of the English Church

Canterbury, where Cuthbert served as archbishop

Cuthbert was the 11th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 740 to 760. He is to be distinguished from his seventh-century namesake who was Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Cuthbert’s background is obscure, though historians credit him with noble origins. He may have become Abbot of Liminge in Kent; he may have been Bishop of Hereford.

He probably owed his selection for Canterbury to Aethelbald, King of Mercia from 716 to 757 and the most powerful figure in England.

In 746 St Boniface, the English apostle to Germany, wrote to Aethelbald complaining of the lax condition of the English Church. 

Among the matters that earned his censure were the prevalence of drunkenness, “foolish superstitions in dress”, the immoral behaviour of English women on pilgrimage to Rome, and the fact that monasteries were often under the control of their lay founders. Even King Aethelbald did not escape criticism. Since Boniface had left England 30 years before in order to undertake his mission in Germany, he may well have received his information from Cuthbert, with whom he was in correspondence.

At all events, in 747 Cuthbert held a synod at which new rules were set forth concerning the monastic life and the duties of bishops and priests.

Every priest was to learn and explain to the people in their own tongue the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the offices of the Mass and baptism.

In addition, the Church in England was required to observe the festivals and fasts, as well as the canonical hours and litanies, of the Roman Church. The feasts of St Gregory the Great and St Augustine were also instituted.

Furthermore, to set an example in the matter of abandoning lay control of the monasteries, King Aethelbald gave the minster of Cookham to Christ Church Canterbury.

In Canterbury Cuthbert built a new church, dedicated to St John the Baptist, immediately to the east of the cathedral. This was intended as a mortuary chapel for the archbishops of Canterbury, who had previously been interred at the monastery of St Augustine outside the city walls. One of the chroniclers at St Augustine’s anathematised this plan as “foul, snake-like and matricidal”.

Cuthbert was wise, therefore, to leave orders that, when he died, no bell should toll for him until three days had passed. Thus, by the time that the news of his death reached St Augustine’s, he had already been buried.
Nevertheless, his plans were ultimately foiled when the church of St John the Baptist burned down in 1067.

A letter which Cuthbert wrote in 755 to Lullus, who succeeded to the see of Mainz after the martyrdom of Boniface, is eloquent in praise of the dead saint. It also shows that Cuthbert was a considerable Latinist.