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The saint who tried (and failed) to live in obscurity

A sculpture showing monks bearing St Cuthbert's coffin

St Cuthbert was a monk, bishop and hermit associated with the monasteries of Melrose and Lindisfarne. After his death he became one of the most important medieval saints of northern England and is regarded as the region’s patron saint.

Cuthbert is believed to have been born to a noble family on the Scottish Borders in the mid-630s, about 10 years after King Edwin’s conversion to Christianity in 627. The kingdom’s politics were violent, with episodes of paganism, and Cuthbert’s primary task was the spread of Christianity.

The earliest biographies of Cuthbert record many miracles and he never gave up travelling from village to village in order to spread the Gospel. When Alchfrith, king of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became guest master. He then became prior in 664. He spent most of his time among the people, ministering, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching and performing miracles.

As a missionary he travelled from Berwick to Galloway and eventually founded an oratory in Dull at a site which eventually became the University of St Andrews. He is also thought to have founded St Cuthbert’s church in Edinburgh.

Cuthbert retired in 676 and eventually ended up at Inner Farne Island, off the Northumbrian coast, where he gave himself up for a life of austerity. At first, he received visitors but he eventually confined himself to his cell and only opened his window to give a blessing.

In 684 Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham but was reluctant to leave retirement. Yet he was consecrated at York by Archbishop Theodore and six bishops on March 26 685. After Christmas in 686 he returned to his cell on Inner Farne Island where he died in March 687. He was buried the following day at Lindisfarne and his remains taken eventually to Durham.

Following his death numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession. Most famously Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, was inspired in his fight against the Danes by a vision he had of Cuthbert. Later Cuthbert became a symbol for the Royal House of Wessex, who were greatly devoted to Cuthbert, who became an important political symbol.