In this blog, I am recording my attempt to work out if the gold and garnet Anglo-Saxon cross found in St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral in 1827 could be the Black Rood of Scotland – part of the Scottish crown jewels that went missing from the Cathedral during the Reformation.
It is a genuine question. I don’t have an answer I am working backwards from. I have done a lot of research already and I think it is just possible. But I am a long way from certain, and, as the history in this story stretches back 1400 years from the present day into the seventh century, it is impossible for any one person to cover all the ground. This is why I want to put the argument into the public domain, to share information and create discussion.
This is not just an exercise in reattributing existing objects and reinterpreting known texts. The question is very much live and of our time. Within the last few years, two separate discoveries have changed the landscape.
First, in May 2011, what looks like a tiny pewter copy of the cross was found in Durham’s river Wear. You can read the find-report here, but it was almost certainly a souvenir created to sell to medieval pilgrims who wanted to mark their visit to Durham. Up until this discovery was made, the traditional explanation for the cross being found in St Cuthbert’s grave in 1827 was that it had to be part of the original grave goods that were buried with him in 687 AD (or that it had been added to the coffin on the first exhumation of his remains in 698 AD) and that it had been there ever since. The discovery of the pilgrim badge makes this explanation much more difficult to believe.
Then, in the summer of the same year, archaeologists unearthed another gold and garnet cross in the grave of an adolescent Anglo-Saxon girl in Trumpington near Cambridge. You can watch a video about this discovery here. Amazingly, this find is a mirror-image of ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’, with its garnets on the outside and its gold dummy-rivets in the centre.
These two discoveries are profound In their implications. The first suggests that the cross was out of the coffin during the medieval period, while the second confirms once more the suspicion that this type of cross was a female ornament. Both discoveries were yet more nails in the coffin of the presumption it could be Cuthbert’s cross. For the first time since the cross was found in 1827, we have the opportunity and the obligation to provide a different provenance.
I have now been on the trail of this question since about 2010. The whole project started in the germ of an idea to write a travel book about the journey taken by the monks as they fled with St Cuthbert’s relics from Lindisfarne to Durham in order to escape the Vikings.
I had written a travel book before and fancied writing another. Kicking – Following the Fans to the Orient was reportage, a hooligan-meets-geisha love story about the England fans in Japan for the FIFA World Cup in 2002.
But as I researched the Cuthbert story, I found there wasn’t nearly enough known about the coffin’s journey to make another travel book, the project then developed into a history of his relics. This was published in 2013 as St Cuthbert’s Corpse – A Life After Death, and that book ends with a set of questions about the cross which I am trying to answer through this blog.