In this blog, I have been trying to work out if there is any possibility that the Anglo-Saxon cross found in St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral in 1827 could be the Scottish crown jewel known as the Black Rood of Scotland, an Anglo-Saxon cross which disappeared from the Cathedral during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
In order to do this, I have had to open up space by re-examining the established story: that the Durham cross was placed on Cuthbert’s body in the seventh century, and that the reason it had not been seen before 1827 was because it had been placed underneath all his robes and coverings.
Most of the evidence explored has tended to undermine the official narrative (for example, the finder of the cross, James Raine, is not particularly trustworthy on the circumstances surrounding his discovery). However, there remain two elements that continue to support the established story and I want to highlight each of these in this and the next post.
The first element concerns whether a piece of what is now considered to be essentially female jewellery could have been worn in the seventh century with equal social approbation by a man, or, more precisely, a man like Cuthbert i.e. a monk or a bishop.
There is a single reference to this possibility. In his Life of St Cuthbert’s contemporary
Bishop Wilfrid, written by Stephen of Rippon, Queen Iurminburg is said to have removed a chrismarium (reliquary) from Wilfrid’s neck so she could wear it herself.
“Women may have protected themselves wearing such symbols,” comments Professor Barbara Yorke in her essay The Weight of Necklaces, “but conceivably the protection might have extended further to the household or family for whom they were responsible. In the case of royal women that responsibility might run deeper still for the protection of the royal court, or even the protection of the whole kingdom. So when Iurminburg toured Northumbria publicly displaying the reliquary that Wilfrid had worn around his neck it could have been because she and Ecgfrith [her husband the king] felt that the display of powerful, protective, religious symbols was as appropriate for a queen as a bishop, especially in the immediate post-conversion period, when the proportioning of responsibility for religious leadership was still being negotiated between rulers and bishops.”
Wilfrid was a particularly self-aggrandising and controversial a bishop, and the conflict with the Queen is unlikely to have been straightforward. Nevertheless the anecdote does show that the same reliquary-neckwear could be worn by both this bishop and this queen.
For the traditional Cuthbertian provenance for the cross to work however, it is not enough just to show a male bishop could have worn such a piece of jewellry. Proponents of this theory also need to suggest why the cross was then hidden on his body.
There are a few lines of argument that might get a female cross onto a male corpse in the seventh century (and I made an initial sketch of one of these at the end of my book St Cuthbert’s Corpse – A Life After Death.) But in order to argue this, you have to accept that it is likely something transgressive took place on Lindisfarne in 687 (or 698), when the Saint’s corpse was being prepared for burial.
For the Cuthbertian provenance to work, someone would have had to have taken this essentially female ornament and placed it (most likely) directly onto the Saint’s naked skin. This person then mummified the body, embalming it, wrapping it in cloth and dressing it in robes in such a way to hide the cross from everyone except the most aggressive postmortem examiner. But why might this have happened?
Was the reason something to do with gender roles, or might it have have touched on a personal relationship with the Saint? Could it have concerned a secret conferring of authority to act as spiritual guardian of the community before God? Or might the secretiveness be a result of the then increasingly questionable appropriacy of putting grave-goods in a bishop’s coffin? This would have happened just at the very point when Christianity was moving quickly away from burying people with things they might find useful in the after-life. Indeed, we still think of grave-goods as ‘pagan’, even today.
Whatever the permutations, to argue that the cross could only have got on to the Saint’s body in 687 when Cuthbert was buried, or in 698 when he was first exhumed, you also have to think through what might have been the embalmer’s secret or transgressive motivation.