The 1380 Neville Screen and the 1382 shrine list of relics and treasures – A speculation

Is it possible that Durham Cathedral’s Neville Screen, instead of displaying alabaster statues in all its 107 niches, was actually first designed and part-used to display relics and treasures given to the shrine of St Cuthbert?

The Neville Screen is one of Durham Cathedral’s wonders. It was installed around 1380 and its delicate spires still stand, dividing the high altar from the shrine of St Cuthbert.

The screen, or reredos, has now-empty display shelves or niches between the spires.  The rear, shrine-facing side of the reredos has four rows of niches, the upper three rows of which have ten niches on each row, the bottom row has nineteen. The altar-side of the reredos has niches in three rows which are divided into five major (canopied) niches and four minor ones. There are also many smaller niches on both sides, making a total of 107 in all.

Famously, these 107 niches were once supposed to be filled with alabaster statues. These statues disappeared during the Reformation and are supposed to have been buried somewhere nearby. Their fate is said to be one of Durham’s great mysteries.

But might there be a different explanation for the niches? Is it possible that, while those at the front, the principal ones on the altar-facing side, were indeed used for alabaster statues, the niches at the back, facing the shine, were also used to display the relics and treasures that had been donated to St Cuthbert?

This is possible because other reredoses were often used to display relics and treasures in this way. The fourteenth-century Westminster Abbey screen was used like this, as was the one commissioned by Edward III for his new chapel for the Order of the Garter at Windsor.

Intriguingly, in 1382,  just as the Durham reredos was being installed or was newly in place, the official in charge of the shrine made a complete list of all the precious items in his care – the relics and treasures of the Cathedral – many of which would have been on prominent display. The list is long, but the inventory starts with the treasures that are kept on what the shrine keeper calls “the first or highest shelf (gradus) to the south”; then he moves onto “the shelf under the first”; and then “upon the third and lowest shelf.”

The Black Rood was the third item in the first tier.

“In primis, upon the first or highest step (or shelf) to the south, an image of the blessed Virgin Mary, of silver gilt.

“Item, an image of…[illegible] of silver gilt, with a rib of the same, enclosed in the breast of the image.

“Item, a black cross, called the Black Rode of Scotland.

Etc.

The shrine keeper explains in Latin that he is making this list “in order to declare [establish] of what nature the relics… in what place, or upon what shelf (gradus).”  I understand gradus can be translated in various ways, but one of its senses is that of architectural levels (hence steps or shelves).

Equally intriguingly, just as there are three rows of ten niches on the shrine side of the reredos, the shrine list assigns ten items to the highest gradus, nine to the second (ten if you count a pair of griffin’s eggs as two), and ten to the third.

Is it conceivable therefore that, when the shrine keeper lists the ten treasures “on the highest step or shelf” he is not referring, as has been supposed, to shelves in the armories or cupboards that were described 200 years later as being placed around the shrine, but may actually be referring to the displaying of the treasures on the highly-visible three top-most rows of niches of the Neville Screen?

I am not aware that the coincidence between the installation of the reredos and the creation of the shrine list has been previously considered. But it is reasonable to assume that the screen’s construction must have at least led to some remodelling of the shrine and a rearrangement and re-curation of the treasures on display, so creating the need for a new inventory by the shrine keeper.

Resolving this speculation is beyond the scope of this blog. But, as the Black Rood was one of the principal treasures of the shrine, if the assumption is true, the shrine list tells us exactly where on the reredos it would have been displayed in the late fourteenth century: in the third niche from the south, on the top row of the Neville Screen.

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The Neville Screen
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St Cuthbert and his missing bag

In the current sequence of posts, I am looking a the evidence that supports the possibility that St Cuthbert’s cross could, as is generally claimed, have been placed on his corpse when he died in 687 or when he was re-interred in 698 AD.

The evidence for this is actually very weak as the Saint’s remains were described many times before the cross was discovered in 1827. Nevertheless, one potential piece of now missing evidence concerns a leather bag that was found alongside the cross.

The man who broke open the coffin in 1827, James Raine, was in the habit of giving bits of St Cuthbert’s relics away to friends and acquaintances. Small chunks of the coffin and snippets of the Saint’s robes and coverings were to disappear in this way, some of which were then to re-appear many years later. But the one item of which no trace has ever been found was the leather bag or ‘burse’.

A burse is defined as a ‘flat, square, fabric-covered case in which a folded corporal cloth is carried to and from an altar in church.’ In slang, a burse is also something midway between a bag and a purse, which sums up what it might have looked like just as neatly.

This is James Raine’s description of what he found lying on the chest of St Cuthbert.

‘We next observed, nearly in the same position [as the small silver altar], the burse, or small linen bag, for holding the sacramental elements. The altar above described was not contained in it, nor in fact did it hold anything else. Its size may be compared to that of a duodecimo book [3″ x 2″], or perhaps it was somewhat larger; and the fine linen of which it was made, whatever its original colour might have been, had become brown and dusky, as if it had been tanned.’

The burse was therefore a small, squarish brown pouch or envelope that looked a bit like a book.

It is intriguing therefore that the most contemporaneous account of Raine’s investigation, the Durham Advertiser news-report of two days later, also refers to a book-like object lying beneath a piece of jewellery.

The newspaper report states that  ‘…a large and bright gold ring, having a crucifix apparently of silver appended, was found lying on the breast, and below it the remains of a book.’

The only explanation for this gold ring with its silver crucifix is that it is a garbled description of the Cuthbert cross, which is a circular shaped cross/crucifix made of such low-quality gold that it could be mistaken for gilded silver.

The ‘remains of a book’ have been interpreted as another garbled error, this time for the portable altar, which, being made of silver-laminated oak, might have looked something like a book cover.

But there might be another explanation. Jewellery in female Anglo-Saxon burials is often found within the remains of leather bags, as if there was significance to the act of concealment or enclosure. If the Cuthbert cross really was hidden beneath the Saint’s robes and coverings immediately after he died, could Raine’s missing burse be the bag in which the cross was enclosed?

What did the Black Rood look like?

What did the Black Rood of Scotland look like? This is perhaps the trickiest question to answer of them all.

There are three apparent phases to the descriptions of the Black Rood during the 500 years of its recorded history, and it is difficult to make the three fit neatly together.

The first phase is centred on its role in the deaths of Queen Margaret in 1093 and then of her son King David I in 1153. What follows is an extract from Queen Margaret’s hagiography. The translation is from Saint Margaret, Queen of the Scots, A Life in Perspective by Catherine Keene, and the Queen is on her deathbed.

And also she directs that this cross, which she used to call the Black Cross, and which she always considered in the highest veneration, be brought to her.

This wonderful cross, which opened and closed in the manner of a box, was the length of the palm of a hand, and the work had been created of purest gold.

A piece of the Lord’s cross is seen in this same cross, as has often been proven by the evidence of many miracles. It has an image of Our Saviour sculpted in the most comely ivory, and wonderfully adorned with spangled gold. This same queen, born of the royal seed of the English and the Hungarians, brought this cross to Scotia, left it as if a hereditary gift to her posterity, and it was as much a source of awe as of love to the entire Scottish people.

But since the chest in which it had been locked was not able to be opened very quickly, the queen said groaning weightily: Our sorrows! Oh how guilty I am! Will we not deserve a final look at the Holy Cross?

And when it was taken from the chest and brought to her she received it with devout reverence, and repeatedly endeavoured to embrace and to kiss it and to sign her eyes and her face with it.

And so with her entire body growing cold, yet while the heat of life pulsed in her breast she prayed always, and singing the Fiftieth Psalm in sequence, she held the cross to her again with both hands, holding it before her eyes.

V&A Ivory Cross
Anglo-Saxon reliquary

This Black Rood could have looked something like this cross, which is now part of the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum and which you can learn more about here (image copyright is V&A London). An identically described cross then played almost the same role at the death of Margaret’s youngest son King David I. It is possible however that this first description of the Black Rood actually originated with the David version, and was then projected back into Margaret’s story by one of the scribes. So it is possible that the reliquary documented in the extract above wasn’t the one that Margaret had originally brought to Scotland nearly a century before. Nevertheless, this first recording of the Black Rood is a crucifix with an ivory figure of Christ.

The second phase in the appearance of the Black Rood occurs when it is recorded by the English treasurers at the end of the thirteenth century. This was during the Great Cause and at the beginning of the first War of Independence, and was part of, first the safeguarding of, and then the purloining of, the signs and symbols of Scottish royalty by England’s Edward I, an action which culminated in his infamous removal of the Stone of Scone.

The Black Rood and the Stone of Scone were given similar status, and the Rood was important enough (and sufficiently portable) for Edward I to keep it with him during his various attempts to subjugate Scotland. He made offerings to it on a number of occasions during his campaigns, and probably viewed it as a kind of totem of what he saw as his divine right to overlordship over Scotland. It was still with him at Burgh on Sands when he died.

This Edwardian Black Rood is nowhere described as opening in the manner of a box or bearing an ivory figure of Christ. The inventory taken at Berwick in August 1291 includes ‘One chest with a silver cross in which is part of the Cross of the Lord’, and it is later described in the Acts of the Scottish Parliament during the interregnum as ‘a silver case covered with gold in which rests the cross which is called the Black Rood’. Then on Edward’s death, it is listed as being among the objects in his private chapel: ‘In a casket marked with the sign of the cross… la Blakrood of Scotland of gold-work with a gold chain, in a wooden case with a silver gilt exterior.’

These three Edwardian descriptions are consistent. This Black Rood was a gold or silver-gilt reliquary that was itself encased in a silver or silver-gilt wooden box, the chain suggesting that this was an object that could be hung around the neck.

I have already detailed the final incarnation of the Black Rood, as it appeared in Durham in the mid-sixteenth century. In The Rites of Durham – a book-length account of the pre-Reformation Cathedral, it is described as being an ordinary church rood: a monumental crucifix, ‘a yard and/or five quarters long’, ‘wrought in silver, the which were all smoked black over’, with a picture of the Virgin Mary on one side and of St John on the other.

It is possible to conflate the Edwardian Black Rood with the one in the Rites of Durham: the latter could be a development of the sliver case in which the former was kept. Or it could have been a kind of display case for the smaller gold cross. But it is difficult to reconcile this arrangement with the first description of the Black Rood, the one that had it opening like a box and adorned by an ivory figure of Christ.

The discrepancies could come down to many reasons. There could have been a series of reliquaries, some inside others, some being replacements of earlier encasements which had broken or gone out of fashion. Or the discrepancies could have been caused by a failure of curatorship.  After all, this was an oral culture of attribution in which information was passed monk-to-monk for centuries, and in such a system even very precious objects could get misnamed or misremembered. Or the discrepancies could be there because the provenance of such objects might have been expediently adjusted as the political or religious context changed. Or they could even be the result of deliberate deception, as the keepers of these treasures attempted to hide them from the state authorities, whether the officials of Edward I as they took possession of the Scottish regalia, or those of Henry VIII as they liquidated the wealth of the monasteries. Almost anything could have happened.

Many scenarios are possible to account for these discrepancies, and they can be invented indefinitely. Nevertheless, an Anglo-Saxon cross, the ‘length of a palm of a hand’, ‘of gold work with a gold chain’ was found in St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral in 1827. At its centre was an oddly incongruent garnet that seems to be a replacement for some other fitting, and beneath this garnet was an empty void which could have held ‘part of the cross of the Lord.’

In the next post I will construct some scenarios for how this cross came to be in the coffin.

‘St Cuthbert’s Cross’ – Jewellery fit for a Bishop or a Queen?

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

Anglo Saxon Reliquary Cross
Late Anglo-Saxon Reliquary Cross (Copyright: Victoria & Albert Museum)

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.

St Cuthbert’s Cross – ‘may have been a gift’ and not his personal possession

Over the summer, just as the Cathedral was opening its new exhibition of the Cuthbert treasures, an academic article was published in the journal ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ by Dr Sam Lucy of the University of Cambridge. It says, for the first time in a leading peer-reviewed journal, that the Cuthbert cross ‘may have been a gift, rather than a personal possession of the saint.’

This is a significant moment in the history of St Cuthbert and his relics. It overturns two centuries of received wisdom and changes what the famous Cuthbert cross means.

For just under 200 years, the official line of explanation has been following the hypothesis that the cross was St Cuthbert’s personal possession. This was the claim made by the Chapter Librarian James Raine who found the cross in 1827 when, infamously, he broke open the grave of St Cuthbert in order to inspect its contents. In the stone-lined grave behind the high altar of Durham Cathedral, Raine and his associates uncovered a nested sequence of collapsing coffins which contained an elaborately swathed and robed skeleton as well as a number of other items: a small silver altar, a comb, a large collection of additional bones (the relics of other saints, bishops and children} and of course a gold-and-garnet cross. By looking back over the history of St Cuthbert’s remains, Raine was able to find provenances for all but one of the items he had found. He then used this evidence to conclude that the skeleton had to be that of St Cuthbert. (You can read about James Raine and the story of his investigation here.)

The cross was the only item he found in the grave that had no provenance at all.

This has always been odd. Because the one thing that can be said about St Cuthbert and his remains is that they have been very well documented. (You can read the full story in my book.) His death in 687 AD, his re-interment in 698, the gifts placed in the coffin by King Athelstan in c934, the translation of his shrine into the new Norman Cathedral in 1104, the visit of Cromwell’s commissioners in 1539 –  on each of these occasions someone created a written record of what was seen in the coffin.

Yet the one item that is left out of all these accounts of the various interments, translations and re-interments is the one item that should have been the most conspicuous and most remarkable – the gold-and-garnet pectoral cross on the Saint’s chest.

Despite this glaring omission from the record, in 1828, a year after he had opened the grave, Raine published his book about his investigation and, in adjacent paragraphs, included two sentences that came to define the provenance of the cross.

‘I next come to THE CROSS,’ he wrote, ‘of which a full size delineation is given, pl. I. S [below], which was found deeply buried among the remains of the robes which were nearest to the breast of the Saint.’

StCuthbertsCrossRaine
‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ as drawn by Raine in 1827

‘I consider the above cross as a personal relic of St. Cuthbert himself. Its deep situation prevented the possibility of its being described by Reginald [in his account of the translation to the new Cathedral], as, during the operations of 1104, it must necessarily have been concealed from view’.

[From Raine’s ‘Saint Cuthbert: with an Account of the State in which his Remains were Found upon the Opening of his Tomb in Durham Cathedral, in the Year MDCCCXXVIII’ p211]

And that was that. Raine’s provenance for the cross and why it had not been discovered before became the accepted explanation. The cross must have been placed under all the Saint’s wrappings and robes, either when he died in 687 AD or when he was re-intered in 698. This is how the cross came to be known as ‘St Cuthbert’s Cross.’

Raine’s assumption was not an unreasonable one in the early nineteenth century. There were then no other gold-and-garnet crosses to compare it to, and it did look very like an early example of a bishop’s pectoral cross.

However, over time, other similar gold-and-garnet crosses were found – at Ixworth in 1856, at Wilton in 1852 and at Holdernees in the 1960s. Over the same period, the body of scholarly knowledge about the use of jewellery in Anglo-Saxon burials also developed, and this is now unimaginably different to that which was available to Raine in 1827.

The biggest development however is very recent. In 2011, a fifth gold-and-garnet cross was found in a grave at Trumpington near Cambridge. This was the first time that one of these rare crosses had been found in situ during an archaeological dig, so making it the first to be available for a full scientific and scholarly examination. This new cross – ‘the Trumpington cross’ –  was found in a grave which in every way suggested that the occupant had to have been a young Anglo-Saxon woman. It is the examination of the context of the Trumpington cross that has led to Dr Lucy publishing her article calling into question Raine’s explanation for St Cuthbert’s Cross. This is how she sums up.

‘Apart from that of Cuthbert,’ she writes, ‘there is no definite or even tentative male-associated grave with one of these pendants; these are clearly female-associated artefacts, found in cemeteries that furnish a select number of burials within them with elaborate grave-goods, including beds, boxes, work boxes,  glass-palm cups, linked pins (perhaps for fastening a veil), chatelaines, as well as elaborate items of jewellery that were often focussed around the upper chest and neck.’

The Cuthbert cross, she concludes, may therefore ‘have been a gift, rather than a personal possession of the Saint.’

In her article, Dr Lucy restates Raine’s claim that the reason he was the first person to discover the cross was because it had been placed beneath all the Saint’s robes soon after his death, and in such a way that it was hidden from view.

However, in order to maintain the explanation that the cross was an early gift to his shrine, you have to construct a scenario in which someone who has access to a sumptuous gold cross decided to place a ‘clearly female artefact’ on the chest of a male bishop in such a way to effectively hide it for over a thousand years, and doing it so well that it evaded the attentions of Thomas Cromwell’s shrine-stripping commissioners in the sixteenth century. (I have made an attempt at an explanation for how this could have happened in my book.)

The other element to this conundrum is that the Raine explanation also fails to account for the pewter cross found recently in the River Wear and which, on face value, appears to be a pilgrim-badge version of the Cuthbert cross.

The archeology of the Trumpington cross changes everything, If it wasn’t St Cuthbert’s personal cross, there is no reason now (other than its sharing his own seventh century provenance) to assume it had to have been placed with him in the coffin at or around the time of his death. It could just have easily have been put there on the last occasion the coffin was opened before 1827, during the Reformation. And if this is the case, what cross might it have been?

But that is the subject of this blog.

On the opening of the Treasures of St Cuthbert exhibition in Durham Cathedral

This post was first published by Sacristy Press on 29 July 2017 under the title ‘Revealed: the centuries-old secret hidden in Open Treasure?’

It has been fully five years since the Cuthbert relics were last displayed in Durham Cathedral. Maybe even six. If you remember the old exhibition space – now the brightly lit shop – you will recall a place of disconcerting darkness. The Cuthbert relics lurked far at the back, displayed in pools of gloom that turned these almost unbelievable treasures into shadows of themselves.

The five years have been well spent. The new exhibition space is awesome and bright. It may be a converted medieval kitchen, but the high, stone-vaulted space feels as if you have accessed a secret chamber beneath the Cathedral. And don’t forget to look up. The height is a shock. It’s like a mini-Cathedral all by itself in there.

Of course I wanted to see the exhibition and the interpretation of all the relics. But really I had come to see St Cuthbert’s famous pectoral cross. To see again something that has been out of public view for the best part of half a decade.

It is so much smaller and more delicate than I remember it, and so much more shimmery, because it has been so beautifully lit. The cross is golden, so much more golden than before. The old, standard photographs make the gold look dull, brassy – and a brass that could do with some Brasso at that. But this is a jewel that is scintillating. The dog-tooth crenellations, the dummy rivet-heads, the cloisonné walls, they scatter the light and confuse the eye, the shimmer contrasting with the deep, dark red of the garnets, making them the colour of dried blood, of the blood of Christ that they were surely meant to convey. It looks so delicate too. You can see how it came to be so easily and so often broken. The whole does not speak of a bishop’s authority and power, but of a shimmering delicateness.

The other thing I came for was to see the explanatory writing beneath the cross, because, after all, the Cathedral would need to curate the cross anew, and I wanted to know if they might have changed anything in the time it has been away. Would the curators have stuck to the now almost 200-year-old explanation for its presence in our lives – that it was placed in the coffin just after Cuthbert’s death in 687, that it was, in all probability, his personal possession, possibly the episcopal cross he wore as Bishop of Lindisfarne, and that the reason it hadn’t been seen before – even by Henry VIII’s shrine-stripping commissioners – was because it had been placed so deeply beneath his robes that no one ever noticed it, until it was found in 1827?

But intriguingly, ever surprisingly, they have not updated the story. The Cathedral has chosen to stick and not twist. The curation is the same. The most up-to-the-minute explanation of the cross’s appearance in 1827 is the same as the first one from James Raine, the Cathedral librarian, who was the man who led the ransacking of the grave 190 years ago. “Hidden in his robes and undisturbed for over 1,100 years,” the new explanatory notice reads, “Cuthbert may have worn it during his lifetime as an episcopal (Bishops’) cross.” James Raine said more or less the same thing.

Yet even on face value, this story has never made sense. If it was his bishop’s cross, why was it hidden beneath his robes? Why wasn’t it on the top, for all the world to see? Why would anyone hide this most valuable statement of Cuthbert’s authority in a way that no one saw it for more than a thousand years?

Putting the episcopal part of the puzzle aside, nothing else makes much sense either. Everything about our understanding of crosses like Cuthbert’s now points another way. Anglo-Saxon experts see this type of cross as a female ornament. Because, when we know the provenance of the other gold-and-garnet crosses that have survived from this period, they have only been buried with women. The composite disc brooches and pendents from which these crosses derive, they too are found buried with women. So we have to ask how this jewelry ended up on Cuthbert’s body. Why would anyone put a female ornament on a male bishop?

This is the question I puzzle over at the end of my book St Cuthbert’s Corpse: A Life After Death, to try and find a way for the presence of the cross in the coffin to make sense.

But it is possible to push the question even further. What if the cross was not placed in the coffin in the seventh century when Cuthbert died? What if it was put in the coffin during the dissolution of the monastery in the sixteenth century, to keep it safe after the shrine had been ransacked? This radical scenario would have the virtue of explaining why – despite the well-recorded exhumations and examinations of Cuthbert’s remains down the centuries – no one had seen the cross before 1827.

This possibility is not simply speculation. There is another anomalous cross you can see in Durham. A hundred yards from the Cathedral north door, in Palace Green Library’s Wolfson Gallery, you can see a medieval pewter cross on display – a tiny pilgrim badge, a tourist trinket in effect – that looks as if it could be a crude copy of the Cuthbert cross. Found in the River Wear beneath Elvet Bridge by archeologist Gary Bankhead in 2011, if this cross is proved to be a medieval representation of the Cuthbert cross, it would collapse the notion that the original could have been safely tucked up in his coffin at the same time. Because how could anyone know what it looked like?

The Bankhead cross makes things very interesting, and I am working through the more speculative possibilities in this blog. But what is exciting about all these questions is how alive they are. The Cuthbert cross is a symbol. Of Cuthbert of course, but also of Durham and the North East – the original community of the Saint. It connects us to the very beginnings of Christianity in these islands, to a time before England was even a state. It links us to Celtic monasticism and to the British church’s acceptance at the Synod of Whitby of Roman corporate Christianity. It makes us wonder how a sumptuous jewel ever came to be on an emaciated hermit’s body. Its ambiguity makes us ask about the ornaments appropriate to men and women, and how our Anglo-Saxon predecessors showed their concern for their dead. It forces us to confront why a Protestant librarian might ransack a saint’s grave in the early nineteenth century, and what was really found when he did. The Cuthbert cross is a symbol of all this, but it is a symbol that is now at play. And that makes life exiting.

James Raine and the 1827 opening of St Cuthbert’s tomb

On the morning of 17 May 1827,  the Chapter Librarian at Durham Cathedral, James Raine, together with a number of associates, broke into the tomb behind the Cathedral’s high altar that had long been reputed the last resting place of St Cuthbert.

Raine – an Anglican and leading antiquarian –

220px-James_Raine_(died_1858)
James Raine

wanted to find out if St Cuthbert was really buried there and whether there was any evidence that his corpse had ever been ‘incorrupt’ – as had always been claimed by the Roman Catholic keepers of the Saint’s shrine before the Reformation. Spotting his opportunity while the office of Cathedral Dean was vacant, Raine persuaded a group of colleagues and workmen to open the grave in what was  an unofficial and freelance investigation.

It seems likely that Raine’s actions were prompted by the establishment of the first Roman Catholic church in Durham since the Reformation (St Cuthbert’s on Old Elvet). Raine certainly took it upon himself to find evidence that the incorrupt state of St Cuthbert’s remains had always been a fraud and so to debunk any Roman Catholic claim to a local miracle in the now-Protestant Cathedral.

Wednesday 17 May 2017 was the 190th anniversary of Raine’s investigation and, in order to mark the anniversary, I live-tweeted the events of the day in real time. The tweets were based on Raine’s comprehensive book on the investigation and on the recollections of one of the other people present, William Gilly.

You can read the series of tweets on my Storify page and there is also a Twitter ‘moment’  with highlights and reactions. Raine’s activities are also extensively covered in my book about the six recorded openings of the Saint’s coffin ‘St Cuthbert’s Corpse –  A Life After Death’.