‘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.

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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’.

So how did the cross get into the coffin?

This, more than anything, needs explaining. How did the Anglo-Saxon gold-and-garnet cross get into St Cuthbert’s coffin?

We know the cross was found in 1827 as it was discovered by the cathedral librarian James Raine during his unauthorised opening of the grave. (Raine could have been a nineteenth century Indiana Jones had his activities not been tainted by a sectarian eagerness to expose what he saw as the fraudulent miracle of St Cuthbert’s incorrupt corpse.)

For Raine, finding an Anglo-Saxon cross on a robed Anglo-Saxon skeleton was enough to identify the corpse as St Cuthbert and to assume the cross was most likely Cuthbert’s personal possession. This was a reasonable assumption in the early nineteenth century as this was the first gold-and-garnet cloisonné cross to be found.

But, as the decades and centuries passed, other similar crosses were found and more cloisonné Anglo-Saxon jewellery was discovered. As this evidence grew, St Cuthbert’s cross started to look less and less like the first and only example of an Anglo-Saxon bishop’s pectoral cross, and more and more like the kind of pendant a wealthy Anglo-Saxon woman might have worn, particularly one in the first generation to convert to Christianity.

Most recently, in 2011, this line of evidence was spectacularly reconfirmed when an Anglo-Saxon bed burial was excavated at Trumpington near Cambridge, and an obviously cognate cross to St Cuthbert’s was discovered in the grave of a young woman. (You can learn more about this discovery here and read my blog on the published paper that followed here.)

Trumpington Cross (University of Cambridge)
Trumpington Cross (University of Cambridge)

 

But this is not the only significant challenge to Raine’s interpretation that has happened in the last few years. Also in 2011, Gary Bankhead, an underwater archaeologist and now History PhD candidate, found a medieval pewter trinket in the nearby River Wear which looks very like ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’, a discovery that suggested that the cross could not have been in Cuthbert’s grave in the fourteenth century.

As I said in my introduction, these two discoveries oblige us to reconsider the provenance of the object known as ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’, and we now need new scenarios for how the facts as they appear today could be related. We know there were two Anglo-Saxon crosses already in Durham Cathedral until the Reformation – the Black Rood of Scotland and St Margaret’s Cross – and my question is whether there was any need for James Raine to invent this third cross – ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ –  when it could just be one of the first two and had been hidden away during the Reformation in an attempt to protect it. After all, where better to protect something precious than in the ancient shrine of a holy man whose body had retained its integrity for 850 years.

What follows then are five scenarios for how the Anglo-Saxon cross found in 1827 could have got into the coffin (with some very personal likelihoods for each possibility).

SCENARIO  ONE

It was, as Raine said, St Cuthbert’s personal cross, buried with him in 687 and not re-discovered until 1827. For me, this is actually the least likely scenario, for the following reasons. It was not necessarily found buried deeply beneath the robes as Raine claimed; no one had found it before despite the very physical examination in 1104; other gold-and-garnet crosses from the period are associated with the burial of women; and, fundamentally, it just doesn’t sound like something the deeply ascetic monk Cuthbert would have worn. The pewter trinket cross found in 2011 is just a co-incidence.

Likelihood that it is St Cuthbert’s personal cross = 1/10

SCENARIO TWO

It was not St Cuthbert’s cross but was a contemporaneous gift, either given to him by a high-status woman while he was alive, or donated posthumously as part of his grave goods. The gift was placed on his body either at the original burial in 687 or at the translation in 698, and it remained there undiscovered until 1827, despite the examination of 1104. The pewter trinket cross is just a coincidence. This is the scenario I sketch out in my book ‘St Cuthbert’s Corpse – A Life After Death.

Likelihood of it being a contemporaneous gift to Cuthbert = 5/10

SCENARIO THREE

It was the original reliquary for the Black Rood of Scotland and was replaced at some point, either when it became broken or when the Scottish royal family wanted to give the relic more status, possibly in the reign of David I when a reliquary described as ‘opening like a box’ and adorned with an ivory figure of Christ is documented. The original reliquary was then given as a gift to the shrine of St Cuthbert, both because of the affection Margaret had for Cuthbert and to act as a diplomatic gift that would mark the alliance between the family and the Cuthbertine community (another possibility is that this could have happened in 1104 when Cuthbert’s coffin was ceremonially opened in the presence of her son Alexander). This cross was recorded by the twelfth century Durham monk Reginald as ‘sparkling in a most wonderful manner with pearls and jewels’. (The pearls may refer to the shell at the centre of the cross or some other ornament that was replaced by the central boss). This cross then became known as ‘St Margaret’s Cross’ and was venerated up to the Reformation as recorded in the sixteenth century manuscript known as ‘The Rites of Durham’. The arrival of the replacement reliquary now called the Black Rood following the battle of Neville’s Cross stimulated interest in St Margaret’s Cross and craftsmen created a pilgrim badge or trinket version to sell to pilgrims on Elvet Bridge. St Margaret’s Cross was then secreted in Cuthbert’s coffin (possibly by Prior Whitehead and associates at the reburial of 1542) to be discovered by Raine in 1827. The trinket version is then found in the river in 2011.

Likelihood of it being the original reliquary known as the Black Rood of Scotland and later called St Margaret’s Cross = 6/10

SCENARIO FOUR

It was the reliquary known as the Black Rood of Scotland as taken from Scotland by Edward I in 1291. Described as being ‘of gold-work with a gold chain, in a wooden case with a silver gilt exterior.’, its relationship to the cross with the ivory figure of Christ that opened like a box and which was described at the death of David I is impossible to divine. It may have been misattributed by the Edwardian treasurers or perhaps even substituted by the Scottish officials. This cross was obviously important to Edward I as he kept it near him and made offerings to it during his various Scottish invasions. His grandson Edward III then seems to have donated this cross to Durham Cathedral after the northern magnates defeated a Scottish army under David II at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. At this point, craftsmen created a trinket or pilgrim badge of the Black Rood to sell to pilgrims on Elvet Bridge. By the time of the Reformation, the cross itself was being kept in a large silver cruciform display case which itself became known as the Black Rood of Scotland. The small gold cross was then secreted in St Cuthbert’s coffin (possibly by Prior Whitehead and associates at the reburial of 1542) to be discovered by Raine in 1827, the silver display case having already been taken by Cromwell’s henchmen. The trinket version is then found in the river in 2011.

Likelihood of it being the repurposed or misattributed reliquary known as the Black Rood of Scotland = 4/10

SCENARIO FIVE

It was ‘some other cross’, perhaps even one of the crosses mentioned in the shrine list of 1383 as being in the Cathedral and which could have had their own trinket versions, or it could have been a cross brought to the Cathedral from elsewhere during the Reformation. It could even have been added to Cuthbert’s grave in order to give him the ‘correct’ regalia as episcopal fashioned changed (I am indebted to Dr Eric Cambridge for this theory). For whatever reason, this ‘some other cross’ was then secreted in St Cuthbert’s coffin (possibly by Prior Whitehead and associates at the reburial of 1542, or even in an undocumented opening of the coffin during the reign of Mary I). The difficulty with this scenario is that all of the other relics Raine found in the coffin have a documented provenance and ‘some other cross’ does not fit this description.

Likelihood of it being ‘some other cross’ = 6/10

Other candidates for ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’

One of the most important documents that helps us in the search for the Scottish crown jewel known as the Black Rood is a late fourteenth century list of treasurers and relics held in Durham Cathedral. This inventory was made by the shrine keeper in 1383, and, as we have already seen, the Black Rood is noted on the list as being kept in pride of place, next to the shrine of St Cuthbert.

There are however 20 other precious crosses on the list, including the one named after St Margaret. So in order to construct any case for the ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ found in 1827 being the Black Rood, we have to consider whether it could be one of these other crosses. We have already sketched out the history of St Margaret’s cross so that leaves 19 more crosses to consider.

Most of these are obviously not ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ as they are the wrong size, shape or made of the wrong material (that cross being small and made of gold and garnets). What follows then are the entries in the shrine list for these 16 unlikely candidates. (The translation from the Latin can be found in Raine’s ‘St Cuthbert’.)

  • A cross of crystal, in the custody of the Sacrist.
  • A cross, with a pedestal, the gift of Thomas Langley, Lord Bishop of Durham.
  • The cross of St John the Baptist, of crystal, with an image of the Crucifiction.
  • A small cross of silver, with four bones of Saints.
  • A crystal vial, inclosing a small cross.
  • A silver cross, with a piece of the cross.
  • A cross of silver, with the crucifixion, gilt.
  • A small cross of silver gilt, with a crystal between the pedestal and cross, with other precious stones of divers colours.
  • A silver cross of St Andrew, with one of his joints.
  • A cross of silver, gilt, set with stones.
  • A cross of silver, with bones of the innocents.
  • A cross of silver gilt, set with precious stones, in which are contained portions of the wood of the Lord’s cross, of the table of the Lord, of the relics of Sts Philip, Stephen, and Laurence the Martyrs, and of Sts Elen and Barbara the Virgins.
  • The cross of St Aydan, of black jet.
  • A cross decorated with silver and gold, with the crucifixion in ivory.
  • An ivory cross.
  • A cross of silver gilt, containing the bones of St Ypoilt the Martyr.

That leaves three more crosses to account for.

  • A cross of gold, set with precious stones, with a pedestal of silver gilt.
  • A small gilt cross, set with stones, having inclosed in it a particle of the cross of our Lord.
  • A cross of silver gilt, set with stones.

If you accept that silver gilt can be catalogued as gold – and this is something that seems to have happened in the history of the Black Rood in any case – it is certainly conceivable that any of these three could have been the ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ found in 1827. Remember that Raine, who was one of the people who found the cross, described it as “…of gold, but the gold seems to have undergone some process, tending to deaden its lustre, becasue its dusky appearance can scarcely be the effect of time.”

Admittedly, there is no indication that any of the three crosses date back to the Anglo-Saxon era,  but they do have the correct descriptors.

VoidinStCuthbert'sCross
The tiny void in ‘St Cuthbert’s Cross’ that could have encased a tiny relic of the true cross

The second of the three is arguably the most plausible as it is described as a reliquary, and we have already seen in a previous post that ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ does contain a tiny void that could have held a relic.

Of the three candidates, this ‘small gilt cross’ is the one with most of the right physical qualities: it is small, set with stones and is a reliquary. But, as I asked in my last update, were any of the three really important enough for someone to risk torture and death by hiding one of them in the grave?

The Black Rood and St Margaret’s cross are different in that being Anglo-Saxon they have the right provenance, and they were obviously important enough to save, but do they also have the right physical qualities to be ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’? The next thing to do is look into this.

Why might ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ have been hidden during the Reformation?

So I am trying to work out if the gold and garnet Anglo-Saxon cross found in the principal grave of Durham Cathedral in 1827 could possibly be the Black Rood of Scotland – part of the Scottish crown jewels that went missing in the Cathedral during the Reformation. The grave the cross was found in was that of the Cathedral’s patron saint Cuthbert, so it was immediately claimed to have been the Saint’s personal cross, although there is no other evidence of this. Ever since then, it has been known as ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’.

There are lots of elements to this story, and in order to begin puzzling through the possibilities, I have to show that, like the Black Rood, St Cuthbert’s cross could have been a reliquary, that it was unlikely to have been his, and then sketch out a line of connection between the two objects. This is where I have got to, and in this post I look at what else the theory helps to explain.

Following on from the previous post, if ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ was one of the named Anglo-Saxon crosses already in the Cathedral – the Black Rood of Scotland or St Margaret’s cross – it would account for two aspects of the story that are otherwise difficult to understand.

First, hiding treasure during the dissolution of the monasteries was done at great personal risk. The officials employed by Henry VIII and his son Edward VI could be assiduous in checking existing shrine lists for treasure and relics that might have been hidden from them. In the worst cases, the abbots who had hidden valuables were hung, drawn and quartered. Nevertheless, someone in Durham might have chosen to take this risk by smuggling the ancient cross into St Cuthbert’s coffin, and it is reasonable to assume that they did so only for something that mattered profoundly to them. (Of course ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ is quite small and that may have increased its potential for selection for concealment in the coffin.)

Secondly, if ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ was actually one of the named crosses, it would explain the anomalous object found by Gary Bankhead in the nearby river Wear in 2011. This tiny pewter cross has the same equal flaring arms as ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ as well as a similar pattern of cross-hatching that is suggestive of cloisonné cells.

Pilgrim badge found by Gary Bankhead in the River Wear in 2011
Pilgrim badge found in the River Wear in 2011 – front and reverse views.

These attributes, together with it being found under one of Durham’s medieval bridges, are strongly suggestive that it could be pilgrim badge: a souvenir, in this case of Durham, that medieval pilgrims would pin to their hats to show they had visited a particular shrine. You can see the full find-report here. (Today we buy concert t-shirts in much the same way; and souvenir equal-armed crosses with cloisonné cells are still being sold in the Cathedral gift shop.)

Souvenirs of 'St Cuthbert's cross' in the Cathedral shop March 2016
Souvenirs of ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ in the Cathedral shop – April 2016

Looking at the pilgrim badge, it is intriguing that there is no hint of the large central garnet or ‘boss’ in the moulding. Instead, there are obvious unstructured ridges across the arms and centre that have been interpreted as being the result of the cracking and failure of the clay mould. It seems likely that these might have obscured the central boss.

The discovery of this pilgrim badge is one more challenge for the notion that ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ belonged to St Cuthbert. For the cross to have been his, it would have had to have been hidden on his body just after his death in 687 AD and then not discovered until 1827, despite the numerous exhumations in between. It couldn’t also have been out of the coffin and available to medieval entrepreneurs to copy as a trinket to sell to pilgrims.

However, the second reason the pilgrim badge is anomalous is because it is the only one of its kind to have been found. As far as I am aware, there are no other pilgrim badges associated with Durham,  and this, given how important Durham was as a centre of pilgrimage, is odd.

Nevertheless, the pilgrim badge exists, and it is reasonable to assume that the cross it depicts must have been both venerated and well known. The most immediately obvious Anglo-Saxon candidate with these qualities is the Black Rood, and it is worth noting that the suggested date range for the manufacture of the pilgrim badge (1375-1475) matches the period following the presentation of the Black Rood to Durham. This happened after the 1346 Battle of Neville’s Cross, an encounter near Durham between a scratch English force and an invading Scottish army that resulted in the comprehensive defeat of the Scots and the capture of their king, David II. The Black Rood was probably gifted to the Cathedral by the English crown as a thank-you trophy.

Assuming ‘St Cuthbert’s cross’ could be one of the two named Anglo-Saxon crosses already in the Cathedral therefore explains both why it was significant enough to commercially reproduce and why it was also important enough to want to conceal two hundred years later.

This evidence is circumstantial and there remain other viable candidates which I will look at in a forthcoming post.

(Licence for pilgrim badge image: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode)