“See that tiny, dingy room over there?” the volunteer guide said as he pointed before continuing, “That’s were they were held. There was a small hole in the wall where they received their food and through which they sent their toilet waste.” I widened my eyes. I couldn’t quite comprehend it. “And they would be in there for years,” he added.
It sounded like prison, but it wasn’t. It was a church.
What had they done?” someone enquired.
“Nothing. This was their choice.”
“So it was a form of penance?” I asked.
“Perhaps. Or maybe they didn’t feel safe outside,” our volunteer church guide said.
I was in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, on the trail of Anglo-Saxon England. I was fascinated and perplexed by these men who imprisoned themselves in a dank room belonging to the church. They no longer had any possessions, and like monks, relied solely on the goodwill of the community and bishops for their food.
Despite their self-inflicting imprisonment taking place in the 12th and 13th centuries, anchorites’ beliefs were rooted in Anglo-Saxon England.
“These anchorites were following in St Cuthbert’s footsteps,” the volunteer guide added. “They had to get full permission from the bishop first so they were aware of their undertakings. It was different to being a hermit. Anchorites could not leave the gloomy room.”
Christ! I thought. And was thankful I hadn’t said it out loud, being in St Mary and St Cuthbert’s church.
“But there were no anchoresses in this church, were there?” I asked. “I heard that St Cuthbert was believed to be a misogynist.”
“So the story goes, yes. He wasn’t supposed to be a fan of women.”
“I would have thought they’d have been the first to go in to such miserable conditions,” I quipped. “there are small blessings then.”
The Cult of St Cuthbert
St Cuthbert had been an anchorite for nine years before being consecrated as Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685AD. However, the cult of Cuthbert happened posthumously when pilgrims flocked to his grave after claims of miracles taking place there.
Worried that Danish Vikings raiding Anglo-Saxon England would steal his body, Cuthbert’s disciples moved his coffin to Chester-le-Street. With solid Roman foundations already existing, it was decided that St Mary and St Cuthbert’s church would be built to become Cuthbert’s resting place. With a saint being buried there, it became the first cathedral in County Durham, 111 years before Durham Cathedral. Yet St Cuthbert was moved to that nearby city just over a century later.
I trundled in the rain to Durham and joined a tour of the majestic cathedral. Towering above the river Wear, the august Norman building seen today commands centre stage.
“St Cuthbert’s body was brought to this hill after one of the monks had a vision, or so the story goes,” our humorous female guide at Durham Cathedral said. “The vehicle carrying his coffin suddenly stopped and wouldn’t budge despite their best efforts to push it. Then one of the monks received a divine message about a place called Dun Holm and, hey presto, they were able to move the vehicle. Apparently a milkmaid was heading here and they all trundled behind her.
“Since then, the Normans rebuilt it and the Victorians added stained glass windows,” she continued.
Yet others tried to destroy the cathedral. Cromwell whitewashed the vibrant wall paintings and heads were chopped off carved stone statues. Many attribute this to Henry VIII but our guide believed it was likely to be Cromwell’s men. “It was a trait they had,” she offered. And amazingly, it wasn’t destroyed by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Our guide had a theory for that, too.
“It would have been stupid to antagonise the Northumbrians when we were the last stronghold before Scotland. We love them now, but 480 years ago we were always ready for war with the Scots. If Henry VIII had destroyed this beautiful building in his dissolution, he would have had few supporters here. Then there’s the second reason. St Cuthbert.”
We all wandered curiously over to St Cuthbert’s shrine kept in an enclosed sanctuary. A bishop was giving daily prayers. “This normally lasts five minutes. He mustn’t have much in his schedule today,” the guide joked as we waited and waited for him to finish. “Right, so about Henry VIII’s men and St Cuthbert. They knew exactly where his coffin was and rushed over to see it and I think they would probably have destroyed it if what happened hadn’t taken place.”
We were all intrigued by now. “The story goes that they opened the lid and saw that his body was still partly intact with hair, skin and ligaments. The men were terrified, St Cuthbert had died nearly 800 years before in Anglo-Saxon England, ligaments shouldn’t have still been on the body. They took it as a sign from God to leave well alone and ran out of the cathedral. Modern science might say there was some balming preservative involved, but they weren’t questioning divine intervention.”
As we walked round the cathedral, our guide pointed out a line on the floor. “Ladies, when this was built you wouldn’t have been able to cross it. No women were allowed near St Cuthbert’s shrine before the 1400s. However, in later years, men realised we were extremely useful. We could make everyone tea,” she said in jest, “so today we are allowed in!” A chuckle murmured through the group. I turned to a woman next to me and whispered, “If anyone tasted my tea, I’d be banned outright. I make possibly the worst cuppa ever, not being a tea drinker myself.”
St Cuthbert’s legacy was generous to men, however. The saint even shared his coffin with two others for a while. Another body and the head of a second. The head belonged to the Anglo-Saxon king Oswald and was rescued from the battlefield. Despite dying before St Cuthbert was born, he was posthumously associated with him (I guess you would be if your head ended up in his coffin). The other body was that of St Bede. It was said to have been ‘stolen’ by a couple of monks who were worried about grave robbers and chose to add him to St Cuthbert’s coffin.
Bede was a scholar of Cuthbert and became renowned during and after his lifetime (c 672-735) for a plethora of achievements. He brought the dating of BC and AD into use, calculated when Easter would be (it’s the same date every 19 years), and worked out the circumference of Scotland, England and Wales, being out only by 28 miles. His most famous achievement, though, was his chronicles of life in Anglo-Saxon England in the mid-700s. His book, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was finished in 731.
The church where he worked and lived, St Paul’s monastery, was part of my route. It lies in modern-day Jarrow, Tyneside, and sections of the original Anglo-Saxon building are still in use more than 1,300 years later. Looking at the impressive stonework my eyes came to rest on three small arch windows. Archaeologists had pieced together the glass found during the excavation and it was fitted into one of windows. In fact, it was Bede that helped put Northumbria on the glass making map. Impressed by French glaziers’ attention to detail, he brought over some of the finest to teach local men how to create such intricate glasswork.
Woman played an important part in Anglo-Saxon England, too. But with this blog post being a lengthy piece, you’ll have to wait till I write my book about the journey to find out more!
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country in chronological order. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.
For more history posts from Jane’s journey, click below:
The Mysteries of Shetland’s Past
Tunnels, Tombs and Treasure in Orkney
Perilous St Kilda – Scotland’s Last Outpost
Forget Silver and Gold, Bronze Rocks in Kilmartin
Roman Britain – Ruins & Barbarian Resistance