The Apostle of Northumbria
I N the middle of the seventh century after Christ, the island of Britain was a very different place from what it is now, and great tracts of land which are at present covered in the summer with corn, or rich grass, were then wide lakes; cities lying on the East Coast, which were at that time rich and prosperous, have for hundreds of years been buried under the waves, and dark forests, sheltering wolves and other fierce beasts, covered the moors of the north, in these days dotted over with villages. Still, there were plenty of fields and meadows for the children to play in, and the games of children are always much the same.
A number of little boys were gathered on the banks of one of the rivers in the country south of the Tweed, which we now call Northumberland, but was then part of the kingdom of Northumbria. They were of all ages, from three to ten, and were chattering fast and eagerly, apparently settling some races to be run, and choosing the ground where they might try who could throw a ball the farthest. By and by, when everything was arranged, each boy went to his place. The two who were judges sat on a rock which was to be the winning post; the two who were to see that the winners started fairly were at the other end of the course; and the competitors themselves were drawn up in a line.
"Now," cried the starter, and off they went, heads well up and their feet lifted.
"Cuthbert, Cuthbert!" was the cry as one of the smallest boys shot ahead of the rest, and sank panting on the rock which was the winning-post.
"It is always Cuthbert," muttered one of the beaten runners, and he was right; it always was, both in racing and in climbing trees, and in wrestling, where the child's quickness of eye and hand made up for his lack of strength. He loved all such things, and, after a morning spent by the river side, would go home proud and happy to his mother, and tell her of his victories, and how very, very nearly one boy had caught him up, and another had almost succeeded in throwing him.
But Cuthbert's pleasures were not to last long. He was only eight when a tiny creature not half his age, who had watched the races solemnly from a little hillock, came up to Cuthbert, and, puffing him aside from the other boys as they were planning a new game, begged him not to waste his time in such idle play, but give heed to the things of the mind. Cuthbert stared, as well he might, and paid no attention to him.
"Let us try how many of us can bend ourselves backward, till we can kiss the trunk of that tree," he said, running off to his friends; "and after that we can see if we can hold one leg out stiffly, and bend the other till the stiff leg almost touches the ground. It is easy enough to go down, but the difficulty is to get up again without tumbling over. My father can do it; he showed me yesterday." And, forthwith, they all began to practise, with much laughter and many falls, while the solemn-eyed boy looked on disapprovingly.
Suddenly a loud cry made them stop and turn round; the child had flung himself down on the ground and was sobbing bitterly. The others did not trouble about him. "Babies like that were better at home," they said; but Cuthbert, who always tried to help anyone younger or weaker than himself, ran up to the little fellow and asked him what was the matter.
"It is you," gasped the boy as soon as he could speak. "The rest may do as they like, but the Lord has chosen you to be His servant—the teacher of others—and you will not listen!"
Cuthbert did not answer. It seemed so strange that such words should come from so small a creature, too young to run or jump, or to play a game of any kind. How could he have got such notions into his head? Yet there was no doubt that he was very unhappy. So Cuthbert stooped down and whispered:
"Well, don't cry. At any rate, I won't play any more to‑day," and he patted the child's head, and walked slowly away, in spite of the shouts of his friends to come back and join them.
This was really the end of Cuthbert's childhood. From the day that the little boy had spoken to him he put off childish things, and was as thoughtful and serious as a man. But no one can tell us how he actually spent those years, and when next we hear of him he was grown up.
All his life Cuthbert loved walking, and would go for miles across the mountain or along the seashore, visiting the dwellers in the scattered huts, and preaching to them. It was, therefore, a terrible trial to him when at length a large lump formed itself on his knee so that he was unable to bend the joint, and was continually in pain. For some time he still dragged himself about, but of course this only made his leg worse, and soon the pain grew so bad that he was obliged to be carried. At this period he appears to have been living in some sort of a monastery, which had servants or porters to help with the work.
The air of the small, close cells was hateful to Cuthbert, and every day some of the servants took him in their arms, and laid him down under a tree on the edge of the forest. One morning he was set in his usual place, from which he could see far away to the south, and watch the clouds casting shadows over the hills and the moors. As he was gazing before him, trying to forget the pain he suffered, he beheld a man dressed in white, mounted on a white horse, riding towards him. When the rider drew near, he stopped, and, as Cuthbert did not rise in greeting, he asked with a smile whether he would not welcome him as a guest.
"Yes, indeed," answered Cuthbert; "right welcome you are to me and to all of us, but I cannot rise to greet you as I fain would do with all civility, for I am bound and tied by a swelling in my knee, and though I have been examined by many a physician, not one has been able to heal me."
"I have some skill in such matters," said the man, dismounting from his horse. "Let me look at it, I pray you," and taking Cuthbert's knee between his hands he put some questions to him.
"If you will do as I bid you, you will soon be cured," he said at last. "Boil some wheaten flour in milk, and spread it on a cloth; and while it is hot lay it on the swelling, and in a short time the swelling will disappear and the pain depart, and your leg will be whole again. And now farewell." With that he mounted his horse and rode away over the hills, and Cuthbert was persuaded that an angel had visited him.
Now there was a monastery on the south side of the river Tyne, and it was the custom of the monks to send out flat boats or rafts to bring timber from some of the forests near the sea for their daily use. It happened that on one occasion the little fleet had returned with its cargo and was just about to unload opposite the monastery, when a westerly gale sprang up, and it was blown out towards the ocean. The monks beholding this disaster ran out of the monastery to the river bank, and launched some boats to help the fast disappearing rafts, but the boats were blown out to sea before they could get on board them. Then they fell on their knees and prayed amidst the mocking of the crowd assembled on the other bank, who taunted them with thinking themselves holier than their neighbours. But Cuthbert, who stood among these people, checked their evil words, and asked them if they had no pity for those who were drifting to their death, and called on them to pray also.
"Let no one pray for them," answered the mockers, "for they have taken away our old worship, and given us that which is strange to us."
On hearing this, Cuthbert bowed himself on the ground and prayed for the lives of the men in peril. And as he prayed the wind changed, and the rafts and the boats were blown up the river again; and when they saw this, a silence fell upon the unbelievers, and they were converted.
As time went by, Cuthbert made up his mind that he would lay aside the layman's dress and spear which he still used, and live altogether in a monastery, whereas before he had only dwelt in one for a short while, to rest from his journeys. His days were spent in going hither and thither, and often he would help any who needed it with his work, sometimes keeping sheep with the shepherds, sometimes sowing wheat with the plough-men, or aiding the reapers to gather in the harvest.
One cold winter's day, he was riding alone to preach at a small village some distance off, when his horse began to hang his head and to show signs of weariness, for they had already come many miles. Cuthbert looked about for a place in which the beast could find food and rest, and perceived a farmhouse a little way off. Here he was gladly welcomed, and, after leading his horse to the stable, he entered and sat by the fire. But he would not eat, though the farmer's wife pressed him, for it was the rule of the Church to fast that day until the evening. In vain the woman told him, that if he would not eat now he would be likely to fast until the morrow, as the country was desolate and bare of houses; but he would not listen to her, and when towards sunset his horse was rested, he took leave of her and rode on.
It was growing dark, and nothing was to be seen but a wild waste of moor, and Cuthbert was wondering whether he and his horse would not have to pass the night under some sheltering rock, when he noticed a little to the right a group of half-ruined huts, once inhabited by shepherds.
"Here we can rest well," he said to himself, and dismounting, he fastened his horse to a wall, and gave him some hay which the wind had blown thither. But the horse had come far and was hungry, and the hay was not enough to satisfy him, so when he had finished it, he pulled some of the straw from the thatched roof, and as it fell, a linen cloth folded up fell with it. Cuthbert, who was singing the day's Psalms, heard the noise made by the horse and turned round, and when his prayers were ended he went to see what was in the cloth, as it was a strange place for it to come from. Little he guessed that he should find wrapped up half a loaf of hot bread and some meat, and when he beheld them, he suddenly felt that he, as well as the horse, was exhausted for lack of food; and after this miracle had happened to him, he was even more ready than before to fast on the days appointed.
Some time later Cuthbert journeyed to the Abbey of Melrose, for, as has been told, he wished to leave the world and to be received into the priesthood by the man whom all held to be the holiest in the kingdom of Northumbria, Boisil the Abbot, after whom the town of St. Boswell's was afterwards called. He stayed at Melrose for some years, going for a short while with Eata, who was made Abbot on the death of Boisil, to the new Abbey at Ripon, but right glad was he to return to Melrose and the country that he loved. Still, it would be a mistake to think of him as shut up between walls, and doing nothing but pray. He kept up his old custom of visiting the scattered houses and villages, and preaching to the people, many of them yet pagans at heart, and he would be absent from Melrose for days or even weeks together.
It happened one day that he received a message from the Abbess of Coldingham in Berwickshire, entreating him to come down and give some teaching to herself and her nuns. Cuthbert lost no time in setting out, for the ride was a long one, and he bade the Abbot of Melrose not be surprised if his return was delayed for many days. After his arrival at Coldingham he walked, while it was light, to the fishers' huts gathered on the shore; and in the night, when the nuns slept, it was his habit to steal down to the sea and to sit on the rocks, when he prayed silently for hours.
Late one dark evening, when all was quiet, he went out as usual and took the path down to the cliffs, followed, though he knew it not, by a monk, curious to find out whither he was going. Right to the edge of the water Cuthbert went, the monk keeping in the shadow behind him; but what was the man's surprise when he saw the saint enter the sea and walk forward till it reached up to his neck. Thus he remained till dawn, chanting aloud the praise of God. With the first streaks of light he sank on his knees on the sand, for the tide was ebbing fast, and two seals swam towards him from a rock, and breathed over his cold feet to warm them, and rubbed them dry with their hair; and Cuthbert stroked their heads, and thanked them and blessed them, and they lay on the sands in the sun's rays, till the tide rose again and they returned to the island where they dwelt.
When the monk saw these things he was filled with shame at having thought evil of so holy a man, to whom the very beasts offered service. Indeed, so great was his penitence that his legs shook with grief, and they could scarcely carry him home to the monastery. After morning prayer he hastened to Cuthbert and besought pardon for what he had done, never doubting but that it had been revealed to him already. But in that he found he was mistaken, for the saint, beholding his distress, said gently:
"What is it, my brother? What is the ill-deed that you repent of? Is it that you spied upon me last night when I prayed upon the seashore? Be comforted, for you have my forgiveness, only see you tell no man that which you saw, for I would not be thought holier than I am." So the monk promised, and departed homewards, after Cuthbert had blessed him.
The years were going by fast and Cuthbert was no longer as strong as he had been in his youth, and his long walks tired him. But still he would not let another monk take his place, for the people loved him and looked for his coming.
On an autumn morning he left the monastery to visit a distant spot, taking with him a boy as his companion, and after walking many miles they sat down to rest, for the way had been steep and rough. "The village is still far off," said Cuthbert; "tell me if there is any house on the road where they will give us food, for you are of the country, whereas this part is strange to me." Yet, though he spoke thus to his companion, he himself knew what would happen.
"I was wondering as to that also," answered the boy, "for I know not a single hut near our path, and we have brought no food with us. Yet if we eat nothing we shall faint from hunger."
"Fear not, but trust in God," replied Cuthbert. "Behold that eagle flying through the sky above us. It is she that will feed us, so let us continue our journey with a good heart." The boy's face brightened as he listened, and he jumped up eagerly, and with light feet went by the saint's side along the road till they came to a river.
"Look!" said Cuthbert, standing still, and pointing to a rock at a little distance. "Do you see where our handmaid the eagle is sitting? Run I pray and search, and bring back quickly whatsoever the Lord may have sent us." And the boy ran and brought back a salmon, which the eagle had caught and laid on the bank. Now the salmon was so large the boy could scarcely carry it.
"Why have you not given our handmaid her share, my son?" asked the saint as the boy staggered towards him. "Cut it quickly in two and give her the half which she deserves."
Then the boy did as he was bid, and they took the other half with them till they beheld a cottage, where they entered; and the woman of the cottage cooked the fish for them, and there was enough for them all, and to spare.
Opposite the coast of Northumberland there is a small island, called Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, which you can reach on foot when the tide is out. It was to this place that Cuthbert was sent in 664 to teach the brethren afresh the rules of the Church and of the holy life, for they had grown careless, and each followed his own will. It was hard work, for not only did he instruct the monks of Lindisfarne and the poor, and those who took advantage of their riches and strength to oppress them, but he visited the sick people as he had done from his boyhood, and was as strict as he had ever been in fasting and in denying himself all that was not absolutely needed. At first the monks of Lindisfarne declined to obey the new rules of discipline which Cuthbert introduced, and followed the old ones, if they followed any at all, but he was much too wise to quarrel over it. When he saw that they were in a bad temper and likely to be troublesome, he would quietly break up the meeting without taking any notice of their ill-behaviour, and at the next assembly began the same discussion and repeated the same things, just as if he had never said them before. In the end this method, and still more his example, gained his point. The monks ceased to be angry if anyone woke them from their sleep at night, or roused them from their rest at midday, and as Cuthbert's dress was woven of the natural colour of the sheep's wool, by and by the brethren were content to lay aside their brighter gowns, and wear it also.
As time went on, Cuthbert grew more and more anxious to lay down the burden which he found so heavy, and devote a few of the years that remained to him to thinking about his soul. With the consent of the Abbot he had chosen one of a group of seventeen small islands, which lay to the south, as the place of his retirement, and when the monks left him on the little beach he was perfectly happy—happier perhaps than he had ever been before. For one thing he was alone. His only companions were the multitudes of wild birds which built their nests in the island rocks. He knew he must not run the risk of making himself ill by sleeping out under the sky as he had often done in his youth, so he began at once to scoop out from the ground a little cell with two rooms in it—one an oratory, the other a living room. This he thatched with straw, and surrounded it with walls of loose stones, which he brought up from the beach. Down by the shore he afterwards built a larger house, so that the monks who came over from Lindisfarne to see him might have somewhere to sleep if a sudden storm prevented their getting back to the monastery.
For a short time after he first took up his abode in Farne Island, he had no bread save what the monks brought to him in a boat, but soon he began to feel that he ought not to put them to that trouble, so he begged them instead to give him some tools and some seed of wheat, that he might get bread for himself. It was spring when he sowed the wheat, but it never came up, and he thought that the soil did not suit it.
"Bring me, I pray you, some seed of barley," he said to the brethren when they next paid him a visit, and the barley when sown sprang up apace, and soon its ears waved in the wind, and the birds beheld it, and came in flocks to eat it. But Cuthbert was angry that his toil should be wasted, and he spoke in wrath to the birds: "Begone, you thieves! What do you here? Do you think to reap that which you have not sown? Begone, I say," and the birds departed with a great flutter of wings, as hastily as the asses did from St. Anthony's garden.
No more feathered robbers were seen trying to steal St. Cuthbert's corn, but he was not to live in peace for all that, for one day he perceived two crows who had settled on the island pulling out bits of straw from the roof of the monks' house, in order to build a nest for themselves. Then Cuthbert was moved to anger at them also, and forbade them to touch the roof, but, though they flew away for a moment, they returned to their task as soon as they thought the saint had departed. This he had expected, so was watching, and, finding the two crows busily employed as before, he suddenly appeared before them, and commanded them in the name of the Lord to cease spoiling his thatch and to go, which they did sorrowfully.
Three days after, when Cuthbert was digging near the spring, one of the crows alighted on a stone before him, and, spreading its wings, bowed its head twice to the ground, uttering plaintive cries. Cuthbert at once understood that it was asking for pardon, and answered:
"O, bird, I forgive you for your thievish tricks! Return if you will."
On hearing this the crow flapped its wings joyfully and flew off, returning in a short time with its mate, both carrying between them a large piece of fat, which they laid at his feet in token of gratitude.
This fat the saint kept to grease the leathern gaiters of the monks, his visitors.
It was in the year 684 that Cuthbert, much against his own wishes, was made Bishop of Lindisfarne; but, when once he had accepted the office, he worked hard and faithfully for his people. Many were the journeys that he took, and the holy men that he visited, even travelling as far as distant Derwentwater to take counsel with St. Herbert, the hermit, in his cell on one of the islands in the middle of the lake. In that same year a plague was raging in Northumbria, and whole towns and villages were left desolate. Some of the monks feared the infection, and shrank away; but, whenever it was possible, the Bishop was to be found at every bedside praying, and comforting the sick and dying.
Men shook their heads as they looked on his worn face, which yet was full of peace and joy; and when the plague was over, the Bishop felt that his work was done, and he might now leave it for someone else to carry on.
Yet a great deal remained to be got through before he could resign his bishopric, and he must go round the houses and monasteries of his diocese, to encourage his people to persevere in holiness, and to see that all was set in order as far as he could do it.
It chanced that he was summoned by the Abbess Elfleda to consecrate a church, lately built near her monastery in Whitby, on the coast of Yorkshire. It was a long journey for a man as weak as Cuthbert now was, but he did not hesitate, though he was very tired by the time he arrived. There was a large gathering of monks from all the neighbouring monasteries, eager to see the famous Bishop, and supper was spread on the day of the consecration, in the big refectory; but, while speaking of the condition of the Church in the North, and the number of monasteries which had increased so greatly during his lifetime, Cuthbert's knife dropped from his hands, his tongue grew silent, while his face became pale and his eyes stared before him. The company looked on in wonder; something, they felt, was taking place which they did not understand, and at length a priest leaned forward and said to the Abbess:
"Ask the Bishop what he has seen, for I know that not without cause do his hands tremble so that he cannot hold the knife. His eyes behold a vision which is hidden from us." The Abbess touched the Bishop's sleeve and begged him to tell her why he had ceased to eat; "for," said she, "of a truth something has happened," to which Cuthbert answered with a smile:
"Do you think I can eat for ever? It is time that my knife had a little rest!" but she urged him all the more. Then he said gravely:
"I have seen the soul of a holy man carried up to the Kingdom of Heaven."
"From whence did he go?" asked she.
"From your monastery."
"But what is his name?" she inquired.
"That you will tell me to‑morrow when I am celebrating Mass," answered he; but the Abbess, not satisfied with this saying of the Bishop, sent over to the larger monastery to know if anyone was dead.
Now, when the messenger had reached this monastery, he found all in it alive and well; but as it was late, they besought him to spend the night there, which he did. In the morning he was returning to the abbey, when he met some men driving a cart containing the dead body of a shepherd, who drove the Abbess's sheep daily to find pasture.
"Who is that, and how did he come by his death?" said the messenger, and the men answered:
"Hadwald is his name, and he fell last night from the branch of a high tree, and we are taking him to his burial."
When he heard that he hastened to the Abbess; and she, overcome with amazement at the strange tale, entered the church where the Bishop was performing service.
"Remember in your prayers, my lord Bishop," she cried, interrupting him, "my servant Hadwald, who died yesterday from a fall from a tree."
Thus was the Bishop's prophecy fulfilled, that during Mass she should tell him the name of the dead man, which had not been revealed to him.
The moment had now come when Cuthbert had finished his work, and could resign his office. A small ship was ready to carry him over to Farne Island, and a crowd of monks and poor people were gathered on the shore to bid him farewell.
"Tell us, my lord Bishop," said one, "when you will return to us?" The Bishop paused as he was about to enter the boat, and, looking the man in the face, he answered:
"When you shall bring my body back to its burial." So he passed on, and came no more alive to Lindisfarne.
During the first two months of his stay on the Island of Farne he was well and content, rejoicing in having no cares to distract his thoughts from the next world, which he was so soon to enter. After that he suddenly fell ill, and when the Abbot of Lindisfarne happened to visit him, he was shocked at the paleness of his face. But Cuthbert made light of his sickness, so the Abbot did not understand that he was stricken to death, and only asked for his blessing, as he might not delay, having much business to do at Lindisfarne.
"Do so," Cuthbert answered, "and return home in safety. But when the Lord shall have taken my spirit, bury me in this house, near my oratory, towards the south, over against the eastern side of the holy cross, which I have raised there; and know that there lies under the turf, on the north of the oratory, a stone coffin, given me long ago by Cudda, the Abbot. In the coffin is some linen woven by the Abbess Verca; in that, wrap my body and place it in the coffin."
"O father!" cried Herfrid, "I cannot leave you ill and alone. Let some of the brethren remain, I beseech you."
"Not now," said Cuthbert; "but when God shall give you a sign, then come."
For five days a tempest raged and the waves reared themselves high, and no boat dared put to sea; but when at last Herfrid, the Abbot, contrived to reach the island, he found the Bishop sitting in the monks' house by the shore. Bidding the brethren sail back to Lindisfarne, the Abbot himself stayed to tend him, and at Cuthbert's own wish a priest and sundry of the other monks returned in the morning, and were with him when his soul departed to the Lord.
"I will that I am buried here," he said again, shortly before his death. But the monks would not have it so, and with one accord begged that he would let them carry him over to Lindisfarne, so that his body might lie amongst them.
Cuthbert did not answer directly, but at length he spoke:
"It was my wish to rest here, where I have fought my little battles for the Lord, and whence I hoped to arise and receive the crown of righteousness. And I think that for you, too, it were better, for at Lindisfarne many evil-doers may fly from the mainland to my tomb for refuge, and much trouble would you have with their lords. For, humble though I am, I know full well that I have the name of a servant of Christ."
The words that he spoke were wise, but the monks would not listen to him, and in the end he gave way to their urging. Yet one more counsel he did give:
"If you will really carry me to Lindisfarne, then bury me inside the church, so that, though you can visit my grave when you please, you can shut the doors, and prevent, when it seems needful, others from doing so."
A great multitude awaited the boat which bore the body of their Bishop back to Lindisfarne, and followed it to the grave which had been dug by the altar of the Church of St. Peter. Since early morning they had known that he was no longer upon earth, for before the sun rose they had beheld the light of two candles which one of the monks had carried to the highest rock of the Island of Farne, and there kindled them, as had been agreed, and all men read the tale they told and mourned deeply, as if each had lost his father; for so indeed they felt. For eleven years Cuthbert's body was left at peace in the church, and then the monks asked the consent of their Bishop to gather his bones and to place them in a high tomb which they had built on the floor of the church itself. But when the coffin was opened they fell on their knees, for the saint lay as if asleep, and the vestments wherein they had wrapped him were fresh and unspotted. By command of the Bishop the vestments were taken off and kept as relics, and new ones brought to clothe him; and in this manner the body was laid in a chest, and placed in the tomb on the pavement.
Nearly two hundred years went by, and a horde of Danish pirates swooped down upon the northern coasts, burning and murdering as they went. The monks at Lindisfarne had warning of their coming and fled, carrying with them the body of Cuthbert and all his relics. These they left for a time in Chester-le-Street, and as soon as that was no longer safe conveyed them to Ripon, and finally to Durham, and in 1104 Cuthbert's body was placed in the new cathedral, where it still lies. Simeon the Chronicler assures us that, though more than four hundred years had gone by since his death, the saint still bore the semblance of life.
Dead as well as alive Cuthbert was strong to protect the weak, for, as he had foretold, there was a right of sanctuary at his grave, till Henry the Eighth suppressed the monasteries and did away with all such privileges, forgetful how his own mother in her childhood had sought refuge in the sanctuary of Westminster. No doubt, as the Bishop had said, many criminals did escape by reason of such places, but on the whole they saved the lives of a multitude of helpless people in those lawless times.