Wanderings of Medieval Saints


A short discussion with C J Hyslop (Fraggle) on her post about a visit to a church which claims to have been been one of the resting places of the body of St Cuthbert during his post-mortem peregrination around the north of England and the south of Scotland has made me think again about the importance of relics in the Middle Ages.

St Cuthbert’s body was moved to keep it out of the hands of the Vikings, who were not known for their respect for religious artefacts. The coffin containing his body was taken to various places before it came to rest in Durham.

To our minds, it seems odd that people would put their own lives at risk to carry the body of a man long dead to safety. St Cuthbert died in about 687 and set off on his long journey after the destruction of Lindisfarne by the Vikings in 875. It’s a little under 80 miles from Lindisfarne to Durham, but St Cuthbert’s journey there took more than 100 years. That’s a lot of people over several generations who were willing to risk everything for what should have been a heap of bones, but was said to have been an uncorrupted body.

Being close to a saint’s body was considered the same as being close to the saint himself (or herself). This was the reason why pilgrims travelled long distances. It wasn’t to visit churches or cathedrals because they were important in themselves, but because of the relics of the saints they contained and the miracles they expected to see performed because of the saint’s presence.

Saints’ bodies were often moved from one place to another and rarely with the altruism shown by the people who carried St Cuthbert from place to place.

A church was nothing if it didn’t have some kind of relic. Even a piece of bone could be placed in a shrine for pilgrims to visit. Some churches went to extraordinary lengths to obtain even a sliver of bone. There are stories of respected churchmen surreptitiously tearing off a finger when allowed access to a saint’s remains or, in more than one case, biting one off whilst giving the appearance of kissing the saint’s hand. It’s no wonder that saints’ relics were kept safely hidden in reliquaries and shrines. When a relic was displayed publicly, it was a big occasion.

I live in the diocese of Winchester and the cathedral’s patron is St Swithun. His body did not fare as well as that of St Cuthbert. He was the bishop of Winchester when Wessex became the most important of the Saxon kingdoms. He died in 862 and was buried, at his request, in the cemetery of the cathedral.  In 971 his relics were moved inside the cathedral. There was heavy rainfall on the day and this was interpreted as showing his displeasure at being moved. It’s still said that if it rains on St Swithun’s day (15th July) it will rain for the following 40 days. If it doesn’t rain, the weather will be fine for the next 40 days.

This resting place lasted only three years before St Swithun’s body was broken up and placed in two separate shrines within the cathedral. In the early eleventh century his head was taken to Canterbury by Alphege when he left Winchester to become Archbishop of Canterbury. As I said above, even respectable churchmen were not above stealing a relic.

After the Conquest, the Normans built a new cathedral in Winchester and what was left of St Swithun was taken there in 1093, where his shrine continued to be visited by pilgrims until it was destroyed in the Reformation.


The Oxford Dictionary of Saints – David Hugh Farmer


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:














Filed under Church, Pilgrimage

18 responses to “Wanderings of Medieval Saints

  1. I love those little tales of relic-stealing that we hear about from time to time. They do make the monks sound like the reps of rival tourism enterprises.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I know. From this distance, it’s hard to discern their motives. It might have been greed for the money pilgrims brought; it might have been because they genuinely thought the saint would be happier with them; it might have been for the glory of their church; or for some reason we can’t contemplate.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Oh dear poor St Swithun, no wonder he makes it rain. Cheers for the link April.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’ve always been fascinated by the tales of early saints, particularly the British ones who were so busy at the time of our nations’ beginnings. But I confess that I can’t decide whether the whole business of relics is sad, hilarious or distasteful. I’m less undecided about whether the prime motivator came to be prestige and wealth, however sincere it may have once been. Excellent article, April – ta very much!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’d never heard of St. Swithun’s day until I read it in a UK novel. The rain legend reminds me of the one for Groundhog Day, where if the groundhog sees his shadow, we’re in for 6 more weeks of winter. If not, we’ll have an early spring.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Relic stealing was rampant in this era. The one that astonishes me is the story of St, Mark. In 828, the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, was stolen from his resting place in Alexandria, Egypt by Venician merchants. The legend says they hid the body under layers of pork in barrels since the guards who were Muslim would not touch the pork. The relics were installed in St. Mark’s in Venice the addition elevated Venice to a status equal to Rome, with St. Peter.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Thars gold in them thar relics!

    Collection boxes were all over churches & cathedrals wherever relics could be found. Kind of similar to the boxes found today for fabric funds, but more elaborate, and with nearby clerics promising eternal goodies for the plinks of ha’pennies, and guilt trips of hellfire for the “ungrateful”.

    The more high profile saints got the biggest bang for the bucks, so a piece of one was worth the crass subterfuge. For people who were supposed to eschew riches, they enjoyed God’s windfall.

    To prove it was all to be left behind at death, some important clerics’ effigies showed a sumptously dressed effigy above, with a naked, bony corpse below. Wonder how many really bought the ruse?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. There’s lots about St Cuthbert and his travelling coffin here in my native north east. I’m a believer in the rain thing too!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Speaking of St. Cuthbert, did he ever give reasons why he disliked women?
    And how did his anathema work with Mary, mother of Jesus, and the female saints? Always wondered.

    I’d read (was it from you, April?) that Phillippa, queen of Edward III, made a pilgrimage to Durham (barefoot?), but stayed out of the cathedral for fear of Cuthbert’s wrath. Her baby son, William of Hatfield, was dying. This same child was buried in York Cathedral, with an effigy of a much older child.

    Had William lived, being the second son, the entire Wars if the Roses timeline, including Tudors down to the the current royal line, might never have happened.

    Ah fickle Fortuna!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t know anything about St Cuthbert’s dislike of women, nor was I the one who wrote about Queen Philippa staying out of Durham cathedral. I haven’t even read about her going on a pilgrimage barefoot. Given that William of Hatfield lived just over a fortnight, I can’t imagine that she’d have been in much of a state to walk the 100 miles from Hatfield to Durham at all, let alone barefoot.

      I often wonder what would have happened had Edward III not lived as long as he did, or had Edward of Woodstock lived a bit longer, or even had better health at the end of his life.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: The Anatomy of a Monastery – The Obedientiaries Part Two | A Writer's Perspective

  10. Pingback: What Did Pardoners and Summoners Do? | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s