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