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Celtic Christianity and St Cuthbert’s Contributions Essay

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Updated: May 30th, 2020


The aim of this essay is to investigate the contributions of Cuthbert to the Celtic traditions and his subsequent roles and lessons that the modern-day Christian can learn from his life and actions. Apparently, Cuthbert had a rich and more comprehensive background that provides an in-depth analysis of the traditions and the way of life of the Celtics. To achieve the objective of this essay, an argumentative approach would be advanced to ascertain the roles that Cuthbert played in the Celtic traditions. The essay would further analyze the virtues of the saint, together with his likely faults.


Celtic Christianity was an expression of different traditions and cultures by the Celtics. These people were on a mission of conquering the world in a bid to spread their faith. Its roots could be traced back to 800 B.C.E before eventually spreading to Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Netherlands and Belgium by the sixth century. After about three hundred years, they expanded further to France, Ireland and Great Britain. Their pilgrimage continued to 387 B.C.E when they invaded and occupied Rome. However, their stay in Rome was cut short by the invasion of an epidemic. They were only there for a period of seven months. From Rome, their next destination was Greece, where they chased away the Delphi in pursuit of huge hoards of gold (Hull 61).

Although the Celtics pursued different traditions, they shared the same characteristics within their faith. Some of the characteristics of this tradition included observance of spiritual equality for men and women, reverence to nature and other creatures of God, the love for music, poetry and art and recognition of the idea of incarnation and the Trinity. Spiritual unity and missionary were so important to them. They also regarded peace and justice as a great pillar for their faith (Cairns 1).

The Celtics left a significant and remarkable heritage and personality in all the regions that they interacted with during their missionary activities. Some of their defining traditions included the Celtic Witan Church, Faery Faith, Witta, Celtic Reconstructionists and the Pecti-Wita. Others were the Y Tylwyth Teg, Celtic Traditionalism, Welsh Cymry Faith and Celtic Shamanism. Each of these traditions had prominent individuals whose lifestyles contributed immensely to the spread of the Celtic faith. Some of these figures included Patrick, Brigid, David, Columba and Cuthbert, among others. This essay would limit itself only to the discussions of the lifestyle and contributions of St Cuthbert to the Celtic traditions (Neilson 1).

St Cuthbert

Cuthbert is believed to have been born in Melrose, near Scotland at around 635 A.D from relatively poor parents. He began his life in a modest way as a young boy tending the sheep. One day while attending to his sheep in the year 651 A.D, he saw a vision. In this vision, he saw an illumination of light into the night darkness. In the midst of that light, a group of angels touched down on earth and received a spirit of super brightness before returning to their heavenly home (Hull 59).

This vision could have informed Cuthbert to join the holy orders at Melrose. But contrary to the expectations of many, he put on hold joining the holy orders for the time being. He instead chose to join the army of the Kingdom of Northumbria where he served as a soldier. Their kingdom was apparently embroiled in a dispute with the Kingdom of Mercia which was headed by Penda. It was only after the conflict that Cuthbert joined the monastery at Melrose (Hull 59).

When he woke up the following morning, he found out that St Aiden had passed on. St Aiden was a man full of holiness and also the founder of the Priory of Lindisfarne. It was strange to him that his death coincided with his dream. This event promoted Cuthbert to abandon looking after his sheep and subsequently joined the Celtic monastery in order to study monarchy. While at the monastery his fame emerged due to his devoutness and wisdom. This earned him a place at the Ripon where he helped establish a monastery. But he did not stay there for long for he was thrown out due to his refusal to abide by the monastic traditions of the Romans. During this time, there existed the conflicts between the Celtic traditions and the Romanic Catholic Church concerning their rites. Consequently, he went back to his birthplace, Melrose from where he was made a Prior in the year 661 (Hull 45).

When the Synod of Whitby realigned to the monastic traditions of the Romans in the year 664, Cuthbert was forced to tear the same line. This again further earned him the position of a Prior to the vast monastery of Lindisfarne. Having been trained in the Celtic traditions, he stood a better chance of bringing in and inducing the required transformative monastic changes within the jurisdiction. This was the main reason behind his elevation. His embracement of the Roman monastic traditions played a greater role in convincing the Lindisfarne monks to accommodate the change equally. It was after a dozen years that Cuthbert retired from the position of a Prior of Lindisfarne to live in solitary in the Island of Farne (Cairns 1).

While at the lone Island of Farne and only accompanied by sea birds and seals, Cuthbert spent most of his time praying and contemplating. But in the year 685, he left the island for another faith-related task. He had accepted an appointment to the position of a Bishop of the Lindisfarne, albeit with some reluctance. Nevertheless, he served his new position with a lot of diligence, dedication, vigour and determination (Neilson 1).

It was while on this mission as a Bishop that he attained the epitome of his missionary work. He was able to travel far and wide to different places and converted many people to Christianity. However, his life was cut short in the year 687 when he met his death at his solitary Island of Farne. However, the monks did not know burry his body at the island. It was rather carried to Lindisfarne from where it was laid to rest (Neilson 1).

Cuthbert after Death

Eleven years after the death of Cuthbert, his tomb was reopened. However, the remains of his body were found to be still intact, without any corruption whatsoever. This was in itself a great miracle that called for careful treatment and preservation of his body. Incidentally, he was buried again, this time round inside an oak coffin engraved in simply decorated aesthetics. The remnant of this coffin is found at the Cathedral museum up to date. Soon after his reburial, miracles started manifesting in his tomb. The multiplicity of the miracles made him acquire the title of the ‘Wonder-worker of England’. Later on, due to the outcome of the miracles, Cuthbert was made a saint (Neilson 1)

Apparently, St Cuthbert had ordered that his body be carried away with the monks if they ever were to leave Lindisfarne. Therefore, in the year 875, when the Viking raids occurred, and the monks were fleeing Lindisfarne, they carried with them Cuthbert’s body. In addition, they also carried other great treasures such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the head of St Oswald of the monastery. The following journey was never smooth for they encountered several hardships on their way. They were to roam with his body for seven years, wandering in areas around Southern Scotland and North of England. Later on, in the year 883, they finally laid his body to rest in a Chester-le-Street church, near Durham (Neilson 1).

However, the fears of fresh Vikings attack promoted the monks to exhume his body after about a century at Durham since he was last reburied. Still, with the body, the monks travelled to the Ripon, from where they kept it for a few months. As a matter of fact, while his body was being moved from Chester-le-Street church, there occurred another miracle. He apparently appeared in a vision to the monks who were carrying his body, to whom he expressed his wish. According to the monks, he had indicated to them that he wished to be finally laid to rest at the Dunholme. Incidentally, this was the same place on which a lost cow that belonged to a milkmaid had strayed. However, neither the vision nor the monk explained the significance and the relationship that his body had to do with the location of a straying cow. To this extent, it can be argued that some of his visions lacked rational and could not be possible qualified (Cairns 1).

However, because of other strange reasons, St Cuthbert might have been fascinated by ample freshwater supply. This is because Durham cut a niche for possessing these fascinations. For instance, it had frequent and consistently fresh water supplies throughout the year. The site also had another benefit of being in a position that made it be easily defended. These attributes further encouraged the monks to finally lay St Cuthbert’s body to rest at the place. He was initially placed in a coarse and stiff chapel before being transferred to an excellent Saxon granite church.

This church was dedicated and named the White Church in the year 998. But later on, in the year 1093, the White Church was dismantled by the Norman conquerors who replaced it with the splendid Cathedral which still stands to date. The conquerors instead built a special shrine within the Cathedral in the year 1104, from where St Cuthbert’s body together with St Oswald’s head was placed. Surprisingly, his body was still intact and uncorrupted at this time. This was more than four centuries after his death. Much as it is religiously possible to believe these assertions, it is scientifically impossible. A dead body is prone to start decomposing after a short period of time if not treated. It is not stated whether the monks kept on treating the body of the saint (Neilson 1).

That notwithstanding, these events made Durham be reserved as the most important sites for pilgrimage in entire England during the Middle Ages. Consequently, St Cuthbert was equally regarded as the most famous saint of this place. The miracle manifestations of St Cuthbert continued to be experienced long after his final laying to rest. A significant occurrence shocked many. At the height of the Reformation, King Henry VIII sent his commissioners with instructions to destroy the shrine where St Cuthbert was laid to rest. After damaging the shrine, they were shocked to discover that the body of the saint was still intact without any corruption (Cairns 1).

St Cuthbert’s body was again reburied under the damaged shrine by the monks. However, when the tomb was reopened in 1987, only a skeleton and an adult skull were found. The adult skull must have been St Oswald’s. But strangely the skeleton had the same robes and gold casings that were used in burying St Cuthbert in 1104. However, opponents have differed with this side of the story. They believe St Cuthbert’s real body was clandestinely stolen and buried at another site by the Benedictine monks. The answer to this question still remains a mystery to many. Meanwhile, St Cuthbert’s are presently displayed at the Cathedral as valid. Since autopsy examinations cannot be carried out to ascertain his real body, these arguments lack clear validations (Hull 121).

The debate of the authenticity aside, St Cuthbert had, on the one hand, contributed immensely, not only to the flourish of the Celtic traditions but also to the spread of Christianity. One of his magnificent contributions was taking part in the introduction of the Lindisfarne Gospels. This manuscript is surprising still surviving up to date. It was apparently illuminated and produced by Eadfrid, the Bishop of Lindisfarne during the eighth century. Eadfrid then placed it at the St Cuthbert’s shrine from where it remained throughout the monks’ stay there, before fleeing (Hull 121).

The Gospels allegedly disappeared while the monks were crossing the Irish Sea. When the monks became disturbed by this sad happening, St Cuthbert appeared to them in a vision and directed them on the exact location where they were to locate the book. True to the saint’s instructions, the book was found along the shore three days later. Apart from some minimal stains from the seawater, the book was still intact as it was before. Presently the book is at the British Museum, apparently with the same stains (Cairns 1).

St Cuthbert’s miraculous nature could still be visible today if claims by the fishermen in the Island of Farne are anything to go by. According to the fishermen, St. Cuthbert normally sits on a particular rock within the island making beads. Some other sailors also claimed that he appears in the middle of a deadly ocean storm to save the seamen from drowning.

Throughout his life, Cuthbert demonstrated different virtues and gave meaning to life in different aspects. He lived both in a community and in solitude. While with the community, he showed his patriotism by fighting in the army to protect the interests of the community. He even tended to his sheep as a demonstration of the caring nature he had for the flock. The fact that his services were being sought after even when he decided to shut the door from the people implies that he was greatly revered by them. Even at a time when he decided to take solitude at the Island of Farne, he was still approached and offered senior positions in the Celtic traditions. For a person to be able to be revered this much, it means that the people have lots of trust in him. His counsels and hospitality were so insightful that they endured people to him (Hull 123).

St Cuthbert’s life also provides a good lesson to Christians as well as followers of other religious faiths. His was a life that was lived in both edges of extremes. He was very prayerful and sought the counsel of God whenever he came across challenging moments in his life. It is stated that while at the Island of Farne, he was committed to a lot of prayers and contemplations. Many times people rush into actions without much contemplations and reflections on the impacts of their action. He always made wise decisions, which were implemented as perfectly as possible. When he took over the position of a Bishop for the Lindisfarne, he committed himself to the new role and performed it with a lot of dedication (Hull 124).

St Cuthbert has portrayed to the human race that when situations become tense and unbearable, it is normally wise to take some rest and replenish. To avoid frequent disturbances, one can opt for a quiet and lonely place for reflection and meditation. Taking solitude from the daily hustles and tussles can provide one with a humble opportunity to assess his or herself and realize one’s self-awareness. Rest restores energy and brings out momentum in an individual. After his well deserved rest at the Island of Farne, Cuthbert resumed his duty with a lot of energy and strength. People are therefore called upon to take some rest from work and reflect on their roles and contributions to society. This should be accompanied with intense prayers as demonstrated by St Cuthbert.

Cuthbert’s extreme character was also portrayed by his decision to abandon his religious duties for isolation on the island. This could have been a manifestation of depression and evasion from the calling of his duty. At a time when he had been offered a promotion to become a Prior, the least he could do was to abandon his followers for solitude on some island. To this extent, Cuthbert has not only portrayed his negligence nature but also sparked a lot of doubt on his commitment and dedication to offering a candid religious path to his followers. It has also put the credibility of his miracle claim to doubt.

Works Cited

Cairns, George. Celtic Christianity Today: Celtic Christianity Today. Celtic Christian Today. 2011. Web.

Hull, Derek. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Art: Geometric Aspects. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003. Print.

Neilson, Peter. An Appraisal of the Celts and their Christianity: St Cuthbert’s Parish Church. 2006. Web.

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