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A Visit to Durham

Durham is perhaps best known as the seat of the Bishop Princes in medieval times, and more recently as a location in Film & TV like Harry Potter and the Inspector George Gently mysteries.

However, the Cathedral and Treasury have much to offer the Viking Age enthusiast! Despite the Cathedral's medieval date, it is the final resting place of two figures very important for anyone interested in Early Medieval History.

The Venerable Bede (Lived c.672-735)

The first is widely credited as father of British History, the Venerable Bede. A monk from Jarrow, he wrote two important books: 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English People' and 'The Reckoning of Time', both of which are still in print.

His History is very important for Scottish History as Bede lived in northern Northumbria and seems to have been very well informed about the Pictish Kings who were close allies of the Northumbrians when he was writing at the start of the 700s. Although the writings of Early Medieval Historians cannot be taken at face value, they can tell modern Historians a lot about the time in which they were written.

His other contribution has to do with dates. Many writers of his day counted years in 15-year cycles or regnal years (the nth year of a particular king's reign), which can get very confusing! Although he didn't invent it, Bede popularised the use of the Anno Domini system of dating we still use today, which makes it a lot easier to talk about history.

I'm not afraid to say I welled up when I lit a candle for Bede, and it may be hard to understand, but to History Geeks it was like standing over the grave of your favourite film or pop star.

Saint Cuthbert (Lived 634-687)

The second figure is that of Saint Cuthbert, a contemporary of Bede's. Born in either Dunbar or Melrose, which at the time were in the Kingdom of Northumbria, Cuthbert went on to become the Bishop of Hexam and later Lindisfarne where he was buried,

His remains were removed for safety from Lindsifarne by the monks when the Great Heathen Army ravaged Northern Britain in 875. They wandered Northern Britain with the Saint for seven years via many places including Melrose & Carlisle, intending to take his remains to Ireland, before changing their minds and interring them at Chester-le-Street. In 995 his remains were again moved, this time to Ripon, before being put to rest at Durham in a new church on which the Cathedral is now built.

In 934, whilst Cuthbert's remains were at Chester-le-Street, he was visited by King Aethelstan (reigned 927-939) who was expanding his Kingdom of Wessex and already controlled much of Southern Britain. The main threats to his dominance in Britain were King Constantine of the newly named Alba, Owaine of Strathclyde/Cumbraland and the Vikings of the Irish Sea.

In an effort to charm the Northumbrians he gave lavish gifts to Saint including an embroidered stole and maniple (see right, picture from the Textile Research Centre here).

These were made at command of Aelfaed, Aethelstan's step-mother, originally for Bishop Frithstan, and as embroideries of this quality were produced by women of exceptionally high status it's possible that this could contain some of her work!

Gifts like these would no doubt have flattered the Northumbrians and the respect shown by Aethelstan to their most revered Saint was a very astute move and may have convinced many of them to consider him as their King.

Not all were convinced, however, and within a few years Aethelstan would have to come north again to face the combined armies of Constantine of Alba, Olaf of Dublin and perhaps Owaine of Cumbraland at the Battle of Brunaburh in 937. There was at least another century of turbulent times before the medieval Kingdoms of Alba & England were born.

Other treasures were interred with St Cuthbert, including a beautifully engraved wooden coffin and St Cuthbert's pectoral cross, but my favourite is now in the British Library.

The St Cuthbert's Gospel (picture from the British Library here) dates from the early 700s and is thought to be in its original binding, making it the oldest intact book in Western Europe!

As well as checking out the British Library's entry, you can find out more on Wikipedia here

I was fortunate enough to the original at the Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Exhibition, but more on that another time!

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