Unpublished letter and Benedictine secret By Dora BASIL WHELAN, O.S.B.
IN Pre-Reformation England no saint was more widely venerated than St. Cuthbert nor more greatly loved than the great apostle and patron of the North Country. and since the religious cataclysm of the 16th century that veneration and love has in no whit abated, especially in the North.
Of all the early English and Celtic saints, the great Bishop of Lindisfarne has best succeeded in capturing the imagination and the devotion of subsequent ages, and this pre-eminence has been enhanced by the elements of
mystery and romance which
have enshrouded the history of
his sacred relics.
The magnificent shrine of the saint in Durham Cathedral was completely destroyed by order of Henry VIII in 1542 and the incorrupt body was then removed. There is a tradition that at that time the secularised canons of Durham (mostly the former monks of the Cathedral Priory of Durham) hid the body, and the secret of the hiding-place has ever since been handed down from generation to generation within the English Congregation of the Benedictine Order.
As to these two points, it is accepted on all sides that the incorrupt body was found, but its subsequent fate has long been a subject of heated controversy.
And it is also a fact that the secret of the hiding-place has been carefully handed down amongst the Benedictines, and is still thus carefully preserved amongst them.
On all this much has been written in the past; but at least some fresh considerations on the subject are suggested by a letter to he seen in the archives of Ushaw College (itself dedicated to St. Cuthbert) which the present writer believes to have been hitherto unpublished and which is printed below.
THE early prolonged wanderings of the relics do not concern us here. From the year 995 (with one break) they remained at Durham.
At first a comparatively small church was built to house theme but this was pulled down in 1093 to make room for a more elaborate building, and until the new church could be erected the holy relics were enshrined in a magnificent tomb built in the cloister garth. There they remained until 1104 when they were translated into the new cathedral and laid in the ” feretory ", a small enclosure to the east of the high altar, wherein was later constructed the magnificent shrine which was one of the wonders of the Middle Ages.
At this translation the body was found to be completely incorrupt and clad in a series of vestments, all of which appeared as if per. fectly new.
Four and a half centuries were to pass before human 'eyes again beheld that wonderful sight. By that time the Dissolution of the Monasteries had been carried out and Henry VIII had ordered the desecration of all the shrines thr011eh011 t England. in 1542 the Royal Commissioners reached Durham and set about the dismantling of the famous shrine, and on this occasion also the body was found to be incorrupt and perfectly fresh in appearance. Thereupon the awestricken spoliators buried it in a grave dug beneath the site of the former shrine, and it is now that we reach the crux of the matter. For from that date onwards there is no longer certainty as to the whereabouts of St. Cuthbert's body.
HERE is in the " Rites of Durham a detailed and vivid description of the opening of the coffin and the finding of
the body on this occasion; so detailed that it has been universally accepted that the body of the saint certainly was there on that day in 1542 (though on this point something must be said later).
After despoiling the ehrine of its gold and jewels, the workmen broke open the great chest in which the saint lay, eepecting to find only dust and bones. Instead, " they found him lying whole, uncorrupt, with his face bare, and his beard as if it had been a fortnight's growth. and all his vestments upon him".
Another document. compiled about 1560. states that when the coffin was opened " the holy corpse was found whole, sound, sweet, odoriferous and flexible."
While the workmen gazed at this sight, the three Commissioners waiting below on the floor of the cathedral called up to them to thrown down the bones, but they replied that they could not because the sinews and skin would not let the bones come apart. Thereupon one of the Commissioners stepped up to see if this were really so, and then called down to the others that "hc was lying whole." and when the others would not believe him, he cried out: "If you will not believe me, come up yourself and sec him." This they did and were oonfounded by the sight.
It is small wonders that they were nonplussed and did not know what steps to take next. Eventually they ordered the body to be carried iota the vestry and be kept there until the king's pleasure should be made known.
Some time later (it is not known how long afterwards) the body was buried " in the ground, under the same place where his shrine ,was exalted." Harpsfield, who was a contemporary of these events, declares that " not only the body but also the vestments in which he was robed were perfectly entire. and free of all stain and decay. He had on his finger a gold ring, ornamented with a sapphire. which I once saw and touched."
ALL this has been told before, and notably in the late Archbishop Eyre's sumptuous " History of St. Cuthbert "; but it was necessary to re-tell it here in order to introduce and render
intelligible what follows.
For the point at issue is the subsequent fate of the relics. viewed in the light of the later exhumation in 1827.
On May 17 of that year the grave was again opened, and it is claimed that the remains then found within it were those of the saint. It is around this claim that controversy has raged, and strong arguments have been produced by both sides.
But if this claim be true, what is to be said of the Benedictine secret as to the hiding-place of the relics? For this secret is still carefully handed down in the Order, and the inference is that the remains found in 1827 were not those of the saint.
It is true that many articles were found in that grave which were known to have been buried with St. Cuthbert's body, for example, the various vestments were found to correspond with those in which the body was known to have been buried in 1542. and there were also an ivory comb, a small portable altar of silver, a bit•rse and a pectoral cross, amongst other things, all of which were described in 1104 as having been placed in the coffin during the translation of that year.
On the other hand, there were also a number of objects that should not have been there if it is indeed the saint's grave, for the list of articles drawn up in 1104 as having then been enclosed in the coffin does not mention them. In this category may be mentioned a gold cross, a stole and two maniples, as well as two gold bracelets.
THESE discrepancies, coupled with the continued preservation of the Benedictine secret, clearly give grounds for rejecting the belief that the bones found
on this occasion were those of St. Cuthbert.
Certainly the event by no means "dieposes of " the Benedictine tradition, as some Anglicans would have us believe. That tradition is that between the time of the reburial in 1542 and the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 the quondam monks of Durham, who had by that time become secularised canons, opened the tomb. and removed the body to another part of the cathedral, and the exact spot to which it was removed is marked on a plan that is still possessed by the English Benedictines. It is generally believed that this occurred during the reign of ()ueen Mary (1553-1558).
And here an important fact must he mentioned.
It is clear that the tomb was disturbed at some time between the burial in 1542 and the exhumation of 1827, for on the latter occasion it was found that there was an opening at the end of the tomb which had been roughly filled up with loose stones. Here again is support for the view that the body found in 1827 was not that of St. Cuthbert and for the accuracy of the secret held by the monks.
Such, then, has been the position for some years past, and opinion is very evenly divided on the subject.
BUT now consideration must be given to a letter in the
archives of Ushaw College, to
which allusion was made at the beginning of this article, for it raises fresh complications.
The writer was Rev. G. Walker," that is, in religion, Dorn Augustine Walker, 0.S.B., who had been Prior (Superior) of St. Edmund's Monastery in Paris (now at Woolhampton. Barks) from 1753 to 1757. and was President General of the English Benedictines from 1777 until his death in prison in 1794 during the French Revolution.
The letter was written from Cambrai, where Dom Augustine was then chaplain to the convent of English Benedictine nuns (now at Stanbrook). whose subsequent sufferings and imprisonment at Paris he shared.
Dated August 30. 1791, it is addressed to Bishop Walmesley. Vicar Apostolic of the Western District of England, who was himself not only an English Benedictine but was also a member of the same community of St. Edmund's. and had in fact been Dom Augustine Walker's predecessor as Prior of that monastery. This is what he wrote:
I have received your favour of the 22nd current by which you notify to me the desire of Mr. Weld to be possessed of the Body of St. Cuthbert. I know of no one who deserves more to be the guardian of so great a treasure as the relics of the great St. Cuthbert, the most splendid ornament of the primitive Church of our nation, as Mr. Weld, whose piety and zeal for religion are evident to all who know him. And if the Body in question were to be consigned to any private person I know none so worthy of so great a blessing. But 1 own I see great difficulties attending it. It would seem that God Almighty preserved it iii a miraculous manner for sonic end unknown to us, for some greater end than private veneration. I have heard that it was once proposed to an Abbot of Lambspring * to have it carried over thither. that it might be decently enshrined. and exposed in his church; but that he refused to have it brought over as thinking it would he counteracting the intentions of Almighty God towards our country.
" From an account given us in the description of Durham Abbey, compiled by a Protestant Prebend of that church, we learn that at the Reformation, when Commissioners were sent to plunder the churches, the Body of St. Cuthbert was found perfect and entire, that on his leg was a fresh bleeding wound which, according to his Life, was made by the spade of a workman, who so many centuries before had been employed in digging up his body at Lindisfarne; the sacrilegious plunderers were so thunderstruck at the appearance that they dared not to proceed to the Burning of the Body, conformably to their orders. but wrote to the King for further instructions: in the meantime the monks at the Cathedral hid the Body, which God has never permitted to enemies of the faith to lind out.
"All this seems supernatural, and 1 think we ought not easily to be led to remove it from whence Almighty God has been pleased to have it placed. Besides, the Catholics in that country have so much respect and veneration for St. Cuthbert that I believe that any of ours that should be accessory to his removal could never show themselves in that country; and I am persuaded that if the Bishop of the North should consent to the translation, he would lose all the respect due to him from a great part of his flock; and indeed it would be cruel to deprive the faithful of that Diocese of their protector. You mention something of conditions, but 1 do not see what conditions can recompense us for giving up such a depositum. neither do 1 see how any conditions we could Intake) could ever be strictly binding.
" I am, with all due respect and
" Most Hond. sir, your most obedient and humble servant,
• A monastery in Germany of the English Benedictine Congregation from 1643 until dissolved at the time cif the French Revolution.
NOW this is a very peculiar letter, for several reasons. In the first place, the writer obviously believes that the body is at the actual disposal of the Benedictines, else how could it
he given to Mr. Weld or to the Abbot of Lambspring, or anyone else? Therefore. according to him, it was not in the cathedral at all.
Yet it is quite certain that the monks' secret refers to a place within the cathedral, Dom Augustine says there would he "great difficulties" in letting Mr. Weld have the relics. but those he mentions do not include the greatest of all: that of getting them out of the cathedral.
Secondly. the injury to the saint's leg was received not at the exhumation at Lindisfarne in the 8th century but (as the contemporary accounts state) at the despoliation of the shrine at Durham in the 16th century.
And, thirdly, he states that the monks hid the body while the Commissioners were awaiting a reply from the King as to what they were to do with it that is, he asserts that the body was not removed by the monks during Queen Mary's reign (as the tradition avers) but before the burial of 1542. And that is a very surprising statement, for in that case it follows that the saint was never buried beneath the site of the shrine and was therefore not discovered by the Protestants at the exhumation of 1827, and further it means that (a) either the monks must have substituted another incorrupt body for the heretics to bury en 1542 (!). or else (al that the latter deliberately buried the mere bones of someone else, and moreover, put with them the numerous articles that had been in the original coffin.
But why should they do that? And. above all, why should the monks, if they indeed removed the body before it was buried, have left behind the other relics which themselves were so precious? Yet in this case they must have. because it is admitted that those found in the tomb in 1827 were undoubtedly those which had originally been buried with the saint.
BOTH the above alternatives seem untenable. The first is manifestly absurd, and the second highly improbable, for even if the Commissioners wished to conceal the fact that their carelessness had allowed the body to be stolen. they could have staged a burial without going to the trouble of including in it all these various articles and vestments.
It would therefore seem that Dom Augustine's assertion as to the date of the removal of the body must be incorrect. And the sante must also be said, as already suggested. of his apparent assumption that the secret hiding-place was not in the cathedral.
And yet who of all people should he in a better position to know the true facts than he who v, as President General of the English Benedictines and who must have been thoroughly familiar with the tradition and probably also with the actual wording of the secret?
That the Benedictines by no means abandoned belief in their tradition and their secret after the discoveries of 1827 is clear from the fact that they have in recent years declined the invitation of the Anglican authorities to divulge their knowledge. Their continued interest in it is also shown by the matter having been several times raised at General Chapters of the Congregation.
Thus in the Chapter of 1878 it Continued at foot of next column