A remarkable account exists of the shattered opening of St Cuthbert’s coffin in Durham Cathedral at the end of 1539.
We have to imagine the saint’s sanctuary behind the high altar and high enough to allow the sick to kneel below and ask for Cuthbert’s prayers to heal them. A blanket on the shrine could be lifted with a rope. Underneath, locked in an iron chest, was the coffin made after Cuthbert’s death in the Farne Islands on March 20, 687.
Beside the coffin on that day in 1539 a blacksmith smashed the chest with a hammer and when he smashed the coffin the coffin cried out that it had broken one of the saint’s legs, which he was sorry for. To find out what he meant, Thomas Legh (was not knighted until 1544) went to see.
Legh acted on behalf of Thomas Cromwell by overseeing the surrender of at least 69 monastic houses from 1538 to 1540, accumulating a considerable personal fortune while there. At Durham Cathedral, run by a community of Benedictine monks, he witnessed the destruction of the richly decorated shrine of St Cuthbert.
According to the historical guide called The Rites of Durham (compiled in the early 1590s) As Legh peered into the coffin, Henry VIII Augmented Court official Walter Hendley shouted from below, “Throw his bones. Legh, noting that the skin and tendons were holding the bones together, called out, “If you don’t believe me, go up yourself and see it.” Hendley went up and saw that the body was whole and still dressed in the clothes left on when Cuthbert’s remains were solemnly buried there in 1104. It was when his coffin was opened 11 years after his death.
Legh ordered the remains to be stored in a sacristy, until it was possible to find out what the king wanted to do with them. Two years later they were re-buried, perhaps surprisingly, in the place at the eastern end of the cathedral from which all traces of the elaborate sanctuary had been removed. The place is now marked with a stone engraved with the word: Cuthbertus.
Today is Saint Cuthbert’s Day, commemorating the translation or reburial of his relics at Durham in 999, after a century of wandering in the care of monks avoiding the dangers of Viking raids at Lindisfarne and on the East Coast. There was another holy day for him too, March 20, the anniversary of his death, which always fell in Lent. It was a day when pilgrims visited her sanctuary and left offerings there which led to her rich adornment.
The Rites of Durham mentions that a piece of jewelry that Legh and Hendley found at the shrine “was worth a prince’s ransom.” I thought as I read this that it was a way of speaking, but there was indeed a large emerald attached to the shrine which had been valued in 1401 at £ 3,336, 13s 4d. It would be over £ 3.5million today, although the comparisons are not straightforward. The gem was probably sent to the king, but is missing.
If the jewel had been found fake, Cromwell’s commissioners would undoubtedly have made the monastic fraud public, suggest Margaret Harvey and Lynda Rollason, editors of a magnificent new text of The Rites of Durham, with a commentary and an introduction giving its historical context. William Claxton’s name is on the jacket. That he, an antiquarian from Durham, was the author has been proven, as the editors explain, by Dr Ian Doyle, who matched Claxton’s known handwriting to the first manuscript of the text. Dr Doyle passed away in 2018, at the age of 92, having generously taken an interest in the now published edition.