I recently went to Durham twice – once to examine a doctoral thesis, once to attend the Society for Medieval Archaeology annual conference. I got an opportunity to see the sculpture of St Cuthbert – The Journey – adjacent to the Gala Theatre just off the Claypath (see my post the Lindisfarne version of this sculpture here). The Miners’ Gala was on so the Big Brass bus was positioned right next to the sculpture.
I also go to see the treasures from St Cuthbert’s shrine in the cathedral. As well as embroidery, the pectoral cross, and other unrelated treasures, I enjoyed seeing the largest and most impressive artefact from the 7th century in the cathedral. It isn’t gold or ivory: it’s made of wood. I refer to the coffin of St Cuthbert. It has been put on display in a new ‘Open Treasures’ display as of last year.
Back to TLK
This takes me back to my discussions of the The Last Kingdom Season 2 which prominently features St Cuthbert’s coffin in episodes 1 and 2.
Some background. I’ve previously been a focus of posts on this blog regarding its portrayal of sculpted stone crosses, stone circles, the Alfred Jewel, the Fuller Brooch and Hadrian’s Wall. In particular, I note how the TV series is drawing on celebrity artefacts to enforce a sense of historicity to the fictional storyline.
In this regard, I now want to move onto how the show represents one of Britain’s most famous early medieval funerary artefacts as a key feature of Christian cult and kingship in the political turmoil of late 9th-century Northumbria. The coffin of St Cuthbert, framing the intact cadaver of Cuthbert, is shown as a focus of veneration, a part of royal inauguration rituals, and a rallying point for an army as it reclaims York from the Danes.
A little about Cuthbert
St Cuthbert was a monk, then bishop, of Lindisfarne but then became a hermit until he died in 687. His tomb was opened 11 years later and his corpse found incorrupt. His reburial in 698 took place in a newly constructed oak coffin, presumed to be the one now known as ‘St Cuthbert’s coffin’. His shrine became a focus of many miracles.
Later, in 875, the monks took his remains on a journey around northern England to escape the Danes. Cuthbert travelled to Norham, Workington, Whithorn, and then Crayke, before settling at Chester le Street in 883 until 995. They then moved Cuthbert to Ripon before finally settling in Durham because the cart carrying his remains became ‘miraculously’ stuck there.
His tomb was opened in the early 12th century once again and a new shrine created in the cathedral. The shrine was subject to multiple subsequent openings. The cult of St Cuthbert survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries but his strong local loyalty meant that the relics were preserved and buried in the cathedral. His shrine was recreated in the 19th century and remains a focus of pilgrims and tourists to this day.
In Durham today, you visit St Cuthbert’s shrine and view the artefacts from his grave revealed in the 19th century.
The coffin was found in the 1827 excavation of the coffin by the Cathedral Librarian James Raine: one of 4 coffins associated with the body of Cuthbert. Greenwell found additional fragments in 1899. 6,000 pieces of oak are known in total, c. 169 with inscriptions. In 1939. Ernst Kitzinger reconstructed these fragments and asserted the association of this coffin with the elevation of his remains in 698. 5 out of the 6 postulated sides of the coffin have been recovered. A cross-panel might have been the missing base, according to Cronyn and Horie.
It is a unique survival of a lightly carved Christian coffin of the late 7th century, incised with the four Evangelists’ symbols on the slide. On the ends of the coffin were incised the Virgin and Child (at one end) and the archangels Michael and Gabriel (at the other). Along the sides are representations of the 12 Apostles and 5 archangels.
The striking feature of the coffin is the interpolation of runic and Latin letters, denoting the Evangelists and other figures. This may show the comfortable interchangeability of these scripts on Insular commemorative contexts.
TLK‘s Cuthbert’s Coffin
The centrality of the cult of St Cuthbert in Northumbria is mentioned in passing in Season 1 of TLK, but it comes back as a pivotal dimension of Season 2.
Guthred is a Cumberland nobleman who is rescued by Uhtred and is inaugurated by Bishop Eadred as King of Northumbria in an undisclosed location in ‘Cumberland’. The ceremony begins outside where Guthred is given the ‘sword of Cumberland’ before they go into the church to swear an oath on the corpse of St Cuthbert. The ceremony takes place in front of the high altar in a candle-lit church.
Once the congregation are installed, the coffin of St Cuthbert is processed into the church, borne by six adult men. The Virgin and Child are shown as the ‘back’ end during transportation, Michael and Gabriel to the front.
The presence of Cuthbert is not enough, however. The coffin is rested west-east on the floor and the men remove the lid to reveal the mummified remains of the saint. Bishop Eadred says a prayer over the shrouded remains before unwrapping to reveal the upper body of Cuthbert. The Bishop kneels on the north side, the king-to-be Guthred on the south side.
First the bishop uncovers Cuthbert’s head revealing a shrivelled mummy, but asserts ‘see his flesh is uncorrupted: a miracle!’. He then uncovers the hands then his left hand, and lifts up the left hand, crossed across the cadaver’s midriff, inviting Guthred to take it to swear his oaf.
Cuthbert is thus holy witness and legitimacy for the inauguration and Uhtred is invited by Guthred as leader of his retinue to join the king and bishop beside the coffin. The bishop asserts his vision for the king’s military might and then begins the chant of the congregation:
Vivat Rex Guthred
Then, the coffin of St Cuthbert is shown taken in procession by monks, in a fashion akin to the sculptural representation to be found at Lindisfarne and at Durham, to York (rather than by cart as I would imagine would be more sensible). When at York, the coffin is presented in front of a high cross within the city. We know not regarding what happens to Cuthbert next.
So my point is simple: we see a coffin deployed in ritual and ceremony, containing and framing the holy corporal relics of Cuthbert. Are there other instances where such a specific historically accurate replica of an early medieval religious artefact has been deployed so prominently in an early medieval historical drama? The coffin in TLK is afforded a centrality in Northumbrian Christian royal inauguration we don’t have evidence for, and it travels between locations that Cuthbert’s cadaver never visited. Still, this prominent portrayal of Cuthbert’s coffin is certainly worthy of note for all medievalists!