The Legend of St Cuthbert and a Wandering Brown Cow

One afternoon in Durham, Jonson and his companion managed to extract themselves from Bishop Neile’s assiduous entertainment to indulge in a spot of antiquarianism. durham cathedralThey toured the various monuments within Durham’s mighty Norman cathedral, stopping in particular to look at those of St Cuthbert, and his biographer, the historian the ‘Venerable’ Bede.

St Cuthbert (635-687) was the prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne, on a small island joined by a tidal causeway to the Northumbrian coast. He spent many years as a hermit on the more remote island of Inner Farne, in later life becoming a bishop in Northumbria, before returning to the Farne Islands where he died.

St Cuth tomb

Following Viking attacks in 875, his body was carried by devoted monks around northern England, settling for a century in Chester-le-Street; after further travels, he was eventually interred east of the High Altar in Durham cathedral in 1104.

The much-visited shrine became a focal point of a cult of St Cuthbert, that also was celebrated on Lindisfarne. The ornate tomb was dismantled after the Reformation and the body reburied in a plain grave behind the altar, reputedly still uncorrupted. Cuthbert’s tomb was again opened in 1827 to disprove the apparently miraculous preservations of his remains.

Jonson was also to hear of another of the myths associated with the saint, the way in which Cuthbert’s final resting place was chosen. In 995, monks fearful of further Viking raids, were searching for a suitable site when they followed two milkmaids looking for a brown or ‘dun’ cow to a rocky peninsula in the River Dee. Here, on Dun Holme, the cathedral was built to house Cuthbert’s shrine. Durham_Dun-Cow

This legend was portrayed in a stone carving, described in 1593 as ‘a monument of a milk maid milking her cow … on the outside of the north-west turret’ of the cathedral’, which though ‘defaced by the weather … to this day is there to be seen’. This will have been what Jonson will have been shown though what you see today is its replacement from 1775. And the myth is perpetuated in ‘The Dun Cow’ inns of Crook and Witton-le-Wear in County Durham.

Fenwick Lawson’s  sculpture ‘Journey’ (1999), carved from seven elm trees, also commemorates the monks’ long travels with Cuthbert’s remains, and is now on Lindisfarne.



Subsequently a bronze casting of it was made, and you can see this now amongst the shops and eateries of Millenium Square in Durham.



Jonson then paid his respects to the other notable resident of Durham Cathedral, the Venerable Bede (c.673-735). Bede was a monk and historian in the monastery at Jarrow, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c.731) was first printed in Strasbourg after 1474, and in numerous sixteenth and seventeenth century editions.

BedeBede was initially buried at Jarrow, but subsequently re-interred in the Galilee chapel of Durham cathedral in a blue marble tomb; this was dismantled following the Reformation, and the remains buried more simply under two of the original marble stones.

Anna Groundwater

Anna Groundwater is the post-doctoral research fellow on the project at the University of Edinburgh, where she also lectures in early modern British and Scottish history.

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