North Aisle Window
Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert
Aidan was sent to replace the unsuccessful missionary and Oswald gave him the island of Lindisfarne as his diocese and a monastery was established there. He is depicted with symbols of his office as bishop.
He achieved great success with his simple approach of walking from village to village, talking with people and trying to interest them in the faith. His monks strengthened connections with the villages through frequent visits and in time Christian communities formed. In the early days of this mission King Oswald accompanied Aidan acting as interpreter as he could speak both Aidan’s Irish Gaelic and his people’s Northumbrian dialect of Old English.
Aidan was responsible for the construction of churches, monasteries and schools throughout Northumbria. He was known for his pious charity - providing homes for orphans and freeing slaves. Aidan died in the church at Bamburgh in 651 AD.
Aidan’s death was seen in a vision by a boy called Cuthbert who then decided to become a monk. His exact origins are unknown but he seems to have born to a well-to-do English family (he may have been second cousin to King Aldfrith of Northumbria) around 635AD. As was customary for his rank he was placed with foster-parents for part of his childhood and had also seen military service. Whilst the story goes that he had his vision whilst shepherding it seems more likely for a youth of his status that he was on duty at a military guard post.
Cuthbert went to the nearby Melrose Abbey, founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted as a Novice. He spent the next thirteen years there, only leaving as part of the founding party for the monastery at Ripon. At this time there were two main branches of Christianity in Britain, those who followed the Roman customs spreading back into the country from Europe, and those who practised Celtic Christianity.
Cuthbert followed the Celtic practices and so when the monastery at Ripon was given to a follower of the Roman customs he followed his teacher back to Melrose. He later accepted the Roman customs and became prior (second to the abbot) at Lindisfarne. There he continued to strengthen his reputation as a pious, generous man with a gift for healing and insight. His missionary work continued for several more years, taking him the breadth of the country before he retired to become a hermit on one of the Inner Farne islands.
He lived this contemplative life for almost a decade before he was asked by Church and King to return and become a bishop. Cuthbert reluctantly agreed and spent the next few years as an active, travelling bishop, as Aidan had been. He then sensed his approaching death and returned to his hermitage where he died on March 20th 687AD.
Cuthbert’s reputation as a healer continued after his death when people who prayed at his grave claimed miracles of healing. Over a decade after his death his grave was reopened so that his body could be displayed in a shrine. However upon opening the coffin they discovered that Cuthbert’s body was perfectly preserved – the sign of great holiness. This helped establish the cult of Cuthbert and numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession, pilgrims flocked to his shrine and he became the most popular saint in Northern England.
By the 9th Century the North East was suffering incursions by the Danes and in 875AD the monks were forced to flee Lindisfarne, taking with them Saint Cuthbert’s body. The monks wandered for a time and then settled at Chester-le-Street before another Danish invasion in 995AD caused Cuthbert’s remains to be moved to Ripon Cathedral. Supposedly following the intimations of the dead saint his remains were moved to Durham where a new stone church was built, the predecessor of the present Cathedral.
In the window Saint Cuthbert is pictured holding the head of King Oswald. Whilst the two were not associated in life the head of King Oswald is said to have been placed in the coffin with Saint Cuthbert at Durham.