St Cuthbert’s Shrine, the Dissolution and the Rites of Durham

As yesterday was the the feast day of our great Saint, I thought a little reflection on what seems to me to be a very real miracle might be good, as the journey of his body to its Durham home is re-enacted today. When The dissolution of the grat monasteries got underway in 1539, royal visitors came. It did not bode well for the shrine, or tomb, of the great saint of the north. In Canterbury, for example, Beckett’s tomb was destroyed. That his tomb was not similarly obliterated needs some explanation.

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The Rites of Durham is an anonymous document, written on six scrolls, giving a detailed description of the cathedral before the Reformation. As such, for all of its inaccuracies, a document of immense value. One of its most famous passages tells of the visitation of 1539 that saw the glorouous medieval shrine broken up, like much else in the cathedral and priory, but saw the saint remain.

I have tidied this version up a little.

(LI.) Saynte Cuth: Shryne Defacede.

The sacred shryne of holy Sacte Cuthbert before mentioned was defaced in ye visitac’on [of] Docter Ley, Docter Henley, & [Master] Blythma heild at Durh’m for ye subuertinge of such monument in the tyme of King Henrie 8 in his suppression of ye abbaies where they found many woorthie & goodly iewells [goodly & rich ornam’ts & Jewells of great Value w’ch ye s’d church & St. Cuthb: was adorned w’th all but moste especially one ptious stone [belonginge to ye s’d shrine], w’ch by ye estimate of those visitors & ther skilfull lapidaries [w’ch they brought w’th them] y’l was of value sufficient to redeme a prince: [worth in value a Kings Ransome]. After ye spoile of his ornam’ and iewells, cuming nerer to his [sacred] bodie, thingking to haue found nothing but duste & bones and finding ye chiste he did lie in very strongly bound w’th Irone then ye gouldesmyth dide taike a great fore ham of a smyth & did breake said chiste [open] and when they had openede ye chiste they found him lyinge hole vncorrupt w’th his faice baire, and his beard as yt had bene a forth netts growthe, & all his vestm’s vpo him as he was accustomed to say mess w’th all: and his met wand of gould lieing besid him then, when ye gouldsmyth did p’ceive that he had broken one of his leggt when he did breake vpe [open] ye chiste,’ he was verie sorie for it & did crye alas I haue broke one of his leigg then Doccter Henley hereing him say so did caule vpo hime & did bid him cast downe his bones, then he made him aunswer again that he could not gett it in sunder, for ye synewes & ye skine heild it that it would not come in sunder. Then Docter Ley did stepp vp to se if it weire so or not and did tunic himeself aboute and spoke Latten to Docter Henley [saying that] he was lieing holl. Yett Docter Henley would geve no cr’ditt to his word, but still did crye cast downe his bones, then Docter Ley maide [as] were vf ye will not beleue me come vp y’selfe & se hime, then dyd Docter Henlie step vp to him: did handle him: dyd se he laid hole, [was whole and vncorrupt]. the he did cofnaund theme to taike hime downe & so it hapned contrarie tlier expectatio’ not onely his bodie was hole and incorrupted, but ye vestm’ wherin his bodie laie & wher all he was accustomed to saie mass, was freshe saife & not consumed : Whervpo’ ye visitores commaunded he should be karied in to y’ revestre [ye Vestry], where he was close and saiflie keapt in the inner pte of ye Revestrie tyll such tyme as they did further knowe ye kings pleasure, what to do w’) him, and vpo notise of ye kings pleasure therin [and after], the por and the mounckes buried him in y’ ground vnder same place where his shrine was exalted [under a faire merble stone w’ch remaynes to this day, where his shrine was exalted].

A miracle of sorts!

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