Posted by: kljolly | March 14, 2012


I have begun my Cumbrian exploration with Workington, just because it is the site of the most famous incident in the community of St. Cuthbert’s viking-era history: the attempt to take his body to Ireland in the “seven years wandering” between 875 and 883, leaving from Derwentmouth, only to be stopped by divine or Cuthbertine intervention.

The Historia de Sancto Cuthberto 20 (ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South, p. 59) says:

Also at that time the good bishop Eardulf and abbot Eadred bore the body of St Cuthbert from the isle of Lindisfarne and wandered with it through the land, carrying it from place to place for seven years, and finally they arrived at the mouth of the river that is called Derwent, and there they placed it in a boat so that they might thus transport it across the adjoining sea to Ireland.  Then all his people who had long followed him, mourning that their pious patron was being taken away, wept and wailed as they stood on the shore, because they themselves were captives being left behind and their captive lord was being abducted.  Then God manifested a great miracle out of love for his beloved confessor.  For a horrible storm arose on the sea, three very great waves fell on the ship and at once, marvellous to say, that water was turned to blood.  Having seen this, the bishop and the abbot fell at the feet of the saint and, terrified with fear, they returned to the shore as quickly as possible and carried the holy body to Crayke, and there, having been charitably received by the good abbot named Geve, they remained for four months, and from there they translated the holy body to Chester-le-Street.

This passage raises some interesting questions about the site.  Presumably they went to the monastery associated with Lindisfarne, present day St. Michael’s church on a southside estuary of the river, but the author does not mention the church or the religious community there, as he does for Crayke.   The only identifying feature is Derwentmouth as port, and not the Anglo-Saxon place name of Workington (Weorc-ingas tun).  Further, evidence suggests viking settlements on the north side of the river–is that a threat at the time, perhaps obliquely referenced in the imagery of captivity?

Twelfth-century historian Symeon of Durham (Libellus de Exordio, ii.11, ed. Rollason) adds to this description other details about the planning stages for the voyage as well as the violent outcome, including a more elaborate scene of the people weeping and wailing the loss of their patron saint, which triggers the stormy response.  But the most interesting is the story that a bejeweled Gospel book, presumably the Lindisfarne Gospels, was swept overboard.  In the next passage, Symeon (ii.12) records how a loyal band of seven monks guarded Cuthbert’s body, apparently within the entourage of the bishop and abbot, while they searched for a safe haven.  One monk named Hunred received a vision from the saint revealing how to recover the Gospel book as well as how to proceed with their journey via a special bridle and horse to draw the cart with the saint’s body.  But Symeon notes that by this point they had come to the “White House” (Candida Casa) at Whithorn, which is on the north side of the Solway Firth from Workington where the loss occurred.  Still, they found the book miraculously undamaged on the seashore, the tide having receded much further than normal.  After that they found the bridle and horse, which led them safely on their journey.

This account suggests that after leaving Workington, the small band guarding St. Cuthbert and other relics somehow made it to Whithorn overland (unless they used the same boat to cross the Solway Firth), and that some time had passed before they recovered the Gospels.

Imagining Workington as it was in the ninth and tenth centuries is tricky because the Derwent river mouth and area has been altered by nature and humans.  This GoogleEarth image shows present day construction such that the church of St. Michael is not right on the river.  However, it probably was at one time on an island, perhaps tidal like Lindisfarne, when the water was higher.  Moreover, the land to the west of the church toward the sea was marsh, as shown in this 1793 map:

I also wonder about the “Cloffock,” low-lying land dividing the Derwent such that the church of St. Michael is on the “South Gut” of the river.  In the ninth and tenth centuries, perhaps the lower Cloffock (toward the sea) was under water and, combined with the marshy land to the west, the “South Gut” was not clearly divided from the main river.  This may mean that the church of St. Michael was at or near the highest dry ground for launching.

If Aldred had come into this area, either as a young man circa 940-50 or later as provost circa 970, would he have still found monks or clergy at St. Michael’s?  Or just viking settlements?  Would members of his community have visited just because of the story about the attempt to take Cuthbert to Ireland?

Further, would he have known Symeon’s tale of the Gospel book falling into the sea and miraculously recovered?  It seems unlikely:  the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto, parts of which were composed in the tenth century, does not record what would be a notable miracle, while Symeon’s account in the twelfth-century is the first evidence of the event.  If Aldred had known about it when he did the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), surely he would have worked it into his colophon outlining the book’s history.  On the other hand, his list of the three creators of the Lindisfarne Gospels is dependent on an older set of verses (see Jane Roberts’ article), to which he adds himself as the sacred fourth:

Eadfrith, Bishop of the Lindisfarne Church: he wrote this book originally, for God and for St Cuthbert and [together] for all the saints who are in the island.

And Ethiluald [Bishop] of the Lindisfarne islanders, bound and covered it on the outside, as he well knew how.

And Billfrith, the anchorite: he forged the ornaments which are on it on the outside and adorned it with gold and with gems also with silver over-gilded it with pure metal.

And [I] Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest over-glossed it in English with the help of God and St. Cuthbert. And, by means of the three parts, he made a home for himself. The Matthew part for God and St. Cuthbert, the Mark part for the bishop/s, and the Luke part for the community, and eight ores of silver for his induction.

And the St John part for himself (it is for his soul), and four ores of silver for God and St Cuthbert: so that he may gain acceptance through God’s mercy into heaven, happiness and peace, on earth, progress and increase, wisdom and prudence through the merits of St Cuthbert.

I could, absent any other evidence, have Aldred stumble upon this miracle account, perhaps while traveling in Cumbria and interviewing one of the descendents whom Symeon of Durham lauds as protecting the body of Cuthbert.  He names four of the seven (ii.12):  Hunred, Stitheard, Edmund and Franco. Then at the beginning of book iii detailing the miraculous relocation of the community from Chester-le-Street to Durham, he elaborates on the lineages of Franco and Hunredt.   Symeon’s point is to establish the faithfulness of these monks preserving the saint as well as monastic life for the community through the viking troubles.  However, clearly these men took the monastic vow after they had sired children, and indeed may have been noble warrior class persons suitable for providing an honor guard for the saint.

The grandson of Franco, for example, one Riggulf, lived 210 years according to Symeon, the last forty as a monk (iii.1); his father, Franco’s son, was Reinguald after whom a vill was named (Rainton), suggesting status.  Riggulf’s descendents are also noteworthy for passing on good genes before turning to the religious life, with a great-grandson who became a priest after fathering a son still alive in Symeon’s day.  Thus the genealogy:  Franco – Reinguald -Riggulf – Ethric – unnamed daughter – Alchmund (priest) – Elfred.

Likewise Hunred had a son, Eadwulf, whose son Eadred turned to a monastic life of silence in the last six years of his life.  From there it is a lineage of alternating Collans and Eadreds.  (Hunred – Eadwulf – Eadred – Collan – Eadred – Collan).  The last Collan’s sister had three sons, Eilaf (a Scandinavian name?) and two priests alive in Symeon’s day, Hemming and Wulfkill.

So Aldred might have known grandchildren of these seven heroes.  In 895, Hunred and Franco were older men, having already fathered children before devoting themselves to Cuthbert’s preservation. Their sons, born presumably before the 890s and likely already young adults in 895, could have fathered children circa 900 or later, some of whom would be alive 950-970 when we know Aldred is active in the region.  Theoretically, Aldred could have coaxed the silent and elderly Eadred into speaking about his grandfather Hunred.

Where shall I have this meeting take place?  At St. Michael’s in Workington?


Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony, ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South, Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002)

Jane Roberts, “Aldred Signs Off from Glossing the Lindisfarne Gospels,” in Scribes and Texts in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Alexander Rumble (Cambridge: Boydell, 2006), 28–43.

Symeon of Durham, Libellus de exordio atque procursu istius, hoc est Dunhelmensis ecclesie, ed. and trans. David Rollason (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2000).


  1. […] Jolly of Revealing Words explores the early medieval history of Workington in Cumbria. Gold plaque, Bamburgh. Found summer […]

  2. Hello Karen – all fascinating stuff. I’ve always been intrigued by the very name, ‘Workington’, as there are very few ‘-ton’ names in Cumbria. We had angles walking over the mountains from the northeast, but not much evidence of anglo-SAXONS, especially in the west. There are, however, plenty of stories about ‘native’ brythonic-speaking Cumbrians in this era. I can only conclude that there was a time when Workington’s population, or ruling class thereof, was quite different from those around them.

    Is this, perhaps, evidence of close links with the northeast by sea, and therefore your research?

  3. Hi Karen – I’m having difficulty posting so hopefully this, my third attempt, will ‘stick’!

    Workington is an intriguing name in a Cumbrian context – we have very few ‘-ton’ place names. Some angles walked over the mountains from the northeast, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of them in the west, and virtually nothing that’s anglo-SAXON. We do, however, have stories of this era about ‘native’ brythonic-speaking people. I imagine that there was a time when the people of, or ruling class of, Workington was very different from the people around them.

    Is this in itself suggestive of very strong links by sea with the northeast, or the east, in this period?

  4. The church at Workington has a considerable number of early cross fragments, with several more found in excavations carried out there in the 1990s (published in Church Archaeology, Volume 1), so the site was clearly somewhere of importance.

    I’ve done some research relating to the movement of Cuthbert’s relics after they left Workington and produced a short paper for inclusion in the local transactions, although I’ve no idea whether they will consider it a bit too far fetched! Basically, I suggested, ont he basis of certain topographic details in the account by Symeon of Durham, that after being beaten back by the tide at Workington they headed south. If you are interested in seeing it, let me know.

  5. It’s worth noting that the church at Workington as a considerable number of early cross fragments, including some found quite recently – there is a published account in Volume 1 of Church Archaeology (1997, Paul Flynn ‘Excavations at St Michaels, Workington, pp.43-45). The site was clearly one of considerable importance.

    I have also written a short article suggesting, based on some of the topographic details, that following the failed attempt to move St Cuthbert’s relics across the Irish Sea the monks headed south, not, north, into Morecambe Bay rather than arriving at Whithorn. I’m not sure if it will be published as it is perhaps the wrong side of unlikely, but if you are interested let me know.

  6. Thanks for the comments and my apologies to posters whose messages I discovered in the spam folder for some reason.
    Dan, I would be interested in your argument for the monks moving south to Morecambe Bay, especially since I am currently looking at the Kent river valley.

  7. Hi Karen,

    I have been having similar problems making comments on Tim Clarkson’s Senchus blog, although this may be fixed now. Very interesting just reading your follow up posts on Aldred and south Cumbria, although as an archaeologist I always struggle to follow all the historic ins and outs! Do you have an email address I can send my text to? Do you get the details of my from the posts?

  8. […] my lunchtime goal is Workington, specifically St. Michael’s church and the launch site for St. Cuthbert and crew on their […]

  9. […] shore, followed by a horrific storm that comes up after they launch from Derwentmouth (present day Workington), with three huge waves, blood colored, crashing over their vessel.  Taken as a pretty clear sign […]

  10. […] present-day St. Michael’s church in Workington may stand where the Anglo-Saxon church once stood, and where St. Cuthbert’s people wept as […]

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