Hunred leaned as far out of the boat as he could, his right hand gripping the vessel’s edge and his left reaching toward the Gospelbook as the waves sent the boat heaving over again. Wind and rain lashed his face, his eyes were streaming from the salt water, but still he was positive that the jewel-encrusted silver reliquary was actually floating on the wave, bathed in a phospherescent glow.
The other monks hanging onto his legs hauled him back in to the boat as the waves rolled them away from the disappearing book, its glow still visible despite the gray curtain of rain enveloping them. Hunred slumped into the bottom of the boat, shaking with exhaustion, while the others tried unsuccessfully to turn the boat toward the direction they thought the gospel book had taken, southward. But the storm seemed to be now beating them around in circles.
It had come up suddenly. They had departed from Derwentmouth under calm skies launching onto relatively peaceful waters, with a following wind to take them directly to the coast of Ireland. But once they had stood not far out from the Cumbrian coastline, the storm had rushed down on them from the north with a fury equal to that of the vikings they were trying to escape.
Three huge waves had swamped the boat, blood red like the plague of Egypt, washing barrels and boxes overboard, one of them breaking open and sending the Gospelbook flying into the waves. It had slipped beyond Hunred’s grasp, frantic as he was to reach it, even if it meant losing his life to save it.
Looking down where St. Cuthbert’s coffin lay lashed in the hold, Hunred muttered “How can he sleep through all this? Why does he not awaken and save us from disaster?” He remembered that the desperate disciples under similar circumstances had woken the Savior, who quickly showed His power over wind and wave. How could they awaken St. Cuthbert?
Eardulf, bishop of Lindisfarne, and Eadred, abbot of Carlisle, crouched beside the wooden coffin in the hold, each gripping it more to hold themselves than it. When Hunred stumbled over and sank beside them with the news that the Gospelbook from Lindisfarne had been washed over, they knew. Turning their eyes to the cross-incised surface of the wooden coffin, they began to pray.
The seven monk-warriors gathered around the abbot and bishop. These men of noble ancestry and heroic prowess had abandoned their families and wealth to devote their later years to serving as Cuthbert’s guardians on his wanderings, singing the divine office night and day around the body.
“O Lord God Almighty, have mercy on us. We have sinned by doubting your power to protect us. Save us now from our foolishness,” the bishop prayed.
The abbot added, “Holy Cuthbert, arise and guide us back to your people.”
The holy man’s folk stood on the shore and wept, refusing to leave the site of the saint’s departure. Instead they had followed the boat’s course from St. Michael’s church along the Derwent riverside toward the ocean, standing now forlornly at the farthest edge, watching the ship sail away.
They had pleaded with the abbot and bishop not to take their protector Cuthbert from them, but the decision had been made without them to take the saint’s body into exile in the Pilgrim’s Land to the west, just as St Columba had been moved from Iona to Dunkeld in the north and thence to his homeland Ireland, two years ago.
The decision had seemed wise to the Eardulf, charged with keeping the relics of his bishopric Lindisfarne safe, along with the people of St. Cuthbert. They left Lindisfarne in 875 amidst the ravagings of Halfdan, moving to various of their Northumbrian estates for three years but never feeling secure.
In some ways, it was a game of cat and mouse, with the community the mouse staying out of the way of the cat Halfdan. These vikings were not just seizing portable goods and slaves—some were confiscating land and settling on it.
They wintered at the monastic foundations of Norham and Melrose, with shorter visits in better seasons at nearby Carham, Kelso, and Cavers, where the presence of the saint’s body brought solace to the people. Then they ventured further south in Northumbria, resting at Elsdon, Bellingham, and Haydon Bridge, leaving memorials to the saint’s visit in each church as a form of security: this site is protected by St. Cuthbert.
Finally in 878 the community went west to Cumbria, spending two years based at Abbot Eadred’s monastery in Carlisle. The Northumbrian people of St. Cuthbert who had lost their lands to the vikings followed them, traversing the road along the old Roman wall. In Cumbria, they joined with Cuthbert’s people there, both Anglians and Britons. At their pleadings, the coffin of St. Cuthbert pilgrimaged to some of their vills in the Eden valley (Edenhall and Salkend) to the south and westward toward the coast (Plumbland, Embleton, Lorton).
It was on one of these sojourns that the bishop and abbot realized their peril came not just from the east: viking boats had come by sea around to the western coasts. They had come to St. Michael’s church at Derwentmouth for the archangel’s feastday on September 29. But now they felt trapped, unable even to get back to Carlisle, itself now besieged.
It was Abbot Eadred who had spoken to his friend Eardulf, reminding him of Columba’s translation to Ireland and suggesting they simply take ship from Derwentmouth and move Cuthbert to one of the secure monasteries in Ireland.
However, only a select few were chosen to enter the ship, those seven who guarded the the holy vessel—as if it were the ark of the covenant—bearing the coffin with St. Cuthbert’s body and other sacred relics on its pilgrimage through the countryside.
Now his haligwerfolc, the saint’s people who had faithfully followed the body from Lindisfarne on its wanderings through Northumbria and into the western lands of Cumbria, felt abandoned, exiles themselves, left as sheep to the wolves. Where would they go? Who now would stand between them and the viking hordes?
In the distance they saw the storm racing through the channel and shouted out fearful prayers. They understood that the ship laden with his precious body and other holy relics was in danger of foundering in such a storm.
Padraig, the priest of the Derwentmouth church of St. Michael, raised his voice. “Merciful Savior, you who command wind and wave, bring your holy ones safely through the storm. Blessed Archangel Michael, surround their ship with your protecting wings. Saint Cuthbert, return and protect us as always.”
Further south, a woman stood on a headland looking out across the sea to Ireland, her homeland. Her recent flight had been nothing short of miraculous. Bega touched the gold band on her arm, tracing the shape of the cross incised on it. Closing her eyes, she recalled the chaotic scene in her father’s home, men—and women—drinking and shouting at her wedding feast, the prince from Norway waiting to take her to his bed, and Bega, dressed in her wedding finery, walked as though invisible out of the building and past the guards, the arm ring opening the locks her father had placed on the doors. A boat was on the Dalkey shore, she entered it, and sailed across the calm sea north and east, past the Isle of Man, the wind carrying her to a new life, one dedicated to solitude and prayer. She had landed on the rocky beach of this Cumbrian headland, alone with God at last.
Opening her eyes, she saw a curious sight on the water, only a few yards off shore. A glow of silver light, winking with jewel colors, it seemed almost like a giant butterfly, but with multiple wings fluttering like the pages of a book. The odd thing was that the object seemed to be moving contrary to any currents or wind, powered by its own sense of direction following the coastline. Flocks of seabirds trailed in its wake, wheeling and crying, but never overtaking the flying book. She watched as it disappeared around the curve of the headland, going south.
“O, magnificent Lord, is this your sign that I should be your gospel in this place, a witness to your saving power? I am your handmaiden, do with me as you will.”
Bishop Eardulf lay face down on the riverside by the church, the people weeping for joy, even as he did penance before them for his lack of faith. Abbot Eadred knelt nearby with the seven companions. Once the monks had steered the ship back toward the Cumbrian shore, they had smooth sailing up the Derwent and back to the church, the people running along the bank and shouting questions and encouragement.
Nonetheless, Eardulf thought, where would they go now? Winter was coming upon them soon—they had thought to catch the last good weather for sailing. The bishop and abbot with the seven guardian monk-warriors were vowed to continue their pilgrimage, but the people, worn out with hunger on hard roads, would need to find places to shelter. Promising not to again take St. Cuthbert across the sea, the bishop released the people to find lands to work and feed their families.
He assured them, “Never will Saint Cuthbert be far from you. Every place where his body rests will be blessed, and when we find a permanent home, we will raise a church in his honor for your pilgrimage.”
Eardulf fervently hoped this was not a lie. How would he tell these people that he had lost their saint or that the gold, silver, and jewels were ripped off by pagans and sold? Better that they be martyred with the relics than have to make such a report.
In small kin-groups, the people of St. Cuthbert left the small Derwentmouth community of St. Michaels—beleaguered and poor themselves–and sought out-of-the way places not likely to attract the attention of roving bands. Certainly they now had little of value.
The problem remained, though, for the companions of St. Cuthbert. Just as hungry as the people, they were a target for roving bands of vikings or other thieves because they carried the risk of great wealth with them, that they vowed to protect with their lives.
They needed a refuge. “God is our refuge,” the abbot reminded them all. And yet they had this nagging guilt shadowing them: we have lost the Gospelbook and we have lost our way.
They decided, lacking any other guidance, to travel southward in the general direction the Gospelbook had taken on the sea. It was slow going hauling the cart themselves, short sleep through watchful nights, and the poor food offerings they received from those working the land. Yet still they carried on singing the divine prayers day and night, whether they were on the road or stopped.
They never stayed more than a month at any one place, desiring not to be a burden on people already struggling to feed their broken families—many died fighting vikings, others had been taken as slaves. Some of British stock migrated north to join the Strathclyde king Eochaid at Govan in hopes of one day reclaiming their Cumbrian land. No effective Anglian forces from Northumbria remained west of the Pennines. The companions proceeded warily.
At first they followed the coastline, arriving on All Saint’s eve at Whitehaven, keeping an eye on the water where viking boats might land. Some also looked hopefully for a sign from the Gospelbook or a sign from St. Cuthbert.
Before Advent, they cut inland across the countryside to Gosforth, an easier road than following the coast around the headland. Unknowingly, they missed a blessing from a holy woman who stood on the cliff watching and praying. She could have given them a sign of hope. But they found a warm welcome at the small church of St. Mary’s, where they stayed through Epiphany . The priest there said his small community had so far escaped notice of vikings, little knowing that their turn would come.
Still anxiously seeking a sign, the companions traveled into the Furness peninsula. By now it was early spring and the roads were muddy. They lost a wheel on the cart near Ireleth and had to find a wheelwright to help repair it. Their food ran short, even for their sparse Lenten meals, and the celebration of Cuthbert’s feastday [March 20] was subdued. Some considered whether they might have to sell some of their hidden valuables to survive, but no one dared even think to take a jewel or bit of gold off of any of the relics.
They finally arrived at Aldingham on the wide sandy shore of a vast bay. They camped in the ruined foundations of a church once known as Whithorn, the White House named after the famed monastery of St. Ninian in the north. Here they stopped, too hungry and weary even to pray. Sometimes that is when God speaks.
Hunred slept uneasily. Of all of the companions, he felt the greatest guilt for the loss of the Gospelbook. He should have reached it, or died in the attempt. If he had had the faith of St. Peter, could he not have walked out on the waters to His Savior, the Word made flesh, dancing on the waves?
He dreamed again that agonizing nightmare of the Gospelbook in its reliquary floating and glowing on the water, just out of his reach. But this time he was able to follow it. He seemed to be flying like a seabird, skimming above the waves, the book flying in front of him, just beyond his grasp. Looking to the left, he saw the coastline. They were sailing just off a large headland. He thought he saw a tall woman standing on the cliff edge, staring out to sea.
But the book went on around the headland, skipping atop the waves like a stone thrown by a boy across a still lake. It entered the great bay and disappeared. He landed near where they were camped.
A deep voice from the waters behind him said “Look for me when the tide is out.” He heard a great sucking sound, as if a Leviathan was swallowing all of the water, and turned to see the waters retreating out of the bay.
He looked across the expanse of open sand, and found that he could walk across the bay, as if he were walking on water. On the other side, he saw a red horse near a tree on which a bridle hung. The voice told him to get up immediately, and take hold of the bridle. “The horse will come to you, and you will bridle it. Bring it to me, and harness it to my cart. Then I will be able to lead you to a place of safety,” the voice promised. Cuthbert.
The name woke Hunred with a start. He jumped up, waking the others with his sudden movement.
“What is it? Thieves? Who is on guard?” Calmed from their panic, Hunred told them about his vision, some appearing doubtful, but the bishop taking it as a sign of hope. It was near time for the pre-dawn prayers, so they gathered around the relics within the white walls of the roofless church and sang the psalms.
Then Hunred directed his companions out onto the beach called Conishead. The men were amazed. The tide had receded so far that they were able to walk three miles into the ocean across wet sand. That far out, fearful that the waters would crash in on them like the Red Sea on pharoah’s army, they looked for a cloud or pillar of fire to guide them. Instead, they saw a few yards away an iridescent gleam in the sand. Running toward it, they discovered the Gospelbook sealed in its reliquary. Reverently they carried it back to the bishop, who wordlessly opened the case and found the book inside dry, its illuminated pages untouched by its sea journey.
Meanwhile, Hunred cut east across the sands to the other shore in search of the spot where in the vision he had seen the red horse. Finally, he saw the tree with the bridle hanging from it. Turning, he saw the horse just standing there in the middle of nowhere. It seemed to be waiting for him, like the donkey prepared for the Savior’s triumphal ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, which, he realized, was today [April 16 881]. Taking the bridle in his hand, he made the clicking noises he used to call his warhorse from the field, but the red horse was already trotting toward him and was easily haltered and led back to the camp where the companions were rejoicing over the recovered Gospelbook.
Hope swelled in them. Surely the one sign, the miraculous preservation of the Gospelbook, assured the other sign, the horse leading Cuthbert’s body to a safe haven. Eagerly they hitched the horse to the cart. Quickly saying their morning prayers, they released the horse and followed as it ambled off, surefooted, on a path set before it by God.
Back toward Northumbria it went. Heading away from the bay, they arrived at the Heversham monastery on Maundy Thursday, in time for the brothers there to wash their feet, not just ritually. The community was honored to have St. Cuthbert and his guardians in their midst for Easter [April 23 881]. The Heversham abbot welcomed Eadred as his superior, since the monastery was a dependent of Carlisle. Bishop Eardulf was too weary to preside over Good Friday services the next day, but the priest invited him to conduct the Easter mass in the church of St. Peter. They read the Gospel lections from the great Gospelbook, astonishing the community of monks there who had never seen such a magnificent book.
The guardians of St. Cuthbert relaxed somewhat, feeling the safety of the solid walls of the small church enclosing the coffin and relics. Perhaps this is where Cuthbert wanted to stay.
But the red horse was restless. Hunred watched the animal closely and warned the bishop that they should not get too comfortable. Never again did they want to risk losing the Gospelbook or St. Cuthbert’s guidance.
Much fortified with food, rest, and advice, they planned their departure for after Pentecost. The Herversham abbot told them the latest rumors of viking movements, but also encouraging accounts of King Alfred’s great victory in Wessex two years before, including the miraculous intervention of their own St. Cuthbert. The peace treaty Alfred had secured with Guthrum seemed to be holding, for now, as well as the heroic efforts of his Mercian daughter and son-in-law to stem the tide of viking incursions. But, Eardulf thought, those successes were all in Southumbria. What about north of the Humber?
Fearful of vikings, but trusting God, they followed the horse over the Pennines. Once they crossed Stainmore pass, they began to hear rumors of the dreadful end of the evil viking Halfdan who literally rotted from the inside out such that the stench drove his followers away from the madman. Gaining confidence, they returned from their exile, feeling a bit like Mary and Joseph returning from Egypt after the death of the child-killer Herod. The great city of York remained a dangerous place full of turmoil, but north of there was Crayke, with a monastery endowed in the same grant as Abbot Eadred’s Carlisle, so they were sister houses. Abbess Geva, who presided over both halves of Crayke’s double monastery, welcomed them and offered shelter on the men’s side.
The respite fortified them. They were able to stay put for four months in a place almost like home, enjoying Ordinary Time and looking forward to harvest before Advent began a new year. Perhaps this would be Cuthbert’s new home? Yet Eardulf knew they were too close to York—the bishop of Lindisfarne could not establish his seat in this diocese. He needed to be closer to their estate lands.
On September 4, they celebrated Cuthbert’s translation, the day marking the first time Cuthbert’s body had been moved from Lindisfarne, to Norham. They were cheered by the story of Bishop Ecgred [830-45] moving the entire wooden church of Aidan, along with the relics of St. Cuthbert and King Ceolwulf. It reminded them that their own journey was part of a longer story of migration and survival.
The reading at the midday meal was from Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert, the passage telling the story of one of the saint’s journeys. Cuthbert was traveling on a Friday and, unwilling to break his fast, refused food at a small village and continued riding under worsening weather until dark, when he found an empty shepherd’s hut in which to shelter. His horse, also hungry, began nibbling on the thatch, and lo and behold, a bundle fell from the roof holding a loaf of bread—still warm—and some meat.
In silence, as was customary over the meal, the men contemplated their food thankfully, much better than the poor fare they had shared on the road, often fasting like Cuthbert.
At the end of the reading and the meal, Bishop Eardulf spoke to them, “See how Bede compares this miracle to that of Elijah, whom God fed in the wilderness. In Cuthbert’s case, the saint’s obedience to the rule gave an opportunity for him to experience a miracle from God.”
Hunred asked, “where did this miracle take place? Surely it should be marked as a holy site, as all the other places St. Cuthbert touched then and now are.”
Wherever they stayed on their journey since leaving Lindisfarne, any place longer than a fortnight, they established a memorial or left a marker where the body of St. Cuthbert had rested. Cuthbert shrines now dotted Northumbria and Cumbria, churches and vills where someone took them in and were now blessed by the saint.
The bishop paused. “Not too far from here, according to other accounts. The solitary place where angels ministered to St. Cuthbert was just north along the Roman road called Dere Street, across the River Wear, at Kuncacester.”
He said no more, but Hunred’s comment and the story simmered in his heart. Perhaps Kuncacester would be a good place to re-establish the community.
The next day at the chapter meeting with the companions, he laid out his plan for their prayers and comments.
“Kuncacester sits on lands that are part of our estates. Although there is no church to speak of, the ruins of an old Roman fort provide a safe boundary. Plus it will be easy for me to travel throughout our lands and visit churches from there, using Dere Street.”
The idea met with a good response, since many of them felt Crayke was not able to sustain the community for much longer, increasingly hemmed in by viking warbands camped uneasily all around York.
However, Abbot Eadred asked, “who is now claims lordship north of the Wear? Who will we be dealing with, a Bernician, a Deiran, or a Scot?” The power vacuum left a lot of petty lords vying for supremacy, but who would be king?
“Wessex King Alfred is English and his daughter rules Mercia well with her husband,” the bishop reminded him.
The abbot looked dubious. “Southumbrians have their own troubles with vikings and leave us Northumbrians at the mercy of our nobles. We know that Halfdan’s men are settling—by force or marriage, or both—on lands not just here around York but also in Northumbria. Who is their leader now?” The others looked uneasy. Kuncacester or Crayke, both were just as insecure.
Eardulf saw their doubts. “Come, God will provide a way for us to be peacemakers with whoever is lording it over the people. We will become the center that holds our family of churches together, from York to Lindisfarne. St. Cuthbert will keep his people safe.”
“But let us wait,” he added. “Please pray for the next three days that God will give me wisdom.” Unspoken, but in all of their minds, was the possibility of another ill-fated journey. Pray that the saint will turn them back before they embark on a dangerous path this time!
On the second night, Abbot Eadred had a dream. He had stayed in the sanctuary after nocturns, praying through to the dawn prayers beside the coffin of Cuthbert, along with one of the other guardians. As his forehead drooped and touched the wooden coffin, a vision arose into his mind as if from the uncorrupted body of Cuthbert beneath the wood.
He was on a hill at night, facing east. Someone stood behind him—it was Cuthbert, although he never saw his face. The saint’s arm reached past him as it pointed across the landscape, dotted with firelight—rows of armed camps. “Go there to the army of the Danes. Now, this morning. Ask them to obey me in this: show you a young man named Guthred, son of Hardacnut. He is a widow’s slave. In the morning, you and the Danes must redeem him from the widow. Then at midday, lead him through the people who will acclaim him their king. Take him up on Oswy’s Hill with the whole army. You shall place a golden armlet on his right arm, as a sign of his kingship.”
As the saint spoke, Eadred saw faces rising up from the landscape and passing over him like mists, Danish warriors, the widow, the slave Guthred. Then the vision shifted to the vast expanse of lands to the north, filled with the people of St. Cuthbert, Northumbrian and Danish. Cuthbert spoke again, “Make sure that the king grants security to the guardians on my lands between Tyne and Wear, with rights of sanctuary extending out from where my body rests over all my people. I will be there,” the saint promised. And then strange disorienting lights and a sense of falling woke Eadred with a start.
He did not wait for the morning prayers or chapter meeting, but went directly to Eardulf’s small cell and woke the bishop. They slipped into the church to speak quietly in the side aisle, Eadred’s eyes on the saint’s coffin.
“St. Cuthbert has sent me the strangest vision,” and he recounted the story.
“Do you know where Oswy’s Hill is?” was the bishop’s first question. He was completely prepared to accept this sign.
Eadred briefly panicked. The renowned king of Northumbria from two hundred years ago had stopped at many hilltop places in his long and controversial career. Would it be one of the high peaks near Whitby abbey, where Oswy rendered his famous decision in favor of Wilfrid and the Roman practice? But in his vision he did not seem that high.
Turning his eyes away from the saint, he saw that Abbess Geva was praying on the other side of the church. When she glanced up and caught sight of the two men, she rose and came over to them. Eadred repeated the story.
“Close your eyes,” she instructed the abbot, “and tell me what you see.” Facing east toward the altar but with his eyes closed, he described the lay of the land in his vision, flat with mountains in the distance, a village in the foreground. The dotted lights of viking war camps.
“Those are everywhere,” the abbess said. “Face north and tell me what is behind you.”
Obeying this peculiar command, Eadred blindly turned himself north to the side of the church. “I am looking toward Lindisfarne. I see the lands between the Tyne and the Wear, but at a great distance, the Roman road winds beside me on the west heading north.”
“What is behind you, then?” the abbess patiently asked again, “don’t turn! you did not look that way.”
Eadred exclaimed, “York!”
“Then the hill on which you stood in your dream is the one on which you now stand. To the east is the vill of Brandsby, surrounded by a Danish warband.”
Eadred opened his eyes. “Oswy’s Hill?”
The abbess shrugged. “When I first arrived at Crayke, I heard many local tales of kings and saints who slept here. Who knows, perhaps Wilfrid came down from Ripon and argued with Oswy all the way from here to Whitby.” Geva grew up and took her vows at Whitby, but she had always disliked St. Wilfrid’s argumentative style, preferring the peacemaking that Bede records St. Cuthbert accomplished in the aftermath of Oswy’s divisive decision to banish Irish customs.
After rushed prayers, Eadred and Eardulf went alone, without a guard, trusting God. They wore their cowled monastic robes without ornament, carrying only their portable altar equipment in a satchel and some coins well hidden.
On the outskirts of Brandsby they found a large encampment of warriors. As they passed through, men watched but made no move toward them. As unarmed churchmen, they in theory had safe passage as emissaries. It was early morning, with cooking fires still going and men eating.
Locating the tent of the war leader in the center, the abbot and bishop called out a friendly greeting understood in both languages, health to you.
A massive warrior emerged, looking them up and down, then motioning for them to sit. His warriors gathered around their leaders stool.
In somewhat stilted English, he said, “I am Sihtric Olafsson, I command this warband. What do you want with us, men of God?”
Eardulf began. “Peace be on you. We bring the blessings of Saint Cuthbert to you. I am the bishop of Lindisfarne, guardian of St. Cuthbert’s land and people. Our familia guarding the body of St. Cuthbert are sojourning nearby at Crayke, after a long exile in the wilderness. My brother Eadred here is abbot of Carlisle. He has a message from the saint for you.”
The war leader, bowed his head slightly and turned his attention to the abbot.
Eadred recounted his vision, emphasizing the prowess of the Danes and their ability to bring peace.
“We ask that you direct us to this young man, Guthred Hardacnutsson, the widow’s slave, and help us to redeem him.”
Sihtric looked thoughtful. The warband he commanded was one of many competing with one another. No chieftan had emerged after the death of Halfdan capable of organizing them. He himself would prefer to settle down to farming with his newly acquired English wife, and many others felt the same way. But the turmoil in York spilled over on to all of them, so the warbands remained in scattered camps, uncomfortable with their English neighbors and unsure how to make friends of former victims. Perhaps these monks could be the peacemakers between viking and English.
His eyes swung around the gathered warriors. He knew how to read their faces. They felt as he did, all of them who abandoned Halfdan sought to settle here instead of go off on more adventures with a madman. Many of them, including himself, had been baptized into the Christina religion as a sign of their willingness to make peace. They were prepared to accept the religious leaders of the land they sought to colonize.
He knew this Guthred and his story, but how these monks knew about him was a mystery. Sihtric was prepared to accept this as a sign of their saint’s power.
Calling his lead men forward, he instructed them to escort the abbot to the house of widow Leofa in the nearby vill of Brandsby. “Do as the man of God tells you, and I will remain here with the bishop.”
Eardulf knew very well that this was his opportunity to do some investigating and negotiating, clearly the viking’s intent also.
So Eadred set off trailed by a small warband of armed warriors. It was a curious procession that attracted the attention of the vill’s inhabitants, mostly women and children who watched them warily. They recognized them as men of God, and though there was no priest or church in this vill, most of them had been baptized. Some of the wives were clearly English and raised as Christians.
Eadred hesitated, scanning the homes for the one highlighted in his vision. His escort guards moved toward a house at the end of the row, but he did not want to trust their selection alone. Then he recognized a sign over her door, a small wooden cross.
Hearing a voice, they went around behind the house to the back where they found a woman sitting on a stone, directing a young man in the croft vegetable and herb garden. “Now do you see the beans, Guthred. Are they twining on the lattice or trailing on the ground? Wrap them around the willow branches to keep them going up.”
“Dear woman,” Abbot Eadred began. She startled and turned toward them, but didn’t see the group of armed men. He saw that her eyes were opaque with near blindness. How could they take away this woman’s slave?
“Be at peace, dear woman,” the abbot assured her. I am Abbot Eadred here with Bishop Eardulf to make peace between English and Danes. We are servants of God and St. Cuthbert.” At the saint’s name, she reached out her hand toward him and smiled. “I have been waiting for you,” she said simply, her unaccented speech revealing her Englishness.
Eadred took her outstretched hand and began his sotyr, “Mother, last night I had a vision sent by St. Cuthbert, of you and this young slave. We need him and can offer you what he is worth.”
“Of course you do, and I do not.” She saw his puzzled look and went on, “I am getting old, too old and my vision too poor to keep this herb garden going or serve as healer for the vill—although the skill left me untouched by the troubles.” She nodded toward the Danish band she could sense gathered around her home.
“With the sale of this young man, I can enter the women’s house at Crayke with my granddaughter, and devote my remaining days to a life of prayer.”
A girl not yet fully in puberty stood in the back doorway of the house, watching them. She must have heard the conversation while keeping herself well hidden.
“Good woman,” the abbot replied, “these men will escort you and your granddaughter in safety to Crayke and pay the price of the slave as fee for your entrance.”
She called the young man over to her. He left the beans and came directly to the woman, kneeling before her as Eadred stood back.
Leofa addressed him gently her hands resting on his shoulders, “Guthred, it is time for me to leave. Go with this man. You belong to him now.”
Guthred stood and turned toward Eadred. The abbot was startled by the young man’s direct gaze, not that of a slave. Intense blue eyes, straight locks of blond hair, well muscled like a warrior. How did he become a slave?
Abruptly without a word, Guthred turned and went into the house, apparently to retrieve his belongings. As he went past the granddaughter into the house, they exchanged a look that was hard to decipher—regret or joy?
While he was gone, the abbot blessed the woman with holy water and prayed a healing prayer for her eyes.
After some minutes, Guthred returned with a bag that must contain all of his worldly possessions that remained to him, not much. The armed warriors gathered around the two of them, but Eadred took Guthred by the arm and strode forward, leading the procession back to the camp, neither speaking a word. Eadred knew they needed to move quickly to assure the success of this gambit. Guthred must be made king this very day, as Cuthbert commanded, before any other warbands got wind of it.
As they came to the outskirts of the camp, several men called out derisively to Guthred in their Danish tongue, “where are you off to now, slave, thinking to find your sword and armring?” “You won’t find that with monks,” another said. They laughed among themselves. Guthred ignored them, but their armed escort swiftly reached into the crowd and took hold of the speakers, hustling them away. Eadred was not sure what became of them.
By the time they reached the central tent where Bishop Eardulf remained with the war leader, the crowd of warriors had become a cheering throng, the nay-sayers drowned out or driven away. They called out his name, Guthred Hardacnutsson, lead us!
Eadred saw that Sihtric had used the hour they were gone to organize his men. He wondered what the bishop had managed to learn from this rough, but peace-seeking viking.
Guthred stepped forward, eye to eye with Sihtric. Slave though he still was, and unarmed, he boldly stared in the war leader’s face without a word. Eardulf saw the tension and guessed somewhat from Sihtric’s brief account the history between these two men. This Guthred was both proud and longsuffering.
The procession, now enlarged to include all of the warband, started for Crayke. Guthred was flanked by the abbot and the bishop, with Sihtric leading the warriors and servants carrying arms and treasure. He kept well behind the the churchmen escorting the boy, allowing them to relax. It was about a three mile walk back to Crayke, time enough for both the abbot and the bishop to hear the young man’s own story and also guide him into their plans.
Guthred spoke slowly at first to the two men of God, his English fairly good, though mixed with Scandinavian words, but Eardulf and Eadred were used to that.
His father Hardacnut had early on disagreed with the wretched Halfdan, and was sent on a trip to Ireland where he later died in battle. His son, left as hostage, Halfdan cruelly gave as a slave to the English healer, as the lowest of the low he could think of short of killing the boy. Since Halfdan’s departure and death, no one had taken thought to redeem him, not even Sihtric who had been his father’s friend. Guthred wondered why and what he was up to now.
Indeed, as Sihtric marched behind he was full of regret that Hardacnut’s son would probably never understand why, or forgive him, for leaving him a slave. But Sihtric, more a farmer at heart than a warrior, was afraid—afraid of more bloodshed if this young man tried to rally his father’s friends. But now, with these churchmen as peacemakers with the English, there was a chance. He watched as the bishop and abbot plied the boy with questions, but kept his distance.
“So,” asked the bishop slowly, “you have some skill with the sword, and this warband would follow you for your father’s sake?”
“I think,” Guthred paused. “Since Halfdan, many have tried to lead our people, those who chose to settle and work the land. But they—we—do not trust the idle warriors who only are looking for the next fight, and will kill English or Dane for their gold.”
“Do you know the story of King David,” Abbot Eadred asked suddenly.
“The widow woman told me stories from the Christian holy book. I was baptized with the rest of my family, you know.”
The bishop and abbot nodded. Mass baptisms, some of them took, the rest…, well the evidence from behavior was not encouraging.
“David, is he not the one who wrote the psalms that you monks chant? He was a great king, a man after God’s own heart, they say, and a warrior.”
“Indeed,” the bishop answered, picking up on the abbot’s suggestion. “Do you know how he became king?”
Guthred answered, “I suppose God chose him, since he was righteous.”
“Yes, through his prophet Samuel. It is a wonderful story we will tell you as we walk along, to encourage you.” Eardulf warmed to the task, preacher that he was.
“The prophet Samuel heard the cries of the Hebrew people for a king, although God warned them that kings can be bad as well as good, and that ultimately, the Lord God is their king. Nonetheless, God allowed the Israelites to have a king, Saul. And as predicted, he was both good and bad.”
Guthred nodded. He had seen bad rulers, like Halfdan, and some good ones, but most men were a mixture of good and bad.
“So God directed Samuel to chose a new king, from the sons of Jesse, in Bethlehem.”
Guthred slowed his steps briefly to look at the abbot, as if he recognized the name.
Eadred caught the look and said, “Bethlehem, the birth place of our blessed Savior, a descendant of David.”
After a few steps, Eardulf continued his story. “Jesse was well-pleased that the prophet was examining his sons, so he brought them out for the prophet to inspect, the oldest and strongest first. They were all very impressive, but each one God rejected, until the prophet was baffled. Are there more sons, he asked Jesse? Then the father mentioned one last son, the youngest, who was tending sheep in the fields, protecting them from wolves and theives. When he was brought before Samuel, the prophet anointed him with oil as the next king of Israel.”
They walked a ways in silence.
“Do you know why we told you the story of David?” Eadred asked.
Guthred was clever, but not foolish in speech. “You are the prophets, you must tell me, for I am an ignorant slave who owes you my life.”
The bishop nodded, pleased at the cautious and respectful answer, although he caught the ironic undertone of ignorant slave. He had potential as a leader. He replied, “My brother abbot Eadred had a vision last night while praying at the altar of St. Cuthbert, our patron. The saint directed him to the warband and thence to the widow’s house, to purchase you, and bring you…back with us.”
Eadred nodded. “Cuthbert is the holy protector of these lands, entrusted to our bishop here to oversee. As you know, we churchmen do not bear the sword or rule with force, but we rely on godly men to provide protection against evil enemies who would attack defenseless people.”
Guthred recognized this explanation as fairly self-serving—the church wanted others to grant and protect its riches while they kept their hands clean of blood. When warriors fight warriors, whose god is stronger and truer, only that of the winner? What if they worship the same god, what would that god do? Yet he also knew from his two years of slavery the perilous fate of unarmed people working the land and had greater sympathy for their precarious lot.
He was shrewd enough to realize he was a pawn in these two men’s plans—and Sihtric’s—and that he should be, as the widow was fond of saying, “wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.” So he remained silent and waited to see what they wanted from him.
“You are, it is true, our slave. But in our community, we are all brothers, servants of God whom Christ has set free. We live in obedience to God and serve the people of St. Cuthbert on the lands between the Tyne and the Wear.”
Guthred, like most of the viking settlers, had a pretty good sense of the local geography—when your people are invaders, you need to know the landscape well, both for tactical purposes and for settling down. He recognized the two rivers as north of here, bounding a rich set of lands inhabited by both English and vikings. He also knew that the lordship of the area was contested, with sundry kings, petty nobles, and other warriors taking sides or thinking to take power themselves. The Northumbrians ruling from Bamburgh to the north reached southward, the York vikings stretched northward, while rulers from further north in Alba, further south in Wessex, and from over the seas west and east, Irish Norse and Danes, all had their eyes on Northumbria, looking for an opportunity. But this saint Cuthbert had an unusual power with them all.
“We—that is St. Cuthbert,” Eardulf corrected himself, “want to make you king of York.”
Guthred was not surprised at this announcement, nor were the two men surprised at his lack of reaction. They had set up their approach well, and the young man was clearly intelligent despite his humble protestations.
The strategy was brilliant, Guthred had to admit. If a group of English churchmen—and not just any clerics, but the representatives of the revered Lindisfarne monastery—yes he knew his people had ravaged the place—made him, a viking, king, they made a perfect alliance. Who could complain? He would be able to rule the Scandinavian settlers and the English would accept him because of Cuthbert’s blessing, and the bishop’s community would be the brokers of the deal. But what did they want out of it?
The abbot cleared his throat. “To bring about peace and unity between English and viking, the church must be secure and free to do God’s work.”
The bishop added, “since leaving Lindisfarne, we have wandered almost seven years seeking a resting place for St. Cuthbert, and protection for his people. We ask only this, that the community of St. Cuthbert have the estates between the Tyne and the Wear without fear of invasion, with rights of sanctuary. You can insure that what King Alfred has promised St. Cuthbert for the security of our religious foundations will be maintained.”
Invoking the name of the Wessex king, Guthred knew, was designed to add some pressure and prestige to the request. Stories had come north of Alfred’s dramatic victory at Athelney over the great viking warrior Guthred—his baptism at which Alfred stood godfather and the oaths sworn on the great armring.
The bishop added, “I would like to establish my episcopal seat, with the body of St. Cuthbert, at Kuncacester.”
Guthred was unsure of the location, but guessed that it was centrally located in the territories the bishop was asking for between the Tyne and the Wear.
“And how will this slave be a warrior king?” Guthred asked with some irony.
Eadred and Eardulf realized the young man, though respectful, was also proud and not easily cowed by physical or spiritual weapons.
“We of course will free you from bondage,” Eadred indicated, while the bishop continued, “Like King David, we will have a ritual to make clear God’s choice. At noon we will gather our community on this hill,” pointing up, since they had reached the escarpment on which Crayke stood, “and your warband will witness the ceremony. Both sides will swear oaths on Cuthbert’s relics.”
By now the procession was reaching Crayke vill. The bishop also had done some advance work, sending messages to the companions at Crayke to prepare for their arrival. The abrupt disappearance of the abbot and bishop that morning had worried them, but, experienced warriors themselves, they understood the implications of the bishop’s message immediately, although some of the Crayke laypeople needed more explanations, beyond the abbot’s purported vision. Abbess Geva, their respected mother, was able to rally them in the end.
The people lined the road, cheering, perhaps not as boisterously as the Danish warriors, whom they looked at with some trepidation.
The mixed feelings of the crowd reminded Eadred of Palm Sunday, the crowds welcoming Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the same people who jeered him on Good Friday, calling for his death. The abbot hoped Guthred would not end up a martyr and that the peace would hold.
Reaching the guest house of the monastery, they gave Guthred over to the steward with instructions that he was to be treated as an honored guest, fed, bathed, and clothed with noble garments.
Sihtric’s serving men then stepped forward with war gear for Guthred, including a magnificent sword. Eadred wondered what English warrior died in battle that this sword, clearly of English make, was in viking hands. Well, now it would rule Dane and English.
Amazingly, it all worked. The monk warriors processed out of the church carrying the coffin of St. Cuthbert, which they laid on a carpet in the sunshine and placed on it the revered Gospelbook locked in its bejeweled reliquary.
Guthred, much altered in appearance, strode up the hill at the head of the warband. The two processions met at the edge of the hill. The bishop and Sihtric stood side-by-side, Guthred standing before them.
The war leader called out in a tremendous voice, “do you accept Guthred Hardacnutsson as your king?”
A loud shout arose from all those gathered, warriors and villagers, Dane and English alike.
Sihtric knelt before Guthred, saying softly, “forgive me, my king. Accept this sword and our loyalty.” He held the unsheathed sword toward Guthred, pommel up. The young man grasped the hilt and swung it into the air over his head, the sun glinting on the blade as it pointed skyward. Another shout from the people confirmed the sign. Sihtric moved aside so that Guthred was the center of attention.
A few moments of glory, Guthred calculated, then some appropriate humility.
Turning back to the bishop, he knelt in front of him for his blessing, holding the sword before him like a cross. The bishop prayed, at length, closing with an invocation of holy St. Cuthbert who had chosen this man to be the protector of the saint’s lands and people. Guthred got the point.
Then as he stood the bishop placed on his right arm a wide gold armring, incised with an equilateral cross.
Sihtric wondered how the bishop had acquired what was clearly a Scandinavian ornament, but appreciated the symbolism of the gesture.
Guthred approached the coffin of St. Cuthbert, placed his right hand on the Gospelbook, and swore to protect the people of St. Cuthbert and grant them their sanctuary land between the Tyne and the Wear. While his oath guaranteed that no one should ever touch the wealth of Cuthbert’s sacred treasures, the jewels of the Gospelbook twinkled in the sunlight, tempting the eye of every warrior there.
The feast was small, but rich enough to satisfy the appetites of the Scandinavian warriors. Cuthbert’s guardians knew how to do these things, yet kept the alcohol within limits so that no debauchery occurred—that and Abbess Geva made sure all of the servants were male. The lack of females caused some consternation among the Scandinavians, but they figured they would soon receive from their new king lands and women.
The community of St. Cuthbert prepared for their journey to their new home, now confirmed by multiple signs of the saint’s favor. Abbess Geva was generous with supplies and servants for the journey and to assist with building a shrine and housing at Kuncacester. This provisioning took several weeks in the busy harvest season, but this gave them ample food.
Just after All Saints, they began their procession northward. They still had the red horse that Cuthbert had given them as their guide in Cumbria. Once again, they loaded the cart with their sacred relics and the body of St. Cuthbert, and hitched the horse to it. It seemed content to take them to Kuncacester. Perhaps it was a descendent of Cuthbert’s horse and followed its trail up Dere Street. Guthred and his warband accompanied them as guards over given the wagonloads of gear they now had.
As was their habit, they stopped along the way to bless various churches and monasteries with their holy cargo. They stayed a few days at Ripon, symbolically joining once again Wilfrid and Cuthbert in their joint efforts to bring peace—then it was Irish versus Roman ways, now it was viking and English. After Sunday mass amid rain showers, a glorious rainbow shot over the church, its end leading toward their goal in the north.
They arrived in Kuncacester at Advent , amid a downpour. The reality of this new home was a bit more dismal after all of the signs that led them here. The Roman fort consisted of piles of stone. The few seasonal shepherd’s huts of Cuthbert’s visit had been replaced by permanent homes, but ill-built and in need of repair. The remaining residents looked depressed. Their harvest had not gone well because so many of their fields had suffered damage in recent years and there were not enough able-bodied men to till them. Nonetheless, they welcomed the bishop and his entourage, not the least because they brought wagon loads of provisions, although they eyed Guthred’s warriors suspiciously. They were happier to hear that St. Cuthbert would be established in their midst as their heavenly protector than they were to hear that Guthred as King of York was their earthly protector.
Guthred took stock of the old Roman fort and surrounding vills, and then returned south to York. Along the way, the king surveyed the lands as gifts for his men to settle and thereby ensure his kingship—under St. Cuthbert, of course. He noted in addition to already long-tilled inhabited lands, there were more remote, less fertile areas that could be cleared and made productive by energetic warriors turned farmers, if he could convince some to take the time and effort.
Likewise, it took a full year for Eardulf to make Kuncacester inhabitable and sustainable. They sent messages to the haligwerfolc of Cuthbert scattered across Northumbria and Cumbria from their journey, inviting workmen to come help build the shrine, repair the vill, and prepare the fields for crops.
Advent of 883, King Guthred returned for Bishop Eardulf’s installment as bishop at Kuncacester, escorting Wulfhere, the archbishop of York to the ceremony. The monks and the people had built a small wooden shrine for the relics, with Cuthbert’s coffin as the centerpiece and altar, the rescued Gospelbook prominently displayed on it for the occasion. The interior glittered with gold and silver trappings, unpacked from the cart they had hauled on their exodus from Lindisfarne.
Several times during his reign, Guthred came on pilgrimage to the shrine, each time acknowledging the saint’s role in his kingship. The king brought gifts, emblems of his continued support and protection. Guthred knew the stories the monks told, about the evils that befell those who alienated their lands, as well as the benefits for those who protected them. Nonetheless, he also knew that his sword arm guaranteed the fragile peace that allowed such concentrated wealth to stand unmolested in this little wooden building inside an ancient crumbling fort.
As for Bishop Eardulf, he was feeling his age. He had been bishop at Lindisfarne from 854 and now at Kuncacester, but the years of wandering had taken their toll. Seven more years he ruled as bishop presiding over the community of St. Cuthbert, yet he outlived the young king Guthred by five years and died the year after King Alfred. Eardulf’s episcopal successors continued what he had begun, expanding the community’s landholdings and securing royal patronage, especially from Alfred’s Wessex successors.
Cuthbert’s fame spread throughout the island and beyond. The community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, in the common language, guarded his body and the holy relics from Lindisfarne in the wooden church. Beside the coffin in a place of honor stood the treasured Gospelbook.