One of Richard III’s favourite saints….
St Cuthbert was born somewhere in the Scottish Borders, maybe just in England, maybe just in Scotland, but he grew up near Melrose Abbey, which is now in Scotland. His birth date is somewhere around 634, but he definitely died on 20 March 687. He was known as St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and was revered for the simplicity of his life, his asceticism, and for the protection against the Vikings that that his coffin and incorrupt body were believed to provide. He became symbolic of the north of England and defiance against invasion, but also for the victory of Christianity against the pagans. He is still regarded as a patron saint of the north.
According to the British Library, St Cuthbert’s Gospel is ‘undoubtedly one of the world’s most important books’. And it is from the British Library that I have acquired the exquisite silver locket in the form of that same book, which is displayed equally between London and Durham.
The book itself is a matchless treasure, containing an elegantly written, undecorated Latin text of the Gospel of St John. It is within wooden boards covered with tooled red goatskin, and is a singularly beautiful and perfect reminder of Celtic Christianity. Approximately 5½” by 3½”, with 94 vellum folios, it is one of the smallest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts still in existence. Once thought to be St Cuthbert’s personal property, but now believed to have been put in his coffin some years after his death, it has been preserved for over 1300 years in astonishingly good condition. Miraculous? Maybe. I would never scoff at such things.
Richard III chose Cuthbert as one of his patron saints, perhaps the most important, and when the king’s son was created Prince of Wales, St Cuthbert’s banner was displayed with that of St George. Did Richard choose Cuthbert because he symbolised the north, with which Richard felt such affinity and connection? Or because the saint’s values and beliefs were Richard’s too? Perhaps it was both.
Whatever Richard’s reasons, this priceless book is one of our greatest national treasures, and I am proud to have a locket in its likeness. It is available from the British Library shop online.