The True History of Durham
In 697 A.D., on a bitterly cold night on a windswept island off the coast of Northumbria, a man who, despite his great promise and intellectual capacity, had subjected himself to a lonely life of poverty and self-denial, succumbed to tuberculosis and died. The small community which knew and loved him carried his body to the island of Lindisfarne, and interred it in a tomb. From these humble, almost squalid beginnings, there would arise the cult of the greatest northern Saint; the richness of his shrine and the throngs of pilgrims who visited it would remain unparallelled until the cult of St. Thomas Becket arose in the thirteenth century. For this man, who died racked with excruciating pain, buffeted by rain and sleet, with a few monks dressed in sackcloth at his side, had been Bishop of Lindisfarne: a man of unsurpassed sanctity, at one with nature and with God, the holy and blessed St. Cuthbert. The monks guarded his body as though it were the greatest hoard of treasure in the world; they kept too his precious relics: a pectoral cross which had twice been broken and twice repaired, reputed to have belonged to St. Columba and St. Aidan before him, and his Eucharistic vestments, including a corporax cloth marked with the same symbol. One can only imagine what the holy and simple Cuthbert, who shared his meals with otters, gulls and ravens, would have made of the glorious career of that symbol. It would become the emblem of the Prince Bishops of Durholme, present-day Durham. It would witness great victories in battle, and heroic defeats, and its end would be so ignominious that the body of Cuthbert himself must have wept beneath its marble slab in Durham Cathedral.
This story, written by two wandering minstrels in the fourteenth century, known as Meg Madrigal and Alias the Bard, traces the history of that symbol, and of the banner upon which it was later imprinted, from its lowly beginnings about the neck of St. Cuthbert, to its destruction. The two minstrels, it seems, were granted a prescient vision, allowing them to see at least two centuries into the future, and appalled by what they saw of the events of the sixteenth century, they penned songs in an attempt to inspire the Prince Bishop's men to deeds of glory which would prevent the foretold destruction of the Banner of St. Cuthbert. The cycle begins, after a calling-on song, Bold Prince Bishop's Men, with a ballad, Cuthbert, describing the life and death of St. Cuthbert from the perspective of the monk Eadmer, who dreamt of the founding of a monastery in Durham.
The events connecting Cuthbert's death in 697 with the time of Eadmer's dream in 995 are not covered by the songs. Cuthbert with his dying breath had admonished the monks of Lindisfarne to carry his body with them if they should ever leave the island. The admonition was a prophetic one. The monks rapidly discovered that Cuthbert's corpse was rather unique. In the course of an exhumation of the body, they discovered that it had not decayed; indeed, it appeared to give off a quite agreeable fragrance. News of the miracle reached the ecclesiastical authorities, and Cuthbert was canonised. Pilgrims streamed from the mainland to visit his shrine, and the monastery at Lindisfarne became incomparably rich. Wealth was not, however, always such a blessing. It attracted the Vikings like flies to rotten meat, and in 793, their monastery and lands looted and pillaged, the monks of Lindisfarne fled for the mainland, carrying with them the only things that mattered: the coffined, incorrupt body of St. Cuthbert, and his holy relics. They wandered throughout Northumbria, settling for a while in Chester-le-Street with the approval of the Danish King of Jorvik (York), but they remained restless until in 995, Cuthbert's coffin suddenly became unaccountably heavy. The whole congregation of monks and followers where exhorted to push the coffin; it would not budge. Then Eadmer was granted his vision: a mighty Abbey Church would be built nearby, on an ox-bow peninsula in the River Wear, known as Dun Holm.
Having founded their community, the monks built first a wooden, then a stone, Church to house the relics of their beloved Saint. The Bishop of Chester-le-Street became the Bishop of Durholme, and from the beginning, he enjoyed considerable secular as well as ecclesiastical power. The community waxed in numbers, supported by the continuous flow of pilgrims visiting the shrine (later supplemented by income derived from others who came to view the relics of the Venerable Bede, whose body had been stolen from Jarrow). Then, in 1066, the Normans conquered the south of England, and threw their considerable energy and resources into conquering the north. They met stiff resistance in Durham itself. William the Conqueror had come to visit the shrine of St. Cuthbert personally, but he had not made a very good impression. He began by demanding that St. Cuthbert's tomb be opened, and boasting that he would behead all the Durham clergy if the body should prove to have decayed. Preparations were grudgingly made to open the tomb, but William was suddenly stricken with fear, dashed out of the Abbey Church, mounted his horse, and galloped without stopping until he had crossed into Yorkshire. Thenceforward, he sent his most trusted men-at-arms to deal with Durholme, and tried, not very successfully, to use his influence to ensure that the Bishops of Durham would be Normans not only by breeding, but also by conviction.
William's men at arms, and the first Norman Bishops, met with considerable resistance. In 1069, the Normans in Durham were massacred almost to a man; their blood mingled with the snow and ran down the gutters in a horrific scene of carnage. Gradually, however, William's men regained control, and in 1072, the great symbol of William's hegemony was erected: Durholme Castle, later significantly expanded by Bishop Flambard. In 1081, William de St. Carileph became the first Norman Bishop of Durham to wield his princely powers. He did so in style, raising his own army and revenues, administering his own laws and holding his own parliament. He rapidly demonstrated that he would not be content to be another of the King's lackeys: on one occasion he was sent into exile for conspiring to topple the King, and he died at Windsor facing charges of a similar nature. He was the first in a distinguished line of Prince Bishops who were more than prepared to weild their considerable secular power in the interests of the northern city, belligerently ignoring the authority of lords, dukes, archbishops and even the King himself. His successor, Flambard, epitomised this tendency to be a thorn in the side of the English monarchy. Imprisoned in the Tower of London by Henry I, Flambard arranged for a rope to be smuggled into his cell, escaped, and not so much fled as tactically retreated to France. There he curried the favour of the Duke of Normandy, who consented to invade England on his behalf, but an abashed Henry I backed down, and allowed a triumphant Flambard to return to his bishopric.
It was a tremendous personal victory for the Prince Bishop; it was also a tremendous booster for the status of Durholme. Flambard had barefacedly flouted the might of the King of England and got away with it. He now proceeded to turn Durholme into a glorious fortified citadel, pouring money into the building of the new Abbey Church, extending the city walls, building a hospital and a bridge across the Wear. He took his army maurauding into Scotland, partly to cow the Scots into submission; partly, one suspects, simply as a revenue-raising exercise. His deeds are celebrated by Meg and Alias in their song, Flambard, a piece of secular hagiography which makes no bones about the fact that Flambard was completely irreligious - indeed often profane - and quite shameless in his love for riches and pomp. It is significant that the next Prince Bishop singled out by Meg and Alias for particular adulation is Anthony Bek. Bek distinguished himself in his first year of office by refusing to obey the Archbishop of York, who had ordered him to excommunicate some belligerent monks. It was not that Bek had a particular liking for belligerent monks - indeed, he would later imprison the monks in their own priory for refusing to allow him the right to episcopal visitation - rather, he had an instinctive dislike for anyone who thought he could tell the Bishop of Durham what to do.
Meg and Alias then turn to the pivotal narrative of their cycle. In 1346, while Hatfield was Prince Bishop, King David of Scotland, known to the English as the "Weasel Scot", invaded south of the border and marched on Durham. He was met, not by the armies of the King, for the King was in France fighting the Battle of Crecy, but by an army led by Bishops and Archbishops, the Prince Bishop's men among them. The Scots suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Neville's Cross, despite their vastly superior numbers. Credit for the English victory was rapidly ascribed to one John Fossor, a holy man who, on the eve of the battle, had been granted a vision in which he was instructed to take the corporax cloth of St. Cuthbert, imprinted with his Cross, and transfer the design to a banner to be carried to the scene of battle. This was thereafter known as the Banner of St. Cuthbert, one of the most distinguished ensigns of war ever to have flown on English soil.
Yet following this prodigious temporal and spiritual victory, there came a period of complacency and decline. Meg and Alias, aware of this in their own time, cast their eyes into the future and are appalled by what they see. Bishop Tunstall was a holy man and a religious conservative, perhaps more akin to Cuthbert in spirit than any of the Prince Bishops, but as a secular leader of the Palatinate, he was weak and indecisive. This indecisiveness might not have been so great a fault had it not been for the peculiarly devastating decisiveness of the King himself, Henry VIII. Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had gone badly: she had not supplied him with a child and heir. An avid student of the scriptures, he delved into the book of Deuteronomy and discovered that the reason lay in the fact that he had married his brother's wife: they shall die childless. He appealed to the Pope for an annulment; the Pope refused. Henry responded by proclaiming himself head of the Church of England and marrying Anne Boleyn; the Pope in turn excommunicated him. It seems that at about this time, expedience gained the upper hand over religious conviction in the mind of Henry VIII. He wanted to improve his army, but he needed money. Who had more money than the monasteries? So, coming as close to subtlety as he could manage, he began by dissolving the smaller priories, and taking their gold and silver off to his treasuries. In Durham, insult was added to injury when the Prior of the dissolved Priory at Finchale married.
What was Tunstall doing? It seemed to the people of Durholme that he was doing nothing but twiddling his thumbs and fiddling in the vestry. And so they, and a cohort of monks, took up the Banner of St. Cuthbert themselves, and marched for the south on a Pilgrimage of Grace, determined to pull the King from his throne, or at least to gain a reversal of his ecclesiastical policies. Henry was ill-prepared for such an uprising: he knew too well that it might succeed. And so he turned on all his charm (in those days, apparently, he still had some), and promised the Pilgrims, who had gone as far as Doncaster, that they would not be harmed if they would lay down their arms and talk things over. They were betrayed; they went to the scaffold and the pyre. Meg and Alias tell the pitiful story through the eyes of Jane Lumley, wife of one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace.
At last, they turn in Dies Irae to the final orgy of sacrilege in which Durholme Abbey is dissolved and the Bishop's authority usurped by the Duke of Norfolk, who used the Prince Bishop's judicial powers to execute the organisers of the Pilgrimage of Grace. The Abbey was later reconstituted, on Henry's orders, as a secular Cathedral, under control of a Dean. The first Dean was Hugo Whitehead, the former Prior of the monastery who had been compelled to sign over all the church's lands and riches to Henry VIII. He endeavoured to protect the Cathedral from the ravages of iconoclasm which were shaking other churches in the land, but at last, he died. In 1563, William Whittingham, a strict Calvinist and a hater of images, became Dean, and systematically tore down the sacred pictures, statues and ornaments throughout the Cathedral. He celebrated not a Mass, but a "Communion", and it was while he was doing so, perhaps, that his Genevan wife, rummaging through the various ephemera connected with the Abbey Church, came upon the Banner of St.Cuthbert, and prosaically burnt it on her kitchen fire. Meg and Alias's song cycle ends in the black despair of this hideous tragedy, and the strains of Bold Prince Bishop's Men return to convince their listeners that this debacle must not be allowed to occur.