Sts Cedd and Chad of Lindisfarne and their Holy Place of Lastingham
Prof. Michelle P. Brown, FSA
What is it about certain places that draws us back time and time again, or leads us to carry their memory with us as an inner sanctuary? Perhaps their stories are entwined with episodes in our own or they mark a crossroads or staging post in our individual journeys. Perhaps the space, its place in a wider landscape, or its people gives us a sense of our own place in the picture. Perhaps things happened there in the past that attract or intrigue us, sometimes embodied in the tangible remains of archaeology, architecture or art. These are just some of the things that create a ‘spirit of place’, and in the context of faith a sense of cumulative holiness, which can engender a profound feeling of peace and of unity with something bigger than oneself.
Lastingham Church is just such a place. Its friends, whether people of faith or secularists, find something here that is worth valuing, protecting and sharing. Many return repeatedly to glimpse that perspective; some are drawn to live out part of their lives here. Always a refuge, since at least the 7th century this has been a place of pilgrimage for travellers. The way in which the village nestles within the moorland, at one with its environment, nurturing its community and welcoming the walker, stimulates a sense of homecoming. At its core, set atop a grassy knoll, stands the sculptural form of the Church of St Mary’s. This is ‘earthed’ by the crypt beneath which is embedded in the very ground, forming the buried, yet accessible and living heart of the place. It is an anchor for a turbulent world, and yet the sanctuary it offers can also be a place of encounter and of challenge. The quiet of the tomb raises questions about life. What do we enshrine at our own core? Can we dwell in peace with what we find there? Does it send us out into the world with a sense of refreshment and renewed commitment to work for whatever we hold dear? These are questions for us all: they always have been and always will be.
For this is not a place in which to retreat from the world, but one in which to replenish the will to commit, to help make a difference. Not everyone can come here, but the sense of completion and of being whole that it can foster can reach out into the world. That oneness extends across time and space, our past giving us memory, identity and the confidence to explore our relations with others, to inhabit the present and hope for the future.
What do we know about the past of this place that might have contributed to its powerful identity? It is now a rather liminal place, not well known - a well kept secret. This can often be the case with centres that were once hubs of activity but which have become forgotten, like ‘the work of giants’ (as one Anglo-Saxon poet put it in ‘The Ruin’), as the march of time has moved on and left them stranded like flotsam on the shore. This was not so at Lastingham, for it was always a place apart – a wilderness.
The early history of its church is intimately connected with that of the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Anglo-Saxons who seized much of what came to be known as England during the 5th-6th centuries, in the creation of their emerging sense of identity and legacy as heirs of the late Roman world, and in the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. This was a time of uncertainty and transformation – the aftermath of a super-power in which new relationships (political, economic and cultural) had to be forged and new beliefs and values embraced. One of the most influential and inspiring of the centres that played a key role in this process in Britain was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, of which Lastingham was a daughter house.
In his authorial preface to the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’), which he completed in 731, Bede wrote:
‘I have learnt by careful enquiry from the brethren of Lastingham monastery how by the ministration of the holy priests Cedd and Chad, their founders, the faith of Christ came to the province of the Mercians, which had never known it, and returned to that of the East Saxons, which had let it die out, and how these holy fathers lived and died.’ (Farmer, 1990, p.42). Bede’s history remains our primary source for the origins of Lastingham.
There follow three episodes in the Ecclesiastical History relating to the beginnings of the foundation. In Book III ch.23 Bede relates how this was achieved by four famous priests of the day - all of them brothers from the same family: Cedd, Chad, Cynibil and Caelin (on whom see Farmer, 2003) . They were monks of Lindisfarne, which had been founded in 635 by St Aidan from Columba’s important Irish monastery off of the western coast of Scotland, Iona. The new king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, in which Holy Island lay, was Oswald who had spent a period in exile, studying with Iona’s monks. When he finally gained the throne he invited Aidan to found a Columban monastery as a spiritual power-house for the conversion of his people. Lindisfarne’s mission was not confined to court and the wealthy, however, Aidan and his followers being renowned for their austere life of poverty, prayer and service – of the Lord and his people, great and small, rather than of a purely temporal lord. Each generation has its heroes, its role models and cults of celebrity. In this age the warriors and royals made way for these teachers, preachers, scholars. labourers and risk-takers who would place their lives on the line to bring humanitarian aid and a message of hope to the most remote of war-torn, poverty-stricken, plague-ridden areas, who worked for their bread and who spent endless hours in intense prayer and study.
That having been said, the aristocracy played their part. One of the brothers, Cealin, became the chaplain of King Oswald’s son, Ethelwald, who came to rule the southern region of Northumbria, Deira. It was through him that Ethelwald came to know Cedd and to offer him a donation of land on which to found a monastery. This was to be a place of spiritual succour for the king himself and his own royal mausoleum. It must have come as a shock to him when the ascetic Cedd chose not from the more lucrative, hospitable farmlands of Yorkshire but a dimple in the wild moors – an English desert in the tradition of the desert fathers of Palestine, Syria, Egypt and the Celtic western Atlantic seaboard with its rocky eyries such as Skellig Michael off of the Kerry coast. Bede hints that this was a place of brigandage, a lair of murderous cut-throats outside of the reach of the law, which needed to be cleansed, physically and spiritually, before it could be reclaimed for God. Earthworks in the woods above the village, on the eastward side, provide a tantalising possibility of evidence for earlier occupation and fortification of the site (Historia Ecclesiastica Book III ch.23; see Farmer, 1990, pp. 181-3).
Cedd died in 659 and his foundation of Lastingham, assisted by his brother Cynibil, is usually dated to 654. Cedd had already been engaged in crucial missionary work amongst the East Saxons who, despite the earlier endeavours of St Mellitus (founder of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and a follower of St Augustine who was sent to Canterbury by Pope Gregory the Great in 597) had apostatized. Their king, Sigbert, had been baptised under the sponsorship of his overlord, King Oswy of Northumbria (Oswald’s brother). In 653 Cedd was made a bishop and sent from Lindisfarne, by Bishop Finan, to minister in Essex where he founded churches at Bradwell-on-Sea and Tilbury and baptized new converts in E. Anglia at Rendlesham, seat of the kings formerly buried at Sutton Hoo. King Sigbert was murdered by two of his thegns for applying Christian principles of mercy and forgiveness to his foes – an unacceptable sign of weakness in a warleader, cum king. The role of Christianity in helping to shape the emergent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and in bringing them to maturity was an important contribution. Christianity is, in essence, radical in its approach to social transformation and could lead seasoned warriors, raised on the epic recitation and Epicureanism of the mead hall, to embrace pacifism, many leaders themselves becoming monks (and in one case, when forced to lead the folk into battle, leading – and facing - ferocious troops armed only with a wooden cross). It could also lead kings to free slaves, endangering the traditional fabric of pagan society. We do not know if Cedd’s patron, King Ethelwald of Deira, was ever buried at Lastingham. Does he lie in its crypt alongside Cedd? It is highly unlikely, for he subsequently turned against his uncle, Oswy, in an alliance led by the pagan Penda of Mercia, to whom he served as guide – an act of treachery that probably led to his downfall after Oswy’s victory at the Battle of Winwaed in 655 and which would not have found favour in ecclesiastical circles and would have scuppered his ambitions to achieve royal sanctity.
Cedd himself was carried off in 659 by one of a series of plague epidemics that swept across Europe from the East during a century that must have seemed as apocalyptic as the notorious 14th century with its Black Death and associated famine, demographic decline and social unrest. Bede’s narration of his interment seems to prefigure that of St Cuthbert, the great hero-saint of Northumbria who died in 687 and whose shrine formed a major focus of pilgrimage – perhaps graced by the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest monuments of early medieval art and faith. Cedd was, likewise, initially buried outside the first church, which must have been of wood, and his remains were translated to the right of the high altar upon the building of a new church built ‘more romanum’ (Roman fashion) of stone. This second church at Lastingham was dedicated then, as now, to the Virgin Mary. Bede’s accounts of the interment arrangements for both Cedd and Chad echo those surrounding the creation of the cult of St Cuthbert later in the century - which such earlier shrines may have helped to influence.
At Lindisfarne Cuthbert’s wooden coffin, which is still preserved in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral, stood beside the altar above ground, emphasising the saint’s miraculous incorruptibility – the ultimate proof of sainthood, also found as a phenomenon in the contemporary monasteries of the Wadi Natroun in Coptic Egypt. Bede makes no mention of a crypt at this stage in Lastingham’s development. The earliest crypts known in Britain are those constructed later in the century by the great romanophile St Wilfrid at Hexhan and Ripon, which he filled with relics of the saints obtained during his travels on the Continent. Ripon became the focus of his own posthumous cult, the focal point of which was a splendid Gospelbook written in gold and silver on a purple ground (as his biographer, Stephen of Ripon, informs us). This is likely to have been obtained by Wilfrid abroad and is a conscious statement of romanitas, whilst the Lindisfarne Gospels sought to perfect a visual vocabulary that stressed complex nature cultural collaboration within Britain and Ireland and its place within an ecumen which stretched from the Atlantic to the Middle East. The other pre-Conquest crypts of England were those at Wing and Repton, in Mercia, both built during the late 8th to early 9th centuries. That at Repton became a successful example of a royal mausoleum, especially when the kingly remains it contained were augmented by those of St Wistan who was murdered by an incestuous kinsman in 850. Some architectural historians, notably Taylor and Taylor in their influential Anglo-Saxon Architecture, have suggested that, although the Lastingham crypt as it now appears is principally part of a revival and rebuilding of the church by monks sent by Stephen, Abbot of Whitby around 1078, it may have remodelled an earlier Anglo-Saxon one, including the reuse of some columns and capping them with Norman capitals and vaulting (Taylor and Taylor, ***; Bailey, 1982; but for more recent scholarship on the subject of the Norman fabric which denies the survival of any earlier Anglo-Saxon fabric, see Gem and Thurlby, 1995).
The 11th-century revival of the Anglo-Saxon spiritual focus of Lastingham formed part of a movement to reconnect with the early history of Christianity in Britain, in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and the reform of the English Church. This move towards reconciliation and integration was begun by small bands of monks from Winchcombe (Glos.) and Evesham (Worcs.) who set out to refound some of the historic Anglo-Saxon monasteries of northern England: Jarrow, Monkwearmouth, Melrose, Whitby, Tynemouth and Hackness. Local politics and piratical raids led Abbot Stephen of Whitby, around 1078, to send his followers to revive the more protected site of Lastingham, which he may have obtained from a wealthy lay patron, Berenger de Tosny who held the honour of Settington on the other side of the Vale of Pickering near Lastingham. By 1086 Stephen had moved on to become Abbot of York, leaving the reconstruction of Lastingham church unfinished. Nonetheless, it retains its significance as the second major Romanesque building campaign in northern England after the Conquest (York Cathedral being the first). The context for its innovative architectural details lies at La Trinité in Caen and Canterbury and subsequent work at Durham Cathedral may be indebted to its influence (Gem and Thurlby, 1995). Gem and Thurlby note that the crypt shows signs of a rethink in its design during the first season of construction, during which the angles of the groin vault and the structure of the walls were replanned (Gem and Thurlby, 1995, p. 34, where they also note the rare survival of fragments of the centring planks of the vault which, along with what may be the original plaster, would repay scientific analysis and which should be carefully preserved). However, they view all of the remaining early masonry on site as Norman work (including the somewhat anomalous interlace mouldings of the string course on the NE outer face of the apse and that on the SW pier of the nave, which other scholars have thought of as earlier Anglo-Saxon work) and have not discussed any possible inclusion or architectural response to any existing Anglo-Saxon fabric. This, despite some of the architectural anomalies (such as the disjuncture of the apse string-course and the planning of the crypt) and the reference in Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (Caley, 1817-30, III, p. 545) to Stephen’s monks beginning ‘to restore gradually, and to build what things were necessary for monastic habitation’. This would accord with evidence from other of the refounded sites at which the Anglo-Saxon fabric was restored and extended and domestic buildings were added for the monks’ use. The surviving corpus of sculpture from the site indicates that some of the architectural fittings of the earlier church, which may have dated to as early as St Cedd’s lifetime by analogy with his stone church at Bradwell-on-sea, had survived. These include the two so-called ‘door jambs’, although these are carved on all four sides and may alternatively have formed part of a free-standing structure such as a sanctuary rail or part of a shrine, or have stood as free-standing posts or obelisks. Other sculptures show that the site carried on as a major Christian centre throughout the 8th century, into the 9th and beyond, into the 10th and 11th centuries (Bailey, 1980; Lang, 1991, 167-174). The likelihood of earlier fabric surviving by the time of the Norman rebuilding, as at nearby Kirkdale which had been restored from its ruinous state by the Viking Gorm earlier in the 11th century, is great.
Another passage in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells how Cedd’s brother, Chad, succeeded him as abbot of Lastingham but was sent to Canterbury in 665 by King Oswy to be consecrated as bishop of York (Historia Ecclesiastica Book III ch.28; Farmer, pp. 196-7). Finding that the Archbishop, Deusdedit, had died Chad proceeded to Wessex where he was installed by Bishop Wini who was at that point the only canonically consecrated bishop in Britain. Because of this he was assisted by two bishops of the British Church. The Synod of Whitby having decided the year before in favour of the English Church adhering to the practices of Rome, Chad’s consecration was subsequently successfully challenged and overturned by Wilfrid, who took the bishopric of York for himself. Chad was, however, much respected for his living out of the Christian message, (as described by Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Book III ch.28; see Farmer, 1990, p. 197).
Chad retired to his monastery of Lastingham and may have remained there contentedly had he not been sent in 667 by the influential new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, one of the most educated men of the Mediterranean world, to become bishop of the Mercians (Historia Ecclesiastica Book IV ch.3; see Farmer, 1990, pp. 206-7).
Chad established his cathedra at Lichfield, near the Mercian royal centre of Tamworth. Where he died of disease in 672 and was buried. Bede’s account gives some details that may reflect something of the arrangement of Lastingham at the time. At Lichfield Chad ‘built himself a house near the church, where he used to retire privately with seven or eight brethren in order to pray or study whenever his work and preaching permitted.’ (Historia Ecclesiastica Book IV ch.3; see Farmer, p. 207). Further in the chapter this house is referred to as his ‘oratory’. This blurring of the distinction between the episcopal and monastic life recalls that of the Columban federation, notably Lindisfarne, where bishop and abbot could be one and the same. But should this be regarded as a purely ‘Celtic’ idiosyncracy, geared towards the needs of a non-urban Celtic tribal agrarianism, it should be recalled that Pope Gregory the Great himself simultaneously lived as a monk within his own familia. Membership of such a spiritual elite attracted the powerful and wealthy, but as Bede’s account of the case of Owini (Ovin), an influential Northumbrian nobleman who joined Chad at Lastingham and whose main contribution to the community lay in practical physical labour, illustrates this need not entail recreating the monastery in the image of the court (Historia Ecclesiastica Book IV ch.3; see Farmer, 1990, pp. 207-8). The value system of those who served an eternal kingdom and its agendas could evidently be ‘other’ to those of the transitory world. Whatever one’s gifts, they had a role to play.
Chad was initially buried beside the little church he built at Lichfield, dedicated to the Virgin. By the time that Bede was writing this had been replaced in stone nearby, on the site of the current cathedral, and dedicated to St Peter, like that at Lindisfarne. A church actually built by Cedd survives at Bradwell-on-sea in Essex, its 7th-century fabric being built in the Roman style favoured by the Augustinian mission in Kent. Chad’s remains were translated to this new church and covered by a wooden house-shaped shrine that became a focus of miracles of healing (Historia Ecclesiastica Book IV ch.3; see Farmer, pp.210-11). Might the early church and shrine of Cedd at Lastingham have been similar to these?
We have little trace of Lastingham in the subsequent written record, but it is likely that, like Lindisfarne and Lichfield, it grew as a pilgrimage site during the 8th and 9th centuries, its properties increasing as a result of gifts on behalf of people’s souls and its way of life changing as those who visited or joined the community imported more of the ways of the world. St Cuthbert had been all too aware of the dangers accompanying success, even for those of ascetic tradition, when he said that if only he could build a little cell with wall so high that all he could see was the sky, he would still be afraid that the love of money and the cares of the world would snatch him away. This was exactly what he did build in the form of his hermitage on the Inner Farnes, where he spent as much time as he could within the sight of the tyrannical King Ecgfrith and his court at Bamburgh – an emaciated, vulnerable, totally indomitable Ghandi-like figure reminding them of the perpetual responsibilities that accompanied worldly power. I have said elsewhere that the injunction of Christ when sending out the Apostles to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves would have likely have rung in the ears of Sts Aidan and Cuthbert, and doubtless their faithful followers, Cedd and Chad (Brown, 2003).
The outline can still be traced of what is probably the original monastic rath, followed by the current church wall on the east and north sides and visible as a mound in the western churchyard, with a large hump in the north wall which might even conceal the base of one of the great high-crosses that would have marked the parameters of the site, parts of which survive in the crypt. There are also several pieces of early masonry and sculpture surviving at Lastingham from the Anglo-Saxon period. These include: the surround of a circular port-hole window, which may have once contained stained glass like that from Bede’s home, the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow: a sundial built into one of the external buttresses (the first one east of the porch on the south side) which marked the hours at which the Divine Office was celebrated, eight times throughout every day and night; a beast-headed terminal to an 8th-century stone throne (now in the Yorkshire Museum), resembling those from Monkwearmouth and Bamburgh Castle and depicted in manuscripts such as the Chad Gospels; dressed masonry, quoins and string-course, decorated with badly weathered interlace and circle design, visible on the lower part of the exterior north wall of the crypt and chancel and, by analogy with Milborne Port, dated by Taylor to the first half of the 11th century; fragments of an 8th or 9th century string-course now set into a column at the east end of the south aisle; sections from 8th or 9th century door jambs or imposts (although, see above for other possible functions); fragments of two cross-heads of similar date now in the crypt. These are of the Northumbrian cusped variety, first encountered on the Acca Cross at Hexham of the 740s. Their centres were recessed to carry metalwork bosses, perhaps containing relics, and their overall appearance, when painted, would have been that of the Crux Gemmata, the jewelled cross which for Early Christians was a symbol of the Last Judgement. An 8th-century Old English poem, the Dream of the Rood, likewise refers to the agony of the rough-hewn cross which was forced to bear aloft its Lord and its subsequent fame and enshrinement in precious metals and stones and the cross-carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels similarly allude to this, as well as to the prayer mats which were used in England at the period – part of a shared heritage of ritual within the Middle East (Brown, 2003). During the 9th century a stone cross at Lastingham is recorded as having had its boss stolen and one of the Lastingham cross-heads does indeed bear the marks of an instrument which has prised such a boss away (Bailey, 1996, pp. 10-11 and 1996a; Lang, 1991, pls 582-3; Brown, 2003, p. 317). This now forms the logo of the Friends of Lastingham Church.
An important church such as this, with its traditions of prayer and study, would have required other aids to worship: textile vestments, altar plate (perhaps resembling that from 8th to 9th-century Ireland, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Paten and associated items from these important hoards, and books for the liturgy and for study. The shrine of St Cuthbert had the Lindisfarne Gospels as one of its major focal points, the cult of Wilfrid at Ripon his purple codex, that of Chad at Lichfield came to have the Chad or Lichfield Gospels (at least by the 10th century and possibly for a century or so after it was first made in the mid-8th century, before travelling to Wales where it was swapped during the 9th century by one Gelhi for his favourite horse and presented by him to the altar of St Teilo at Llandeilo Fawr). We can only speculate what the Gospelbook accompanying the shrine of St Cedd at Lastingham was like, but it was probably in the stylistic genre of the Lindisfarne Gospels and its derivatives, such as the Chad Gospels. Some 8th-century Gospelbooks which survive remain to be securely attributed to specific centres, but exhibit the influence of Lindisfarne and its orbit, such as the St Petersburg Gospels and British Library, Royal MS 1.B.vii, both of which copied the same textual exemplar as the Lindisfarne Gospels, namely a 6th-century Neapolitan Vulgate Gospelbook. Might the Cedd Gospels have resembled these?
Whatever other artefacts once graced this place, what the surviving stones tell us is that there was an important, architecturally sophisticated and sculpturally embellished church on the site during the 8th and 9th centuries, its parameters marked by particularly splendid high crosses, the circular plan of the original earthwork rath being all that remains of the monastery originally founded by St Cedd and physically constructed by his brother, Cynibil.
Other of the Lastingham stones include a 10th-century cross-shaft bearing debased interlace and key patterns and a hogback tomb of Viking fashion. The monastery, like that at Lindisfarne, survived the Viking raids of which Holy Island was the first victim in 793 and went on to serve the Anglo-Scandinavian communities to which it now ministered as they underwent the processes of integration and gradual conversion. Following the Norman Conquest Lastingham was one of a number of early Anglo-Saxon / Anglo-Celtic monasteries to be revived by committed groups of monks from other foundations, in this case Whitby. Abbot Stephen’s monks remained at Lastingham for only ten years, however, moving on to build St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1088 and, it has been speculated, having been intimidated by renewed banditry in the area. During the 13th to 15th centuries the church at Lastingham underwent further rebuilding and enlargement and during the 19th century witnessed two campaigns of restoration, by John Jackson RA and J. L. Pearson RA. The latter, working for the Ringer family who wished to commemorate the untimely death of their seven-year-old daugher Anne, gave Lastingham its current interior with its simple, sculptural sense of form and space and its austere stone surfaces, so in keeping with the original spiritual ethos of Sts Cedd and Chad. We are a long way from the modest little wooden church and huts that they constructed within the protective sacred enclave of their circular rath, but the spirit of the place and what it can represent as a bright-burning symbolic light in the world, lives on.
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