St. Cuthbert’s Gospel
The British Province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is clearly determined to raise a great deal of money. The Jesuits have arranged to sell to the British Library for Â£9m ($14.3m) the oldest surviving European book, the Stonyhurst Gospel, St. Cuthbert‘s own copy of the Gospel of St. John, a 7th century manuscript originally buried with the saint on the island of Lindisfarne in 687.
Lindisfarne was depopulated of its monks when the Danes sacked the island in 875. The saint’s relics were carried away and moved from one location in the north of England to another over the course of the next century. St. Cuthbert was finally reburied in the “White Church” built in 995 as the predecessor to Durham Cathedral.
The manuscript was discovered in 1104 when St. Cuthbert’s coffin was opened in the course of transporting his remains to a shrine behind the altar of the newly built cathedral.
St. Cuthbert’s shrine was destroyed in the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, and the gospel manuscript at that point passed into private hands. George Lee, the third Earl of Lichfield (d. 1772) is the first recorded modern owner. Lichfield gave the manuscript to Reverend Thomas Phillips (d. 1774) who donated it to the English Jesuit College at LiÃ¨ge on 20 June 1769. The manuscript has been owned since 1769 by the Society of Jesus (British Province) and was formerly in the library of Stonyhurst College. The manuscript has been on loan to the British Library since the 1970s.
Christie’s negotiated the sale, as a result of which the manuscript will continue to be displayed half the time at the British Library and the other half at Durham Cathedral, referred to in the news articles as (God help us!) a UNESCO world heritage site in Durham.
Twelfth century painting of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral.
St. Cuthbert (feast day: March 20) is the patron saint of the North of England and was England’s most popular saint in the period before the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in 1170. His banner was carried into battle against the Scots up to the time of the Reformation, and in the Middle Ages the inhabitants of the Palatinate of Durham were referred to as haliwerfolc “the saint’s people.”