St Cuthbert and St Wilfrid

The age of St Cuthbert and St Wilfrid : AD 657 – 688

St. Cuthbert was a quiet, but athletic man, who loved nature and seclusion but who still had great compassion for his fellow men. St Wilfrid, by contrast, was a restless, controversial man who desired change. Wilfrid distanced himself from the austere Celtic style Christianity and favoured the grandeur of Roman practices. At the Synod of Whitby in 664AD, Wilfrid got his way and the North-East converted to Roman Christianity.

St Cuthbert
St Cuthbert as depicted in a stained glass window, Durham cathedral © David Simpson

👈 Oswald era | TimelineBede era 👉

657 – Monasteries at Ripon and Whitby

A monastery has been founded at Ripon by Irish monks from Melrose. Meanwhile St Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool, has established a monastery at Streanashalch (Whitby).

Ripon Cathedral
Ripon Cathedral. Ripon is the site of a monastery founded by St Wilfrid © David Simpson

657 – Mercians independent

Mercia gains independence from Northumbria at the beginning of an era that will see its increasing dominance in the midlands and south of England. It will expand towards the River Thames. Meanwhile the southern kingdom of Wessex also sees expansion westward into territory in Somerset and Dorset that was held by the Britons.

664 – Big changes at Whitby Synod

Today a great synod was held at Whitby to discuss the controversy regarding the timing of the Easter festival. Much dispute has arisen between the practices of the Celtic church in Northumbria and the beliefs of the Roman church which have a hold in the south of the country. The main supporters of the Celtic Christianity at Whitby are Colman of Lindisfarne, Hilda of Whitby and Cedd Bishop of Essex. St Wilfrid, a well travelled man, champions the Roman Christian cause and persuades the Northumbrians to reject old ways. Colman, Bishop of Lindisfarne resigns and returns to Iona. He is replaced by Bishop Tuda.

Whitby Abbey and St Mary's church
Whitby  © David Simpson

664 – Wilfrid, Bishop of York

Tuda, Bishop of Lindisfarne, dies of plague and is succeeded by St Wilfrid who transfers the bishopric to York. Wilfrid claims no person in England can consecrate him and goes to France to be ordained. King Oswy replaces the absent Wilfrid with St Chad of Lastingham.

669 – King Ecgfrith

Oswy, King of Northumbria, dies and is succeeded by Ecgfrith.

669 – Wilfrid’s school at York

St Wilfrid returns to England as Bishop of York. He establishes a grammar school at St Peter’s minster in York and starts building a new minster in the city. He also establishes a new monastery at Ripon.

672 – Northumbria expands north and west

Cumbria and Dumfries are conquered by Northumbria. The Picts of Caledonia are defeated in battle. Northumbrians have been engaged in military campaigns against the Picts north of the Forth-Clyde since Ecgfrith became their king.

Bamburgh Castle and village
Bamburgh, ancient capital of Northumbria  © David Simpson

673 – King divorces virgin

King Ecgfrith divorces his virgin queen, Ethelreda of Ely, to marry his new love Ermenburga. Ethelreda becomes a nun and is given land at Hexham by the King. She gives the land to St Wilfrid to build a monastery. Ethelreda establishes a monastery at St Abbs Head (north of Berwick).

673 – Mercia defeated

Ecgfrith of Northumbria defeats the Mercians (Midlanders) in battle.

674 – Monastery at Wearmouth

The Monastery of St Peter, Monkwearmouth, is founded by a noble called Benedict Biscop on land granted by King Ecgfrith. A great library will develop here with books from France and Rome, and the first coloured glass in England will be introduced into the monastery by continental glaziers. Gregorian chanting is also introduced.

Church of St Peter Sunderland
Church of St Peter Monkwearmouth, Sunderland with the site of the neighbouring monastery marked out © David Simpson

676 – St Cuthbert retreats to Hobthrush

In keeping with religious practices of the devout at the time Cuthbert seeks seclusion. At first he retreats to the island of Hobtrush (St Cuthbert’s Isle) just off shore from the larger island of Lindisfarne. However this is easily within vision of Lindisfarne and relatively accessible to visitors. Cuthbert then retreats to the much more remote island of Inner Farne, one of the Farne Islands off the coast of Bamburgh to the south, to live as a hermit.

The island of Hobthrush, just off Lindisfarne is known as St Cuthbert's Isle
The island of Hobthrush, just off Lindisfarne. Known as St Cuthbert’s Isle © David Simpson

678 – Battle of Trent

King Ecgfrith of Northumbria is defeated in battle by the Mercians preventing the expansion of his kingdom south of the River Trent. Meanwhile the conquest of Rheged in Cumbria by the Northumbrians begins around this time.

678 – Wilfrid banished

King Ecgfrith has banished Wilfrid from Northumbria. Ecgfrith may be jealous of Wilfrid’s long-standing friendship with his former wife. Wilfrid will serve for a time as a missionary converting the Frisians on the northern coast of the European mainland to Christianity.

678 – Bishoprics broken up

The bishopric of York is broken into two parts based at York and Hexham. The bishopric of Hexham extends from the Tweed to the Tees, York extends from the Tees to the Humber.

Priory gatehouse, Hexham
The Priory gatehouse of the later Augustinian abbey of Hexham stand on the site of part of Wilfrid’s original priory © David Simpson

680 – Wilfrid arrested

St Wilfrid is arrested by Ecgfrith’s men and imprisoned at Dunbar after returning to Northumbria with papal documents overthrowing the division of the Northumbrian bishoprics. Wilfrid is released but flees to Sussex to help covert this last pagan kingdom in England to Christianity.

Nov 17, 680 – St Hilda dies

St Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, dies. She is succeeded by Aelfled, daughter of the late King Oswy. Meanwhile Caedmon of Whitby is becoming famous for poetic compositions based on religious themes and is arguably England’s first known poet.

681 – Hexham bishopric divided

The Bishopric of Hexham has been divided into two with the re-establishment of a separate bishopric at Lindisfarne. Hexham’s diocese now extends from the River Aln to the River Tees. Other bishoprics are situated at York; Abercorn (a Northumbrian bishopric near Edinburgh); Lincoln and a short-lived bishopric at Ripon established about 678 where only one bishop, called Eadhaed, would serve.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey, on the site of St Wilfrid’s monastery © David Simpson © David Simpson

684 – Northumbrians attack Ireland

King Ecgfrith of Northumbria sent an army into Ireland in the hope of expanding his empire an action that greatly disturbs the later writer, Bede who considered it an unwarranted attack on an inoffensive people. The raid was upon the Kingdom of Brega which roughly corresponds with what is now County Meath.

685 – Bishop Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

St Cuthbert is elected Bishop of Hexham at a synod near Alnmouth but he requests a transfer to Lindisfarne. He is consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne at York on April 7 in the presence of King Ecgfrith.

St Cuthbert's Well, Bellingham
St Cuthbert’s Well, near Bellingham in North Tynedale is one of many sites throughout the north associated with the saint © David Simpson

May 20, 685 – Picts kill Northumbrian king

King Ecgfrith of Northumbria is killed fighting Brude, King of Caledonia. Bishop Cuthbert had strongly warned Ecgfrith against the attack upon the Picts.  Ecgfrith’s death marks the end of a period of Northumbrian expansion which had seen the Northumbrians gain military ground north of the River Forth. The battle is thought to have been fought at Dunnichen Mos near Forfar. Northumbrian rule and influence north of the Forth comes to an end. The Northumbrian bishopric of Abercorn near Edinburgh is abandoned. It was a short-lived bishopric with only one incumbent, a bishop called Trumwine, who had been appointed by the Northumbrians in 681 as ‘Bishop of the Picts’.

685 – Celtic art encouraged

Aldfrith is the new King of Northumbria. He is the illegitimate son of the late King Oswy and an Irish princess. Art and learning will flourish and great works of Celtic art will be encouraged by the new King who was educated in Ireland.

685 – Jarrow monastery established

Benedict Biscop has completed the monastery of St Paul’s, Jarrow, as a twin monastery to Monkwearmouth. Bede, a boy of nine, is transferred from Wearmouth to the new site.

Jarrow St Paul Church
St Paul’s church Jarrow © David Simpson

686 – Plague hits Wearmouth and Jarrow

Plague has hit the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow while their founder Benedict Biscop is in Rome. Bede and the Abbot Ceolfrith of Jarrow are among the few survivors of the plague.

Mar 30, 686 – Cuthbert becomes a hermit

St Cuthbert has resigned as Bishop of Lindisfarne and returned to the island of Inner Farne in the Farne Islands as a hermit. St Wilfrid has returned to Northumbria to take over.

Inner Farne
Island of Inner Farne showing Prior Castell’s tower and the lighthouse © David Simpson

686 – St Cuthbert dies on Inner Farne

St Cuthbert has died on Inner Farne Island with only sea birds and seals for company. Northumbria is mourning the loss of one of its best loved saints.

St Cuthbert as depicted above his tomb in Durham Cathedral
St Cuthbert as depicted above his tomb in Durham Cathedral © David Simpson

688 – Wilfrid is Bishop of Hexham

St Wilfrid has become the Bishop of Hexham after John of Beverley retired to become a hermit. Eadbert succeeds Wilfrid at Lindisfarne.

Priory Gatehouse, Hexham
Gatehouse at Hexham on site of St Wilfrid’s original priory © David Simpson

👈 Oswald era | Bede era 👉


North East England History and Culture