The legend of St. Cuthbert – a journey of discovery by Kate Buckley

My name is Kate Buckley and I am a third year History student at Newcastle University. I also act as a Library Volunteer in the Great North Museum: Hancock Library where I work with the fascinating collection of books that are available for anyone to use.

Are you interested in St. Cuthbert? If not, you should be. The tale of the ‘Farne Islands hermit’ St. Cuthbert is well known in the North East, but there is much more to St. Cuthbert’s legacy. Whilst volunteering at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library , I uncovered a story which I believe has been neglected in favour of the traditional more acceptable history of St. Cuthbert. However, it is clear to me St. Cuthbert’s tale did not end with his death, and it certainly did not end with his internment at Durham Cathedral.

St. Cuthbert

St. Cuthbert


The traditional story of St. Cuthbert concentrates on the failure of his body to decompose after his burial, and is used to evidence St. Cuthbert’s saintliness. This saintliness has been reinforced by the tale of Cuthbert’s life at Lindisfarne, where he worked as a spiritual healer, a guide and a Bishop, before retiring as a hermit on the ‘Inner Farne’ island, living in ‘isolation’ (although he did receive regular visitors) until his death in 638 AD. The legend tells that fearing Viking and Danish raids, the monks of Lindisfarne fled with the relics and body of St. Cuthbert to a number of locations. These included Melrose, Chester-Le-Street and Ripon before a site was reached in Durham which became his final resting place and where the Cathedral was subsequently built. After this point the attention that has been paid to St. Cuthbert has mostly been focussed upon his cult of saints. However, I would argue this concentrates upon the spirituality of St. Cuthbert; whereas the information I have uncovered considers the remains of the body of St. Cuthbert, and continues this fascinating story into the 19th century.

In the library of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne there is a first edition of a book by James Raine, titled An appreciation of St. Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of his tomb in Durham Cathedral in the year MDCCCXXVII”.

This book details the excavation of St. Cuthbert’s tomb which occurred on 17 May 1827. Raine (the Librarian for Durham Cathedral), provided an in depth account of the excavation, and I argue Raine’s account is of interest for any archaeologist or enthusiast alike; after all, Raine was the first to lay eyes on St. Cuthbert’s skeleton since 1542!  However, once you delve into the history of this excavation a story of deception and disbelief is revealed. Raine,  a man so determined to disprove the ‘magic’ surrounding St. Cuthbert, conducted this illegal excavation during the twilight hours before anyone could awaken and stop him. I believe this is one of the reasons Raine’s work has been generally dismissed by historians; whilst yes it may be riddled with inaccuracies and biases, I think anyone with an inquisitive mind would be wrong to be so dismissive. After all, Raine, a man who declared his excavation “completely disproves the tale of centuries, invented for interested purposes in a superstitious age—the incorruptibility of St. Cuthbert”, represents a time of growing disbelief towards the supernatural. So I advise anyone with an interest in the legacy of St. Cuthbert and also those in social history to visit the GNM: Hancock Library and read this text. It reveals more than one might expect.

Statue of monks carrying St. Cuthbert’s coffin

As an added bonus, this copy of Raine’s appreciation contains a letter written by James Raine to J.G Hodgson – the man kind enough to donate his copy of the book to the SANT collection (housed at the GNM: Hancock Library). The letter reveals another side to Raine. It shows he was not just a man of academia, but also provides an insight into the life of Raine as the churchwarden: an ‘ordinary man’. As a History student, I made my best attempt to transcribe the letter; alas it is a skill I have yet to master and therefore I have been unable to fulfil my task (but I am still trying!). So I invite you to not only venture into the tome, but to read the letter and attempt to identify and then transcribe the words that James Raine took the time to write to his “dear Hodgson.”

James Raine

James Raine

My dear Hodgson,

I thank your son (?) very sincerely for his admirable index,  and send although I fear you will think but late the head and tail of my book. I shall be thankful for your candid remarks upon this tract at your leisure as they may be of use to my evidence (?).

Meldon came safe. It makes a very nice book. I will settle with Walker when I am at Newcastle and I shall be glad to give copies to Wailes, Lenon and the very sensible man Coxon (?) of the garden house my perpetual churchwarden.  I am going away into Yorkshire (?) on Wednesday but shall return home again on Saturday after which I intend to spend a day or two with you at Whelpington.  I shall perhaps travel northwards in the beginning of next week.

The Chancellor as you will see has given me the Little Living here of which I have for some time been Curate. I am now safe inn the event of my losing (?) the Chief  ………… (?).

If I have sent you too much or too little of St. Cuthbert be kind enough to tell me so. In the former cas you must be so good as send back the spare sheets otherwise a copy will be left here imperfect and if it should happen that you are still are imperfect no time shall be lost in rendering (?) you complete.  With ….  ….. ….. …. (?)  Hodgson believe (?) me yours most faithfully.

James Raine

Letter from James Raine

Letter from James Raine

If this tome is not enough to entice you, the Great North Museum: Hancock Library contains a number of books and articles pertaining to St. Cuthbert.  These include Connor O’Brien’s “Attitudes to St. Cuthbert’s body during the nineteenth century” in Northern History, September 2016 and C.F. Battiscombe (ed) “The relics of St. Cuthbert”.

O’Brien’s work is fascinating, as it provides context to the life of James Raine and an explanation for his actions on 17 May 1827. O’Brien explores alternative accounts of this night. One of the most outlandish alternatives is the claim that Raine was found standing on top of St. Cuthbert’s bones attempting to destroy them. This certainly paints an even darker picture of the excavation undertaken by Raine. However, whilst these alternatives are interesting, the value of O’Brien’s work is that he places the excavation in context and goes beyond what those involved wanted us to see. In my opinion, O’Brien was successful for he maintains Raine’s actions were part of a larger picture. O’Brien argues the excavation was not a quest for truth, but part of an ongoing picture in England of Protestant v Catholic, as proving a Catholic Saint to be ‘false’ was an apt way for the Anglican Church to assert its authority over the Catholic Church. This certainly provokes further interest into St. Cuthbert’s story as it proves that his saintliness and the impact he had on society remained strong.

As an alternative to O’Brien, Battiscombe’s collection is a must for anyone interested in the more quirky side of history. It contains fabulous images of some of the surviving relics of St. Cuthbert. For instance you can see St. Cuthbert’s comb, along with artist renderings of what St. Cuthbert’s tomb would have looked like in the 7th century.  The collection of  articles goes further than simply describing each relic; it analyses each one, therefore enabling any interested party to learn the significance of these archaeological pieces, which offer invaluable insight into the past. More importantly, it allows us to go beyond the legend of the saintly St. Cuthbert, to delve into the everyday life of the pious man.

St. Cuthbert's comb

St. Cuthbert’s comb

It is clear the story of St. Cuthbert is a fascinating one, and that his place in history remains strong.  Therefore, even if you are not a history buff, the events surrounding the life and death of St. Cuthbert should be known as it is a story that is enshrined in the identity and heritage of the North East of England. And, after all, he is our patron Saint.

The Great North Museum Hancock Library is located on the second floor of the Great North Museum.  It is free to use and is open to everyone. It houses the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Newcastle University’s Cowen Library. For more information please visit



So…you’ve decided to get married in front of a T. rex, what now?

A wedding at the Great North Museum: Hancock

Newlyweds in front of the T. rex at the Great North Museum: Hancock

Museums and galleries are becoming popular choices for ceremonies, evening receptions and wedding breakfasts. Couples are opting to surround their guests with curious artefacts and world-class art. But how do you make the very most of a quirky wedding venue? Here are a few of my best tips for getting married in a museum or gallery:

Wedding favours

The best party favours are the most memorable

There are countless companies out there offering all kinds of unique wedding favours, from personalised chocolate bars to candles, but how do you make those wedding favours as memorable as the magnificent, curious objects in a museum or gallery?

Whether you’re getting married in front of the T. rex in the Great North Museum: Hancock, or Charles Parsons’ 34-metre steam powered ship Turbinia (once the fastest ship in the world) at Discovery Museum, why not check out the museum shop for inspiration? The shop will contain all kinds of weird and wonderful gifts for adults and children.

Themed wedding breakfast

Speak to your caterers, especially if they offer bespoke menus

Believe me, chicken supreme is a delicious classic, but why not take some inspiration from your surroundings to create a themed wedding breakfast to remember? For example, the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery at the Great North Museum: Hancock – featuring a 1:4700 scale model of the 73-mile structure which ran from the mouth of the River Tyne to the Solway Firth – lends itself spectacularly to a Roman themed menu. Now I’m not saying you need to forgo any cutlery for a more authentic meal, but you could consider a twist on the classics.


Take inspiration from the venue’s defining features

The Laing Art Gallery – home to the spectacular stained glass windows from 1896 by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) – creates the most impressive backdrop to a wedding breakfast. So why not take inspiration from these unique surroundings? Use seasonal stained glassware such as vases or bowls as your table features. Oh, and remember my tip about the gallery or museum shop? It may stock exactly what you are looking for. Or you could be creative and use glass paint to decorate vintage glassware.

Table settings at the Laing Art Gallery

Table settings at the Laing Art Gallery

You don’t need to stop there either. You can make your centrepieces more personal by including a short written anecdote about the first time you visited the gallery together. Create conversation on the tables by sharing these defining moments with your guests. You never know, it may even encourage new relationships.

Dress code

If your style isn’t traditional, should you tell your guests?

You’ve chosen your venue for a very special reason, it may be the location of your first date, or perhaps the museum’s period features or exhibitions are the perfect inspiration for your wedding day. If the latter is the case you may want to think about including this information on your invites. It may be fun to see your guests take on some elements of your theme.

For example, the magnificent Great Hall at Discovery Museum lends itself perfectly to a 1920s themed day. The Art Deco period features are the perfect accompaniment to the roaring 20s style.

The Great Hall at Discovery Museum © Jonny T Photography

The Great Hall at Discovery Museum © JT Photography

So if you find that your venue’s defining features provide the perfect gateway to your wedding theme, it might be worth letting your guests know that they are welcome to join in.

After all, your big day is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life. You might as well make it unforgettable for everyone.

This guide has been written by Leann Hay, Trading Development officer at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. Four of our venues – Great North Museum: Hancock, Discovery Museum, The Shipley Art Gallery, and  Laing Art Gallery – are licensed for weddings and offer unique backdrops for wedding breakfasts and evening receptions. You can find out more about these museums and galleries on our website:

A ‘daring’ rediscovery

Up and down the land, museums and archives hold millions of objects in their collections. Of those objects, only a few are ever displayed. The rest lie quietly in museum boxes awaiting rediscovery.

Recently, Dr James Gerrard of Newcastle University’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, borrowed a box of Roman pottery from the Great North Museum. In this box were a few dozen sherds of shiny red pottery known as samian or terra sigillata (Form 36). Much to James’s surprise, one of the fragments had the name ‘AVDAX’ scratched on it.

Sherd with inscription

Sherd with inscription

‘Audax’ is a Roman personal name and Dr Roger Tomlin, a leading expert in Roman inscriptions from Oxford University’s Wolfson College, thinks that it might be the name of a Roman soldier meaning ‘bold’ or ‘daring’.  Other people called Audax are known from Roman Britain, but it’s lovely to rediscover this Roman soldier from the depths of the Museum’s collections.




Label attached to the pottery

Label attached to the pottery


We’re not entirely sure where the sherd was found. An old label with the piece of pottery hints that it might have been found at Corbridge. Certainly other finds from the Corbridge excavations made their way into the GNM’s collections, so this wouldn’t be surprising.

Paul Nash: Art of the Second World War

Battle of Britain (Art.IWM ART LD 1550) . Copyright: © IWM.

‘Battle of Britain’ 1941 by Paul Nash 1889-1946 (Art.IWM ART LD 1550) Photo © IWM.

This epic painting, The Battle of Britain, is one of Paul Nash’s best-known compositions. Over several months in the summer and autumn of 1940, the RAF fought the Battle of Britain against the Luftwaffe in the skies above the south coast of England. In Nash’s massive picture, the white contrails of the British planes describe elegant arcs against the lovely blue sky. These are flanked by trails of black smoke from downed planes. It’s only after a while that we notice the packs of approaching aircraft, tiny in the sky on the right. From a great height, we look down on barrage balloons and planes, with a mighty river far below. By suppressing detail in the landscape, Nash has given it a quality of timelessness, expressing his deep feeling for Britain’s countryside and ancient heritage. (Nash’s high viewpoint was imaginary, as his severe asthma meant that he was unable to go up in a plane.)

The Laing’s current Paul Nash exhibition, touring from Tate, is a unique opportunity to see Nash’s masterpiece in the context of paintings from the whole of his career. This is the only exhibition venue to include the picture, as it became available for loan only just before our showing of the exhibition.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash, (c) Tate

‘Totes Meer (Dead Sea)’ 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

The Battle of Britain is on show beside Totes Meer (Dead Sea), another large painting from the Second World War. Nash had been fascinated by aeroplanes and flight since childhood, and he was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Commission to paint a series of large pictures on the theme of aerial combat. Totes Meer was inspired by the huge dump of crashed planes awaiting recycling at Cowley, near Oxford, where Nash was living at this time. A third picture from this period, The Battle of Germany, a more abstract composition, is also in the exhibition. The trio make a fascinating comparison of different strands in Nash’s artistic range.

'Flight of the Magnolia' by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

‘Flight of the Magnolia’ by Paul Nash 1889-1946 Tate, London. Photo © Tate, London 2016

During the war, attacks from the air became an increasing threat. Nash described how he scanned the skies for parachute raids: “I strained my eyes always to see that dreadful miracle of the sky blossoming with these floating flowers.” This idea was one element behind his picture Flight of the Magnolia, painted in 1944, in the later stages of the war. In a complex piece of imagery, Nash added features inspired by seeing a magnolia blossom and an unusual cloud during a visit to a friend. The picture was linked to Nash’s own feelings of mortality. He went on to say, “death, I believe, is the only solution to this problem of how to be able to fly”. Nash was in very poor health at the time, and he died two years later from heart failure resulting from his severe asthma.

Introductory talks are available for groups – to check availability and cost for your group, please contact Special rates are available for further education groups.

A previous blog looks at Paul Nash’s experiences as an Official War Artist in the First World War. A second blog, Paul Nash, a Romantic Surrealist explores the important surrealist strand of his art.

The Paul Nash Exhibition Guidebook £24.99 is available from the Laing Art Gallery shop and online.

The exhibition is organised by Tate Britain in association with the Laing Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

An 18th century Jamaican journey with the remarkable Mr Sloane – a guest blog by volunteer Angela Kirk

Hello, my name is Angela and I am studying for an MSc in Information Science at Northumbria University. I also volunteer at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library with its fabulous collection of books on natural history, local history, ancient history and so much more. It has been a great joy to have the opportunity to read some of these great and unique pieces of literature. Here I wish to share with you my experience of Hans Sloane’s ‘A History of Jamaica’ Volume I (1707) & Volume II (1725).

Hans Sloane (1660-1753) went to Jamaica in 1687-1689 as doctor to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  The Duke may have unfortunately died during Sloane’s time there but the resulting History of Jamaica is a triumph. The two volumes are majestic books filled with vibrant narrative on life in late 17th century Jamaica alongside stunning illustrations of the fauna and flora of the island.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane

Volume I gives the reader, as the title suggests, a history of Jamaica from Christopher Columbus onwards followed by a detailed description of the island as Sloane finds it.  We learn that the population of Jamaica is diverse – English, Spanish, both rich and poor, and African and Native American slaves. Sloane neither condones nor condemns the practice of slavery, detailing it as something that simply exists. This attitude extends to the detailed and distressing descriptions of the horrific punishments meted out to slaves.  To the 21st century reader this attitude can seem callous, but Sloane is only being a man of his time.

What is perceptible is Sloane’s genuine respect for different cultures. He believes the African and Native American way of life is much healthier than that of Europeans and far better suited to the Jamaican climate. Examples given are the use of hammocks for resting, night time camp fires and daily herbal baths.  He also praises the lack of avarice in these communities, feeling the English would benefit greatly from adopting this attitude.  Sloane’s interest in the culture even extends to transcribing songs into sheet music.

The rest of Volume I includes a section on local diseases and cures, not surprising, considering Sloane’s medical background. A segment on local recipes describes the modern day Jamaican favourite Jerk Chicken. In Sloane’s time, we learn, this was prepared to take on hunting expeditions.  The final, and largest, part of the book is devoted to descriptions and illustrations of Jamaican plants and mammals in fantastic detail. The pictures are beautiful.

Cacao plant

Cacao plant

Volume II arrives 18 years after Volume I. The introduction is an entertaining read seeing Sloane tackle his literary critics. He dismisses complaints about mistakes in Volume I saying it was the effect of the climate. With regard to the length of time that elapsed between the volumes, Sloane declares that he has been far too busy practicing medicine and dealing with his affairs.  In response to the notion that he was critical of Jamaica, Sloane firmly declares that in Jamaica he is very much ‘at home’.

In term of content, the second volume concentrates on geology, insects, fish, birds and trees. Convivially written, there is much to learn. The Coconut Tree has a ‘good and wholesome nut’ sustaining a great many Jamaicans. Sloane unwittingly advocates the vegan diet, believing coconut milk is as good as ‘ordinary milk’ and a key ingredient for a marvellous cheesecake.

Chocolate drink label

Chocolate drink label

Sloane is credited with inventing hot chocolate.  He is certainly fond of the chocolate drink he encounters in Jamaica though it takes him a year to be able to stomach it. We learn how chocolate is used among the different communities on the island.  Africans use chocolate to wean their babies. The Native Americans prefer their chocolate with pepper. The Spanish meanwhile add chilli and have become addicts consuming between five to six cups a day.  Sloane warns us that ‘those accustomed to it (chocolate) cannot be without it’.

The book concludes with an amusing description of Sloane’s voyage home to England and his attempt to bring back specimens from Jamaica. Things do not go to plan. His crocodile dies while his pet snake is shot dead in a panic by one of the crew. Sloane however did manage to arrive home with his non-living artefacts and as a result we have the British Museum after he bequeathed his collection to the nation on his death.

Hans Sloane snake

A History of Jamaica gives the reader an entertaining insight into a very different world. Sloane must have put a great deal of time, love and effort into creating these works. Delving into these massive volumes does not disappoint and it feels a great privilege.

The Great North Museum Hancock Library can be found on the second floor of the Great North Museum.  It is home to the collections of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Newcastle University’s Cowen Library. For more information please visit