Saintly Bodies, Cult, and Ecclesiastical Identity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria


Aethelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aethelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today the legacies of St Cuthbert and St Oswald are bound up in the places, buildings and identity of the North East. But why did the lives of these saints take root in the region hundreds of years ago? In his article in Postgraduate EnglishCurtis Runstedler demonstrates how the saints and their following created a lasting impact in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

Saint lives, their bodies, and the development of cult were integral towards establishing Northumbrian ecclesiastical identity during the Anglo-Saxon period. In this article, I argue that the saint cults of Cuthbert and Oswald of Northumbria effectively established ecclesiastical identity through their relics, hagiographical accounts, and the promotion of their cults through kingly and lay interaction. While the ecclesiastical community regarded Cuthbert as a model of ascetic practice and contemplation, however, they viewed Oswald as a warrior king who died for his faith. Firstly, I examine the diffusion and distribution of saintly relics, which helped to create relationships between the saint and the individual, encouraging cult growth through miraculous occurrences and intimacy with the saint. Secondly, the clergy’s commission of hagiographical texts further supported the distribution of relics, benefitting the image of the saint and their church. Favourable portrayals of the saints, such as Bede’s interpretation of Oswald and Cuthbert, promoted their ecclesiastical centres and relics. Thirdly, regal and lay involvement enabled cult development, allowing for active involvement with the church and endowing the cults with wealth and authority. Through these three approaches in literature, history, and material culture, I illustrate how Cuthbert and Oswald helped to shape ecclesiastical identity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

This article is available to read free in issue 32 of our open access Postgraduate English journal. For more articles from this issue, and the complete archive going back 15 years, find the journal online.

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