THE first of Katharine Tiernan’s trilogy based on the life of St Cuthbert fleshed out the historical record to build a convincing picture of the saint through the eyes of three women on whom he had a significant influence in his lifetime (Books, 28 June 2019). Her second, set nearly 200 years later, tells of the seven-year search to find a last resting place for the saint’s remains.
The year is 875. The north of England has been invaded by the Vikings, and the Danish King of York, Halden Ragnarsson, is ravaging the Christian kingdom of Northumbria, burning churches and monasteries and slaughtering the monks. Seven Brothers are chosen from among the Lindisfarne community to carry the saint’s bones and the Lindisfarne Gospels to a place of safety.
The story’s source, Simeon of Durham’s A History of the Church of Durham, names four of the bearers, but tells us nothing about them. Tiernan, with her customary skill, gives all seven names and stories. There’s Edmund, crabbed master of the scriptorium, Franco, the physician, and talkative Ceolfrith, who loves to entertain. At the centre of the book is the novice Stitheard, with his strange light eyes, given to the monastery by his starving family in exchange for two cows and a cartload of corn. We empathise with his spiritual struggle as he falls in love with a Norse farmer’s daughter and renounces his vows to marry her.
The story is a present-tense narrative, and unrolls like a film. It’s finely imagined. Lapwings sing, timbers crack, and there is a terrifying shipwreck. The saint is always present, directing events through dreams and miracles. His body heals a Danish slave of fits. Later, he leads the Abbot of Carlisle to have the youth elected as King of York, the Abbot as his right-hand man.
In the background, history’s great events unfold. Alfred defeats the Danes, and a treaty is signed, but the exchange between Stitheard and his abbot, Aedwulf, as he asks permission to marry, is also significant. “The Norse are farmers like our own people,” Stitheard says. “The Norse,” Aedwulf thinks, “like our own people. This is how peace comes.”
Fiona Hook is a writer and EFL teacher.
Place of Repose: St Cuthbert’s last journey
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70