Cuthbert was born in North Northumbria in about the year 635 – the same year in which Aidan founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. He came from a well-to-do English family and like most boys of that class, he was placed with foster-parents for part of his childhood and taught the arts of war. We know nothing of his foster-father but he was very fond of his foster-mother, Kenswith.
It seems, from stories about his childhood, that he was brought up as a Christian. He was credited, for instance, with having saved by his prayers, some monks who were being swept out to sea on a raft. There is some evidence that, in his mid-teens, he was involved in at least one battle, which would have been quite normal for a boy of his social background.
His life changed when he was about 17 years old. He was looking after some neighbour’s sheep on the hills. (As he was certainly not a shepherd boy it is possible that he was mounting a military guard – a suitable occupation for a young warrior!) Gazing into the night sky he saw a light descend to Earth and then return, escorting, he believed, a human soul to Heaven. The date was August 31st 651AD – the night that Aidan died. Perhaps Cuthbert had already been considering a possible monastic calling but that was his moment of decision.
He went to the monastery at Melrose, also founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted as a Novice
For the next 13 years he was with the Melrose monks. When Melrose was given land to found a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert went with the founding party and was made guestmaster. In his late 20s he returned to Melrose and found that his former teacher and friend, the prior Boisil, was dying of the plague. Cuthbert became prior (second to the Abbot) at Melrose.
In 664AD the Synod of Whitby decided that Northumbria should cease to look to Ireland for its spiritual leadership and turn instead to the continent the Irish monks of Lindisfarne, with others, went back to Iona. The abbot of Melrose subsequently became also abbot of Lindisfarne and Cuthbert its prior.
Cuthbert seems to have moved to Lindisfarne at about the age of 30 and lived there for the next 10 years. He ran the monastery; he was an active missionary; he was much in demand as a spiritual guide and he developed the gift of spiritual healing. He was an outgoing, cheerful, compassionate person and no doubt became popular. But when he was 40 years old he believed that he was being called to be a hermit and to do the hermit’s job of fighting the spiritual forces of evil in a life of solitude.
After a short trial period on the tiny islet adjoining Lindisfarne he moved to the more remote and larger island known as ‘Inner Farne’ and built a hermitage where he lived for 10 years. Of course, people did not leave him alone – they went out in their little boats to consult him or ask for healing. However, on many days of the year the seas around the islands are simply too rough to make the crossing and Cuthbert was left in peace.
At the age of about 50 he was asked by both Church and King to leave his hermitage and become a bishop. He reluctantly agreed. For two years he was an active, travelling bishop as Aidan had been. He seems to have journeyed extensively. On one occasion he was visiting the Queen in Carlisle (on the other side of the country from Lindisfarne) when he knew by second sight that her husband, the King, had been slain by the Picts doing battle in Scotland.
Feeling the approach of death he retired back to the hermitage on the Inner Farne where, in the company of Lindisfarne monks, he died on March 20th 687AD.
His body was brought back and buried on Lindisfarne.