History of St. Edelwald

Hermit at Farne, A.D. 700

{55} THERE is a small island off the coast of Northumberland, by name Farne, seven miles to the south of the famous Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, and at the distance of two miles from the mainland. It is encompassed by a girdle of rocks, and once contained in it a mound of a circular form, in which there lay a spot of ground about seventy feet across, and to which St. Bede, in a passage presently to be quoted, gives the name of "heights," and Camden that of "fortress." Here St. Cuthbert lived a solitary life between his sojourn in the monastery, and his elevation to the see, of Lindisfarne; hither had he come to die; here, according to some accounts, he was originally buried. We are accustomed to consider a hermitage as a rural retreat in a wood, or beside a stream; a wild, pretty spot, where the flowers fill the air with sweetness, and the birds with melody. So it often was; and hard indeed it should not be so. Hermits have privations enough without being cut off from the sight of God's own world, the type of glories unseen. However, otherwise {56} thought St. Cuthbert: accordingly he so contrived the wall which circled round his enclosure, as to see nothing out of doors but the blue sky or the heavy clouds over his head.

"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage."

Such was the sentiment of a soldier of this world; the great combatants for the next have fulfilled it more literally as well as more religiously. Edelwald succeeded Cuthbert in this uninviting abode. He had been for many years a monk of Ripon, where St. Wilfred had founded a religious house, and afterwards was buried. Felgeld succeeded Edelwald, and was an old man of seventy in Bede's time, who perhaps on his information has recorded the following anecdote of the Saint in his metrical account of St. Cuthbert's miracles. After mentioning St. Cuthbert and Felgeld, he proceeds :—

"Between these comrades dear,
Zealous and true as they,
Thou, prudent Ethelwald, didst bear,
In that high home the sway.

A man, who ne'er, 'tis said,
Would of his graces tell,
Or with what arms he triumphed
Over the Dragon fell.

So down to us hath come
A memorable word,
Which in unguarded season from
His blessed lips was heard.

It chanced that as the Saint
Drank in with faithful ear
Of Angel tones the whispers faint,
Thus spoke a brother dear:

'O why so many a pause
Thwarting thy words' full stream,
Till her dark line Oblivion draws
Across the broken theme?'

He answered, 'Till thou seal
To sounds of earth thine ear,
Sweet friend, be sure thou ne'er shalt feel
Angelic voices near.'

But then the Hermit blest
A sudden change came o'er!
He shudders, sobs, and smites his breast,
Is mute, then speaks once more.

'O by the Name Most High,
What I have now let fall,
Hush, till I lay me down to die,
And go the way of all!'

Thus did a Saint in fear
His gifts celestial hide
Thus did an Angel standing near
Proclaim them far and wide."

Bede adds that in this respect Edelwald presented a remarkable contrast to St. Cuthbert, who, when commemorating the trials of Christians in former ages, was also in the habit of stating to others the sufferings and graces wrought in himself by the mercy of Christ [Note 1]; "thus," he observes, "the One {58} Spirit adorned the two men with distinct gifts, and led them on to one kingdom by a different path."

St. Cuthbert's hermitage, though sufficiently well contrived to keep out the view of the sea and rocks, and of the cliffs of the neighbouring land, was not equally impervious to wind and water, which are of a ruder nature, and intrude themselves into places where the refined sense of sight and its delicate visions cannot enter. The planks of his cottage parted, and let in the discomforts of the external world without its compensations. The occurrence which grew out of this circumstance brings together the three successive inmates of the place, Cuthbert, Edelwald, and Felgeld, in a very sacred way; and as it comes to us on good evidence, viz., the report of Bede from the mouth both of Felgeld and of a common friend of Felgeld and himself, it shall here be given as he has recorded it [Note 2].

"Nor do I think," says Venerable Bede, "I ought to omit the heavenly miracle which the Divine mercy showed by means of the ruins of the holy oratory, in which the venerable father went through his solitary warfare in the service of the Lord. Whether it was effected by the merits of the same blessed father Cuthbert, or his successor Ethelwald, a man equally devoted to the Lord, the Searcher of the heart knows best. There is no reason why it may not be attributed to either of the two, in conjunction with the faith of the most holy father Felgeld; through whom and in whom {59} the miraculous cure, which I mentioned, was effected. He was the third person who became tenant of the same place and its spiritual warfare, and, at present more than seventy years old, is awaiting the end of this life, in expectation of the heavenly one.

"When therefore God's servant Cuthbert had been translated to the heavenly kingdom, and Ethelwald had commenced his occupation of the same island and monastery, after many years spent in conversation with the monks, he gradually aspired to the rank of anchoritic perfection. The walls of the aforesaid oratory being composed of planks somewhat carelessly put together, had become loose and tottering by age, and, as the planks separated from one another, an opening was afforded to the weather. The venerable man, whose aim was rather the splendour of the heavenly than of an earthly mansion, having taken hay, or clay, or whatever he could get, had filled up the crevices, that he might not be disturbed from the earnestness of his prayers by the daily violence of the winds and storms. When Ethelwald entered and saw these contrivances, he begged the brethren who came thither to give him a calf's skin, and fastened it with nails in the corner, where himself and his predecessor used to kneel or stand when they prayed, as a protection against the storm.

"Twelve years after, he also ascended to the joys of the heavenly kingdom, and Felgeld became the third inhabitant of the place. It then seemed good to the right reverend Eadfrid, bishop of the Church of Lindisfarne, to restore from its foundation the {60} time-worn oratory. This being done, many devout persons begged of Christ's holy servant Felgeld, to give them a small portion of the relics of God's servant Cuthbert, or of Ethelwald, his successor. He accordingly determined to cut up the above-named calf's skin into pieces, and give a portion to each. But he first experienced its influence in his own person; for his face was much deformed by a swelling and a red patch. The symptoms of this deformity had become manifest long before to the monks, whilst he was dwelling among them. But now that he was living alone, and bestowed less care on his person, whilst he practised still greater rigidities, and, like a prisoner, rarely enjoyed the sun or air, the malady increased, and his face became one large red swelling. Fearing, therefore, lest he should be obliged to abandon the solitary life and return to the monastery; presuming in his faith, he trusted to heal himself by the aid of those holy men whose house he dwelt in, and whose holy life he sought to imitate; for he steeped a piece of the skin above mentioned in water, and washed his face therewith; whereupon the swelling was immediately healed, and the cicatrice disappeared. This I was told, in the first instance, by a religious priest of the monastery of Jarrow, who said that he well knew Felgeld's face to have been in the deformed and diseased state which I have described, and that he saw it and felt it with his hand through the window after it was cured. Felgeld afterwards told me the same thing, confirming the report of the priest, and asserting that his face was ever afterwards free from the blemish during the many years {61} that he passed in that place. This he ascribed to the agency of the Almighty grace, which both in this world heals many, and in the world to come will heal all the maladies of our minds and bodies, and, satisfying our desires after good things, will crown us for ever with its mercy and compassion."

It is better to use a contemporary's words than our own, where the former are attainable; for this reason, I make a second quotation from the same revered writer who has furnished the above narrative. The passage occurs in the beginning of the fifth book of the Ecclesiastical History:—

"The venerable Ethelwald," he says, "who had received the priesthood in the monastery of Ripon, and had, by actions worthy of the same, sanctified his holy office, succeeded the man of God, Cuthbert, in the exercise of a solitary life, having practised the same before he was bishop, in the isle of Farne. For the certain demonstration of the life which he led, and his merit, I will relate one miracle of his which was told me by one of these brothers for and on whom the same was wrought, viz., Guthfrid, the venerable servant and priest of Christ, who afterwards, as abbot, presided over the brethren of the same church of Lindisfarne, in which he had been educated.

"'I came,' says he, 'to the island of Farne, with two others of the brethren, to speak with the most reverend father, Ethelwald. Having been refreshed with his discourse and taken his blessing, as we were returning home, on a sudden, when we were in the midst of the sea, the fair weather which was wafting us over was checked, and there ensued so {62} great and dismal a tempest that neither the sails nor oars were of any use to us, nor had we anything to expect but death. After long struggling with the wind and waves to no effect, we looked behind us to see whether it were practicable at least to recover the island from whence we came, but we found ourselves on all sides so enveloped in the storm that there was no hope of escaping. But looking out as far as we could see, we observed, on the island of Farne, father Ethelwald, beloved of God, come out of his cavern to watch our course; for, hearing the noise of the storm and raging sea, he was come out to see what would become of us. When he beheld us in distress and despair, he bowed his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in prayer for our life and safety; upon which the swelling sea was calmed, so that the storm ceased on all sides, and a fair wind attended us to the very shore. When we had landed, and had dragged upon the shore the small vessel that brought us, the storm, which had ceased a short time for our sake, immediately returned, and raged continually during the whole day; so that it plainly appeared that the brief cessation of the storm had been granted from Heaven, at the request of the man of God, in order that we might escape.'"

Edelwald lived twelve years in his (to human eyes) dreary and forlorn abode; dreary and forlorn, most assuredly, if he had no companions, no converse, no subjects of thought, besides those which the external world supplied to him. On his death, A.D. 699 or 700, his remains were taken to Lindisfarne, and buried by the side of his master, St. {63} Cuthbert. Here they remained for near two centuries, when the ravages of the Danes in the neighbourhood frightened the holy household and Erdulf, Bishop, and Edred, Abbot of Lindisfarne, migrated with the bodies of their Saints to the mainland. For a hundred years the sacred relics of Oswald, Aidan, Cuthbert, Bede, Edbert, Edfrid, Ethelwold, and Edelwald, had no settled habitation; but on the transference of the see from Lindisfarne to Durham, at the end of the tenth century, they were brought home again, under the shadow of the new cathedral. There they remained till the changes of the sixteenth century, when, with the relics of Cuthhert, Bede, Aidan, and the rest, they disappeared.

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1. "At pia Cuthbertus memorans sępe acta priorum
      Ętheriā sub laude, sui quoque Christus agonis
      Ut fuerat socius, suerat subnectere paucis."
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2. In vit. St. Cuthb. In the extracts which follow, Dr. Giles's translation is used with some trifling variations.
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