St Cuthbert is a key figure from Durham's history and still figures in city life to this day - so who exactly was he?

St Cuthbert is sometimes referred to as the patron saint of northern England, and in particular the old region of Northumbria. But St Cuthbert's links to Durham are particularly strong, given that he is buried in Durham Cathedral after his body was carried to the site by monks.

Today, St Cuthbert's presence is still felt in many aspects of Durham life, from his shrine being the focus of visits to Durham Cathedral, roads and societies named after him, and even his Cuthbert's Cross on the County Durham flag. But how did St Cuthbert become linked to Durham?

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When and where was St Cuthbert born?

St Cuthbert was born around either Dunbar or Melrose, in what is now modern Scotland but that at the time was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. The year was probably 634 - give or take a year. This was shortly after the King of Northumbria, Edwin, had converted to Christianity and Cuthbert was brought up as a Christian.

Like many boys in his social class, Cuthbert was looked after by a foster family for part of his early life.

Was St Cuthbert always religious?

No. At least, if he had thoughts in that direction then his early activities didn't show it. He was actually taught the arts of war and probably took part in some battles when he was in his teens - again, not unusual for boys in his position. He may have been fighting for the Kingdom of Northumbria, protecting it against attacks by King Penda of Mercia.

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What changed?

Cuthbert's first noteworthy brush with religion came in 651 when he was allegedly looking after sheep on a hillside near Melrose Abbey (more likely, being from an army background he was on guard duty), and saw what he believed to resemble a human soul rising to heaven. The next day he learned of the death of St Aidan, and this gave him his first suggestion of a new direction in his life.

Cuthbert entered Melrose Abbey and his devotion and attitude quickly marked him out as something special. Cuthbert spent 13 years at Melrose Abbey, and when a new abbey was founded in Ripon, Cuthbert was an obvious choice to go with the founding party and became guestmaster.

That's good career advancement. So how did Cuthbert end up in what is now North East England?

There were two traditions in the Christian Church: Roman and Celtic. Cuthbert and his followers were of the Celtic tradition; but when Ripon decided to adopt the Roman tradition and appointed Rome-supporting Wilfrid (of Hexham Abbey fame) as its prior, they headed back to Melrose Abbey, where Cuthbert took over following the death of his former teacher.

However, before Cuthbert could get too comfortable in his new role, the Synod debated the whole Celtic vs Roman schism and settled on the Roman side. Cuthbert, as was his nature, acquiesced with the decision, and was sent to Lindisfarne Priory to help with their transition to the new ways.

He was obviously well thought of. Where next?

Well, Cuthbert's next move was actually to become a hermit. When he was about 40, Cuthbert felt the calling and created a hermitage for himself, possibly first on St Cuthbert's Island, near Lindisfarne, then on Inner Farne on the Farne Islands. Still, people didn't leave him alone: he was a celebrated healer and people would take boats out to see him and ask for his advice.

Eventually, at around the age of 50, he was persuaded back into a more communal religious life and at Easter in 685 in York he was consecrated as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Happily ever after, then?

Two years later, after an active and travelling life in his new role, Cuthbert felt death approach. He returned to his hermitage on the Farne Islands and died in 687.

So presumably that's where the story ends.

Not at all - Cuthbert's body was taken back to Lindisfarne. Pilgrims and worshippers went to Cuthbert's tomb, and the tales of miracles grew. The Lindisfarne monks clearly realised they had a potential saint on their hands.

Waiting 11 years after Cuthbert's death for his body to decompose so that they could make his relics available to pilgrims and elevate him to the status of saint, they opened his tomb and had a shock. Rather than decomposing, his body had not only remained uncorrupted but was also as flexible as that of a living person. The pilgrimages understandably increased.

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So how did St Cuthbert end up in Durham?

In 793 the Vikings made their first attack. Over the next decades the attacks increased, and with monasteries being rich, unguarded targets, the monks made the decision in 875 to abandon Lindisfarne and head inland.

After seven years of wandering, they were first given a permanent home in Chester le Street by a Danish king who had converted to Christianity. They remained here for 100 years, but fears of new Viking attacks spurred St Cuthbert's followers to move once again.

They first headed to Ripon - St Cuthbert's old Abbey - before reaching Durham.

Two stories exist about how St Cuthbert's followers reached Durham; one is that the cart carrying Cuthbert's body stopped and could not be shifted. St Cuthbert came to the leader, Bishop Aldhun, and told him to go to Dunholme. The monks did not know where this was, until they overheard a conversation between two young women about a lost cow, which had last been seen heading towards Dunholme. The monks decided to follow, and the cart began to move again.

The more prosaic but probably more accurate reason is that Aldhun had obtained lands for the church at Durham from his son-in-law Uchtred, Earl of Northumbria, and the peninsula provided a good defensive spot after the many years of evading Viking attacks. Uchtred would also presumably have welcomed the monks and their valuable pilgrim-magnet, because a monastery would provide a focal point and money for a new defensive settlement.

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So they've reached Durham - what happened next?

You can read about what St Cuthbert's followers did next in our story describing what was on the site of Durham Cathedral before it was built.

In 1827, St Cuthbert's coffin was again opened and items were removed, which you can now see in the Durham Cathedral Open Treasure exhibition.

Is St Cuthbert still remembered today?

Very much so. His legacy continues; for instance, his shrine in Durham Cathedral feretory is still a place of worship, and many things are named after him, from St Cuthbert's Society in Durham University through to churches and schools. St Cuthbert's Cross - based on the shape of the pectoral cross found with his remains - appears on the new design of the County Durham flag, created in 2013.

There is also a St Cuthbert's Festival, including an annual St Cuthbert's Procession where participants walk along the eight mile route taken by the monks from Chester le Street to Durham.