Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

The period following the Roman Departure at the end of the 4th Century through until 883 when the monks of Lindisfarne arrived is largely a black hole. During the late Saxon period it is known that the place called “Cuncacestre”, was the See of Chester-le-Street. (Eardulph in 883 with a party of monks settled here and continued for 113 years.)Cuthbert’s body had been removed from Lindisfarne to protect it from Viking raiders who periodically ravaged the east coast. The modern church stands on the site of the original wooden church built in 883. It is quite surprising that the early church was built of wood since its location at the heart of the Roman fort meant that there would likely have been sufficient stone to make it a more permanent feature. The wooden structure lasted until the time of Egelric, the fourth Bishop of Durham (1042-1056) by which time the church had diminished somewhat in importance.

Eardulph, the originator of the church, was the sixteenth Bishop of Lindisfarne and he became the first Bishop of Chester-le-Street, to be followed by eight others. He was a noble man, a worthy successor to St. Cuthbert. The diocese over which he ruled was enormous, extending from the Tees northwards to the Firth of Forth and from the North Sea across country to the Irish Sea. This accounted for most of the northern part of the country and took in some of the largest towns in existence including, Carlisle, Durham, Newcastle and Edinburgh. It is this period which probably gave Chester-le- Street church to be called a Cathedral.

The church itself was dedicated to St Mary and St Cuthbert and it was from here that the whole of the Northern diocese was governed. Its importance is justified by the fact that all of the lands between Tyne and Wear were gifted to the See by Guthred, Prince of the Danes. This event was confirmed by King Alfred the Great. Both Guthred and Alfred recognised the spiritual importance of the church and extended further privileges and immunities to the endowment into a county palatine which allowed its Bishops the high estate of Temporal Princes, but still subservient to the kings under whom they lived.

King Athelstan, who came to the throne in 924 and who was responsible for the union of England under Wessex in 937, gave to Chester-le-Street church a number of princely gifts prior to his death in 940. His brother Edmund, who followed him to the throne in 940, gave to the church a copy of the Holy Gospels in significance to the shrine of St. Cuthbert. A few charred fragments remain of this gift, carefully mounted and preserved in the library of the British Museum. Other gifts given by the two Kings include two chasubles (sleeveless vestments), one alb (white tunic), a stole with maniple, a girdle, three altar cloths, a chalice, a gold paten (a shallow dish), a silver censer (incense burner), a cross of ivory and gold and a royal crown woven in gold. Additionally there was a copy of “The Life of St. Cuthbert” written in verse and prose. This important document no longer exists. It is interesting to note that the stole with maniple is likely to be the one found on the body of St Cuthbert when it was examined in 1827 in Durham Cathedral.

 Althelstan in person visited Chester-le-Street and presented the exquisite pieces of embroidery as an offering of his favourite saint. These offerings remained in the custody of the church in Chester-le-Street for some time before being handed over to Durham cathedral. They can be seen at the Cathedral library in Durham and are the oldest pieces of embroidery in the country.

The Bishopric of Chester-le-Street was removed to Durham in 995 and the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert became a parochial rectory. It remained as such until 1286 when Bishop Beck made it a collegiate, consisting of a dean, seven prebendaries, five chaplains, three deacons and other ministers. This continued until the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII.

Early Church in Chester-le-Street

The Parish Church of St Mary & St Cuthbert