St. Cuthbert Embroideries

Fragment from the maniple from St. Cuthbert's coffin, showing Peter the Deacon. English, early 10th century. Fragment from the maniple from St. Cuthbert's coffin, showing Peter the Deacon. English, early 10th century.

In 1827, the coffin of St. Cuthbert was opened, and in it were found, among other items (including the famous St. Cuthbert Gospel), the remains of a stole and maniple. The garments are nowadays recognised as the oldest extant medieval examples of English embroidery in the country.

The garments date to the early tenth century, later therefore than the time of St. Cuthbert, who died on Inner Farne island in AD 687, but whose remains were moved many times, via Chester-le-Street and Ripon, until in AD 1104 it was moved  to Durham Cathedral. The stole and maniple are very similar and clearly belong together. The stole is decorated with the standing figures of the Old Testament prophets, and there are busts of St. James and St. Thomas at each end, and the symbol of the Agnus Dei ('Lamb of God') in the centre. The prophets, twelve of which survice, all stand on their own small hill. In between are sprays of acanthus leaves. The garment is bordered with a woven braid of acanthus sprays and small animals.

The maniple is similarly decorated, but the figures are different. St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist are placed at the extremes, and in between are Peter the Deacon (see illustration), St. Gregory the Great, St. Sixtus and St. Lawrence. In the middle is the symbol of the Dextera Dei (the Right Hand of God).

The back of both garments carry the same two lines of text (in translation), "Aelflaed ordered this to be made", and "for the pious bishop Frithstan". Aelflaed was the second wife of Edward the Elder, King of Wessex and the son of Alfred the Great. She died in 916. Frithstan was the Bishop of Winchester between 909 and 929. The two garments from St. Cuthbert's tomb would therefore have been made between 909 and 916.

The two garments were probably presented to St. Cuthbert's shrine, then at Chester-le-Street just north of Durham, when King Aethelstan, son of Edward the Elder and step-son of Aelflaed, whose capital was at Winchester, paid a visit to the shrine in 934 and donated a number of garments, including a stole with a maniple.

Technically, the embroidery on both garments was worked on a ground material of silk, most of which has now disappeared. For most of the outline of the figures use was made of the stem stich. The split stitch was used for filling in the figures and the leaves. Couched gold thread was used for the surrounding ground. This was done with surface couching, and not with underside couching, which would become characterisic for the Opus Anglicanum of a later period.

See also the Maaseik embroideries


  • BRIDGEMAN, Harriet and Elizabeth DRURY (eds., 1978). Needlework: An Illustrated History, New York, Paddington Press.
  • COATSWORTH, Elizabeth (2012). 'Relics of St Cuthbert', in: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.), Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, 450-1450. Leiden: Brill, pp. 451-455.
  • IVY, Jill (1997). Embroideries at Durham Cathedral, Durham, Dean and Chapter of Durham.
  • (retrieved 25 May 2016)

See also the Historical Needlework Resources, 'Maniple and Stole of St Cuthbert'. Click here (retrieved 25 May 2016)

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 25 May 2016)


Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 13:09
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