Origins and background
Cuthbert was perhaps of a noble family, and born in Dunbar, now in East Lothian, in the mid-630s, some ten years after the conversion of King Edwin to Christianity in 627, which was slowly followed by that of the rest of his people. The politics of the kingdom were violent, and there were later episodes of pagan rule, while spreading understanding of Christianity through the kingdom was a task that lasted throughout Cuthbert's lifetime. Edwin had been baptised by Paulinus of York, an Italian who had come with the Gregorian mission from Rome, but his successor Oswald also invited Irish monks from Iona to found the monastery at Lindisfarne where Cuthbert was to spend much of his life. This was around 635, about the time Cuthbert was born.
The tension between the Roman and Irish traditions, often exacerbated by Cuthbert's near-contemporary Wilfrid, an intransigent and quarrelsome supporter of Roman ways, was to be a major feature of Cuthbert's lifetime. Cuthbert himself, though educated in the Celtic tradition, followed his mentor Eata in accepting the Roman forms without apparent difficulty after the Synod of Whitby in 664. The earliest biographies concentrate on the many miracles that accompanied even his early life, but he was evidently indefatigable as a travelling priest spreading the Christian message to remote villages, and also well able to impress royalty and nobility. Unlike Wilfrid, his style of life was austere, and when he was able to he lived the life of a hermit, though still receiving many visitors.
In Cuthbert's time the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria included, in modern terms, northern England as well as parts of south-eastern Scotland on an intermittent and fluid basis as far north as the Firth of Forth. Cuthbert may have been from the neighbourhood of Dunbar at the mouth of the Firth of Forth in modern-day Scotland, though The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints ("Butler's Lives"), by Alban Butler record he was fostered as a child near Melrose. Fostering is possibly a sign of noble birth, as are references to his riding a horse when young. One night while still a boy, employed as a shepherd, he had a vision of the soul of Aidan being carried to heaven by angels, and later found out that Aidan had died that night. Edwin Burton finds a suggestion of lowly parentage in the fact that as a boy he used to tend sheep on the mountain-sides near that monastery. He appears to have had military service but at some point joined the very new monastery at Melrose, under the prior Boisil. Upon Boisil's death in 661, Cuthbert succeeded him as prior. Cuthbert was possibly a second cousin of King Aldfrith of Northumbria (according to Irish genealogies), which may have been the reason for his later proposal that Aldfrith should be crowned as monarch.
Cuthbert's fame for piety, diligence, and obedience quickly grew. When Alchfrith, king of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert became its praepositus hospitum or guest master under Eata. When Wilfrid was given the monastery, Eata and Cuthbert returned to Melrose. Illness struck the monastery in 664 and while Cuthbert recovered, the prior died and Cuthbert was made prior in his place. He spent much time among the people, ministering to their spiritual needs, carrying out missionary journeys, preaching, and performing miracles.
After the Synod of Whitby, Cuthbert seems to have accepted the Roman customs, and his old abbot, Eata, called on him to introduce them at Lindisfarne as prior there. His asceticism was complemented by his charm and generosity to the poor, and his reputation for gifts of healing and insight led many people to consult him, gaining him the name of "Wonder Worker of Britain". He continued his missionary work, travelling the breadth of the country from Berwick to Galloway to carry out pastoral work and founding an oratory at Dull, Scotland, complete with a large stone cross, and a little cell for himself. He is also said to have founded St Cuthbert's Church in Edinburgh.
Cuthbert retired in 676, moved by a desire for the contemplative life. With his abbot's leave, he moved to a spot which Archbishop Eyre identifies with St Cuthbert's Island near Lindisfarne, but which Raine thinks was near Holburn, at a place now known as St Cuthbert's Cave. Shortly afterwards, Cuthbert removed to Inner Farne island off the Northumbrian coast, where he gave himself up to a life of great austerity. At first he received visitors, but later he confined himself to his cell and opened his window only to give his blessing. He could not refuse an interview with the holy abbess and royal virgin Elfleda, the daughter of Oswiu of Northumbria, who succeeded St Hilda as abbess of Whitby in 680. The meeting was held on Coquet Island, further south off the Northumberland coast.
Election to the bishopric of Lindisfarne
In 684, Cuthbert was elected Bishop of Hexham, at a synod at Twyford (believed to be present-day Alnmouth), but was reluctant to leave his retirement and take up his charge; it was only after a visit from a large group, including king Ecgfrith, that he agreed to return and take up the duties of bishop, but instead as Bishop of Lindisfarne, swapping with Eata, who went to Hexham instead. He was consecrated at York by Archbishop Theodore and six bishops, on 26 March 685. After Christmas, 686, however, he returned to his cell on Inner Farne Island (two miles from Bamburgh, Northumberland), which was where he eventually died on 20 March 687 AD, after a painful illness. He was buried at Lindisfarne the same day, and after long journeys escaping the Danes his remains chose, as was thought, to settle at Durham, causing the foundation of the city and Durham Cathedral. The St Cuthbert Gospel is among the objects later recovered from St Cuthbert's coffin, which is also an important artefact.