Monday, September 13, 2010

Name Quest, Part III

The Secret Saint

L.G.C. Smith

As part of an extended series of posts that originated with the topic of Names, I’ve been chronicling my discoveries about where my last name came from. Two weeks ago, I left off with the question of whom the not-so-randomly distributed Coddington and Cuddington parishes of the English Midlands might have been named for.

The twelfth-century mention of a St. Cotta in association with the Anglo-Saxon minster at Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire spurred me to try to find more traces of this elusive fellow. I boned up on British history in the early medieval period. I stuck my toe into the scholarship on the early English church. I became interested in Anglo-Saxon hagiography. Eventually, I discovered the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database (

Using all these tools, I found a shadowy mid-seventh-century Northumbrian nobleman and abbot who looks like a candidate for the source of the place name Coddington. Here’s a summary of the evidence from textual sources.

Vita Sancti Wilfrithi or Life of St. Wilfrid, attributed to Eddius Stephanus, or Stephen of Ripon, early eighth century, 709-720 AD.

Wilfrid was a major force in organizing the early Anglo-Saxon Church in the mid-late seventh century. He was a hard-line devotee of Roman, as opposed to Celtic, practice, and he was a man of extraordinary energy and administrative ability. He also sounds like kind of a pill – not a meek and beneficent sort of saint. He comes across through the ages as arrogant, argumentative and relentless; the sort of man you might respect but not necessarily like. He’s also one of the most readily documented figures in Britain in the seventh century.

Wilfrid got his start in the Church when he was fourteen-years-old. He went to the Northumbrian Queen Eanflæd, wife of King Oswiu, to ask to be allowed to give himself to the service of God. Eanflæd granted him permission to do so, assigning him to “One of the king’s most loving and faithful companions, a nobleman called Cudda, had also resolved, on account of his paralysis, to give up worldly ambition and dedicate himself to monastic life at Lindisfarne. The queen commended the newly arrived Wilfrid to join him in the service of God and act as his servant.” (from Webb, J. F.; Farmer, D. H., eds. (1998), The Age of Bede: Bede — Life of Cuthbert; Eddius Stephanus — Life of Wilfrid; Bede — Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow; The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith; with the Voyage of St Brendan (Revised ed.), London: Penguin Books.)

Wilfrid is an important link in the scarce and scattered mentions of Cudda. Because we know the dates of Wilfrid’s life, we can broadly estimate when Cudda lived to see how that correlates to what we know about the seventh century foundations of the Coddington parishes. Wilfrid lived from 633-709 AD, so in 647 when he was fourteen, Cudda was clearly an adult. We don’t know how old he was, but it seems reasonable, based on Stephanus’s text, to assume he might have been considerably older than Wilfrid. It’s well within the realm of probability that he would have been old enough to take a lead in organizing the Coddington minsters in the late 620s when the Cheshire sites first appear in church records.

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (from The Age of Bede, cited above)

Cudda is also mentioned in hagiographical material on St. Cuthbert, but in quite a different manner. In contrast to the rather modern sounding factual report from Stephanus, Bede ties Cudda directly to the miracle of Cuthbert’s incorruptible body. In Chapter 17, Bede reports this tale, which he had directly from “Herefrith, a sincerely devout priest and present abbot of Lindisfarne.” Cuthbert reputedly gave these instructions to the monks of his community when he knew he was dying: “When God takes my soul, bury me here close to the oratory, on the south side and to the east of that holy cross I myself put up. To the north of the oratory you will find a stone coffin hidden under the turf, a present from the holy Abbot Cudda. Put my body in it, wrapped in the cloth you will find there.”

If this is the same Cudda who was Wifrid’s master, and I think it is, it’s unlikely he gave Cuthbert this stone coffin. He was probably dead long before Cuthbert came to Lindisfarne. However, I don’t think the thrust of this text is primarily historical. Its purpose appears to me to be to link a lesser saint, Cudda, with Cuthbert, who was a much bigger deal. Whether it was Bede or his informants who sought to bolster Cudda’s cult is impossible to say. Someone was tending to keeping Cudda’s memory alive. Perhaps the center of his cult was the shrine of St. Cotta at Breedon-on-the-Hill, which lies in the center of Mercian territory around which the Coddington parishes are located.

It’s significant that Cudda is identified here as an abbot and not a priest or bishop. Abbots didn’t have to be ordained, nor did they necessarily give up their lands and secular responsibilities. Later in the seventh century, both royal and noble families founded monasteries run by members of their families, including women. Monastic rule was not uniform in the first half of the seventh century. As the Anglo-Saxon Church came into being, there were a lot of irregular practices, including married clergy. Being an abbot was as much about administration as it was about teaching.

No mention is made of where Cudda’s minster or minsters might have been. Of the known early Northumbrian minsters (with the exception of Lindisfarne), most were founded in the last half of the century, and he isn’t on the lists of abbots. Bede and other Northumbrian chroniclers would not necessarily have been interested in or able to find out as much about Mercian minsters, partly because Northumbria and Mercia were rival kingdoms through most of the seventh century. Also, the Mercian kings didn’t convert until quite late. The Coddingtons look like good candidates for Cudda’s network of minsters, even if Bede might not have been familiar with them in the early eighth century.

Another very old text, the Durham Liber Vitae, which is believed to have first laid upon the altar at Lindisfarne and moved with the monks when the late eighth century Viking attacks forced them to flee with St. Cuthbert’s incorrupt body, eventually settling their community at Durham, contains a list of abbots. Cudda is the second name on this list. He wasn’t an abbot at Lindisfarne, but if he retired there, as the story from Stephanus goes, and he was an abbot, it would make sense to find his name there.

The last text where Cudda is mentioned in in Willibrord’s Calendar of Echternach. Willibrord was a Northumbrian missionary to Frisia. He was a student of Wilfrid’s and he included several Northumbrian saints in his calendar. Cudda appears here as Cydda (I’ll spare you the linguistics this time, but it’s almost certainly the same name) and his Feast Day is given as July 28th or 29th. No one seems to know who he is, but I would lay odds this is Wilfrid’s teacher, the venerable Abbot Cudda, a Northumbrian nobleman who revived an older British monastic network that had been laid low by Æthelfrith of Bernicia – who was probably a cousin. Cudda nurtured some of the earliest English minsters in an era scholars know little about.

It’s impossible to say if the story I’ve constructed is historically accurate or not, but I’ve been astounded to find it hold up, strengthen even, as I continue to learn more about this period of history. Starting from a name, I discovered a fascinating tale that connects farther back than I could ever have dreamed. Cudda was all but lost, but his name persisted for fourteen hundred years, concealing secrets for me to slowly untangle. It’s been a satisfying quest, and it’s not done yet. At some point, I’ll have to write this up in academic lingo with all the proper arguments, references and citations. It would be nice someday to see St. Cudda’s name back on the lists of Anglo-Saxon saints.


Sophie Littlefield said...

i found this sleuthing of yours fascinating too, because the bits and pieces have been there - as you point out - for centuries, waiting for someone to put them all together. This is *way* outside my abilities, and that makes me admire it all the more...

L.G.C. Smith said...

Sophie, this kind of thing may be beyond your interest, but it's not beyond your abilities. Ha. Like you can't do anything you want to. :)

I think historians look for hints of secrets to chase. Time obscures so many details. Names are an everyday tip of the iceberg of a long, hidden past. Every name. What drew me to studying linguistics way back when was learning how to uncover the past through looking at patterns of language change. Same thing with archeology, only with patterns of material culture left in the ground.

Rachael Herron said...

I absolutely love this chase. For many reasons, not the least of which I want people to talk about where YOU are in that chain and know you for all those smarts you got. xoxo

Gigi Pandian said...

It's stuff like this that makes me think it would have been fun to finish my PhD. But then I regain my senses and realize that I can just read whatever I want to with much more freedom ;)