29. BALDRED AND BILLFRITH:|
Baldred and Billfrith were Northumbrian hermits, who lived in the 8th century. Although in the church calendar they are remembered on the same day there is no reason to think that they knew each other.
Baldred was mainly known as the hermit of the Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth and now mainly the home of myriads of gannets. He is said to have prayed successfully for the removal of a dangerous reef from between the Bass Rock and the mainland to its present less perilous position: it is still known as Baldred's Rock.
Billfrith is closer to home. He was a hermit of Lindisfarne and a skilled worker in jewels and precious metals. When the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels had been written and painted they were bound in leather by Bishop Aethelweald, who then asked Billfrith to make a pattern of jewels embedded in the outer cover of the book. It must have been rather sumptuous, because at the Reformation the cover with its jewels disappeared. Who got it, we wonder?
The relics of both hermits eventually had the same fate. In the 11th century they fell into the hands of Alfred Westow, sacrist of Durham Cathedral and an indefatigable collector of relics: he was the man who stole the bones of Bede from Jarrow and took them, with many other saints' remains, to Durham.
Although we know little in detail about these two men they remind us of the great numbers of hermits in the history of the Church, and of their importance in keeping alive the ideals of austerity, devoted prayer and spiritual warfare. Their lives were seen as a kind of martyrdom: a victory over evil shared by all Christians.
Eadfrith is of special importance to us here, as he was the artist and calligrapher of the Lindisfarne Gospels. We know nothing about his place of birth or his family, or where he got his early training as a scribe. Nor do we know of any other work or writing from his pen. But is that surprising? We admire the art of this period, but what has survived is only a tiny fraction of all that was made. Perhaps Eadfrith wrote other texts equally beautiful, but an immense amount has perished and we shall never know.
The Lindisfarne gospels were written during the years between 687, when St. Cuthbert died, and 721, when Eadfrith died. They were made in honour of St. Cuthbert. Perhaps they were used for the first time at the ceremony of 'elevation' when his body was found to be undecayed, or else during the following years when his cult was growing. Modern scholars have worked out that the whole book was the work of one man, and that it might have taken him as much as ten years to produce it.
It was in many ways an adventurous piece of work. Eadfrith introduced features, such as the human portraits of the evangelists, which had not previously been in the artistic tradition of these islands.
But Eadfrith himself probably did not think his artistic work was the most important thing he did. For his last 23 years he was Bishop of Lindisfarne, and actively promoted the cult of St. Cuthbert. At this time the monastery here was very friendly with the monastery of Wearmouth/Jarrow, where Bede was just making his reputation as a great scholar. A Life of Cuthbert had already been written here on the Island by an anonymous monk, but Eadfrith asked Bede to write the 'official' life of Cuthbert, and it is through Bede's writings that we know most about him. Eadfrith also restored the hermitage on the Inner Farne which had been Cuthbert's, so that another hermit, Felgild, could take up residence there.
When Eadfrith died his body was buried near St.Cuthbert's tomb and when the monks of Lindisfarne finally left the Island in 875 his relics travelled with those of others in St. Cuthbert's coffin, to find a permanent home in Durham.