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Cuthbert and the Otters An inquisitive monk spied on a guest’s night-time walks.
AD 661
Anglo-Saxon Britain 410-1066
Music: Sir William Sterndale Bennett

© Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. Source

About this picture …

An otter in the New Forest near Southampton, on England’s south coast. Cuthbert spent his life in the Kingdom of Northumbria up in the North East. After growing up near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, he entered a monastery in Ripon before moving back to Melrose and the Abbey there in about 655. Some ten years later he made the short trip east to become Abbot of the Monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, just off the mainland, and was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne in 684. Cuthbert remained closely bonded with nature all his life, especially the innumerable birds of his retreat on the smaller Inner Farne.

Cuthbert and the Otters
Coldingham (today just across the Scottish border) was at one time home to a monastery for men and women. The Abbess was Ebbe, who as it happens was also a princess – a real historical fact. She invited Cuthbert to stay there for a few days.

IT was Cuthbert’s habit to walk alone down to the seashore after dark. Intrigued, one of the monks followed him at a discreet distance, hoping to see what it was that Cuthbert did at dead of night.

From his hiding place he watched Cuthbert wade out into the slate-black sea until the waters reached his neck, and then begin to sing psalms, a performance which he kept up until dawn.*

The monk was still watching when back on the sands, Cuthbert became absorbed in prayer again. Suddenly, two otters scampered over to him and chafed his feet, numb with North Sea cold, and dried them with their fur. Cuthbert gave them his affectionate blessing, and they made off back to their homes.

The monk-spy could barely collect sufficient wits to find his way back to the monastery. Next morning, after confessing the whole story to Cuthbert, he promised to tell no one until after Cuthbert’s death.

Miracles of St Cuthbert Next: Cuthbert and the White Rider

Down on the south coast, pagan communities regarded the sea as the realm of Wotan (Odin), god of death, and dared not even fish in it. See St Wilfrid and the Fishers of Men. Cuthbert’s night-time vigil would have appeared to them an act of reckless defiance, and the service of the otters supreme wizardry.


A young monk followed St Cuthbert to see what he did down on the beach at night. He watched the saint pray in the sea until dawn. Then, to the spy’s astonishment, two otters suddenly ran out to Cuthbert, warmed and dried his feet with their fur, and after receiving his blessing, scampered off again. (55 / 60 words)


Based on ‘The Life of St Cuthbert’, by St Bede of Jarrow (?672-735).

Suggested Music

Caprice in E, Op. 22 (1840)

Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)

Played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Malcolm Binns (piano).

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