06 March 2019

Saints Billfrið and Balthere of Lindisfarne

Today in the Orthodox Church, the sixth of March, we commemorate the holy lives of two hermits of the Holy Isle: Billfrið of Lindisfarne and Balthere of Tyninghame, two eighth-century hermits who, by additional happenstance, were interred together in the eleventh century by the sacristan-priest Ælfræd Westow of Hexham, a meticulous collector and caretaker of relics who translated them both to the cathedral at Durham.

Saint Billfrið was the talented metalworker who was commissioned by Saint Æþelwold to fashion out of gems and gold a binding for the Lindisfarne Gospels. The craftsmanship may be assumed to have been grand indeed, because the jewel-encrusted binding was apparently stolen in the raiding of the monasteries during the Reformation. The craftsman-monk himself later left to pursue the eremitical life, but never strayed far from his home in Lindisfarne until his blessed repose.

Saint Balthere, Apostle of the Lothians and Hermit of Bass Rock, is commemorated on the same day as Saint Billfrið and is often associated with him in the hagiographical literature, but there seem to be few other reasons, apart from their common association with the Holy Isle, to believe the two saints were ever acquainted in life. Saint Balthere is generally considered to be Northumbrian, but there is also a legend in the Church that connects him with the monastic traditions of Ireland. He left the Holy Isle and went to preach the gospel among the Scots in Lothian, and established a Benedictine monastery at Tyninghame sometime in the early 700s, which flourished and owned a number of estates in the plains around East Lothian. Saint Balthere also worked several wonders among the Lothians. In the Firth there was a reef that caused the wreck of many ships, the drowning of many sailors, the grief of many widows – in short, it was generally a grave threat to navigation by sea. Saint Balthere prayed and fasted for many days and nights, and the reef eventually moved to a less dangerous stretch of strand: it is nowadays called Saint Baldred’s Rock (‘Baldred’ being a later corruption of ‘Balthere’). Saint Balthere built a hermitage and a chapel, but for the most part lived on Bass Rock.

Bass Rock

At Saint Balthere’s death on Bass Rock, three different parishes – Auldhame, Tyninghame and Prestonkirk – argued over who should take custody of his relics. It is said that after a night of prayer, three identical bodies were found, each one draped in an identical burial shroud. The story is likely a later interpolation meant to explain why Saint Balthere had three kirks erected in his name, one in each parish. However, the wonders attributed to Saint Balthere’s relics and his deeds in life contributed to a heartfelt and devoted local cultus. A holy well at Whitekirk associated with Saint Balthere, possessing miraculous healing qualities, according to local records drew 15,563 pilgrims in the year 1413. The future Pope of Rome Pius II visited this well on foot, through the snow, in thanks for his deliverance alive from a shipwreck in the Firth of Forth in 1435.

Holy Fathers Billfrið and Balthere of the Holy Isle, pray unto Christ God to save our souls!

The kirk of Saint Balthere at Tyninghame

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