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Lindisfarne priory, Northumberland
St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert's Beads

St Cuthbert's Beads are the disc-shaped columnals of Carboniferous crinoids that were stacked to form the stems of the living animals. After death and decay of the ligaments holding the columnals together, it was common for sea-lily stems to disarticulate.

Fossil specimens often consist only of isolated columnals. Each columnal has a central perforation that during life contained soft tissues, including the nerves. Columnals collected by the people on the island of Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland were formerly threaded together as necklaces or rosaries.

They are associated with St. Cuthbert ( ca 634-687 AD) whose monastic retreat was on Lindisfarne (Fleener and Wilson 1941). In Sir Walter Scott's Marmion (1808) St. Cuthbert is imagined to have sat on a rock forging the beads:

“But fain Saint Hilda's nuns would learn
If, on a rock by Lindisfarne,
Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame
The sea-born beads that bear his name:
Such tales had Whitby's fishers told,”

This passage also refers to St. Hilda, who reputedly turned the snakes of Whitby into stone.

It is unclear exactly when the legend of St. Cuthbert's Beads originated, but Lane and Ausich (2001) suggest that this was sometime between 1200, prior to which they are not mentioned in studies of St. Cuthbert, and 1671, at which date they were first referred to by a visitor to Lindisfarne called John Ray. A limestone quarry which began activity as early as 1344 may have been the source of the beads. Alternatively they could have been collected from natural exposures along the foreshore.

Robert Plot (1686) suggested the use of these beads as a rosary: “Many of these being perforrated some with a round, others with foliated or asterial inlets of 6 or 7 points, ...they were strung like beads, particularly by St Cuthbert, which gave occasion to their name of St Cuthbert's beads” (Plot 1686, p. 191).