His armies chased the Britons from southern Cumbria and made the districts of Carlisle, the Lake country, and our Lancashire English ground. His success in this quarter was quickly followed by fresh gain in the north, where he pushed his conquests over the Scots beyond Clydesdale, and subdued the Picts over the Firth of Forth, so that their territory on the northern bank of the Forth was from this time reckoned as Northumbrian ground. The monastery of Abercorn on the shore of the Firth of Forth, in which a few years later a Northumbrian bishop, Trumwine, fixed the seat of a new bishopric, was a sign of the subjection of the Picts to the Northumbrian over-lordship. Even when recalled from the wars to his southern border by an attack of Wulfhere's in 675, the vigorous and warlike Ecgfrith proved a different foe from the West-Saxon or the Jute, and the defeat of the king of Mercia was so complete that he was glad to purchase peace by giving up to his conqueror the province of the Lindiswaras or Lincolnshire. A large part of the conquered country of the Lake district was bestowed upon the see of Lindisfarne, which was at this time filled by one whom we have seen before labouring as the Apostle of the Lowlands. After years of mission labour at Melrose, Cuthbert had quitted it for Holy Island, and preached among the moors of Northumberland as he had preached beside the banks of the Tweed. He remained there through the great secession which followed on the Synod of Whitby, and became prior of the dwindled company of brethren, now torn with endless disputes, against which his patience and good humour struggled in vain.
Worn out at last he fled to a little island of basaltic rock, one of a group not far from Ida's fortress of Bamborough, strewn for the most part with kelp and seaweed, the home of the gull and the seal. In the midst of it rose his hut of rough stones and turf, dug deep into the rock and roofed with logs and straw.
The reverence for his sanctity dragged Cuthbert back in old age to fill the vacant see of Lindisfarne. He entered Carlisle, which the king had bestowed upon the bishopric, at a moment when all Northumbria was waiting for news of a fresh campaign of Ecgfrith's against the Britons in the north. The power of Northumbria was already however fatally shaken. In the south, Mercia had in 679 renewed the attempt which had been checked by Wulfhere's defeat. His successor, the Mercian king aethelred, again seized the province of the Lindiswaras, and the war he thus began with Northumbria was only ended by a peace negotiated through Archbishop Theodore, which left him master of Middle England. Old troubles too revived on Ecgfrith's northern frontier, where a rising of the Picts forced him once more to cross the Firth of Forth, and march in the year 685 into their land. A sense of coming ill weighed on Northumbria, and its dread was quickened by a memory of the curses which had been pronounced by the bishops of Ireland on the king, when his navy, setting out a year before from the newly-conquered western coast, swept the Irish shores in a raid which seemed like sacrilege to those who loved the home of Aidan and Columba. As Cuthbert bent over a Roman fountain which still stood unharmed amongst the ruins of Carlisle, the anxious bystanders thought they caught words of ill-omen falling from the old man's lips. "Perhaps," he seemed to murmur, "at this very hour the peril of the fight is over and done." "Watch and pray," he said, when they questioned him on the morrow; "watch and pray." In a few days more a solitary fugitive escaped from the slaughter told that the Picts had turned desperately to bay as the English army entered Fife; and that Ecgfrith and the flower of his nobles lay, a ghastly ring of corpses, on the far-off moorland of Nectansmere.
To Cuthbert the tidings were tidings of death. His bishopric was soon laid aside, and two months after his return to his island-hermitage the old man lay dying, murmuring to the last words of concord and peace. A signal of his death had been agreed upon, and one of those who stood by ran with a candle in each hand to a place whence the light might be seen by a monk who was looking out from the watch-tower of Lindisfarne. As the tiny gleam flashed over the dark reach of sea, and the watchman hurried with his news into the church, the brethren of Holy Island were singing, as it chanced, the words of the Psalmist: " Thou hast cast us out and scattered us abroad; Thou hast also been displeased; Thou hast shown thy people heavy things; Thou hast given us a drink of deadly wine." The chant was the dirge, not of Cuthbert only, but of his Church and his people. Over both hung the gloom of a seeming failure. Strangers who knew not Iona and Columba entered into the heritage of Aidan and Cuthbert. As the Roman communion folded England again beneath her wing, men forgot that a Church which passed utterly away had battled with Rome for the spiritual headship of Western Christendom, and that throughout the great struggle with the heathen reaction of Mid-Britain the new religion had its centre not at Canterbury, but at Lindisfarne. Nor were men long to remember that from the days of aehelfrith to the days of Ecgfrith English politics had found their centre at York. But forgotten or no, Northumbria had done its work.
By its missionaries and by its sword it had won England from heathendom to the Christian Church. It had given her a new poetic literature. Its monasteries were already the seat of whatever intellectual life the country possessed. Above all it had first gathered together into a loose political unity the various tribes of the English people, and by standing at their head for half a century had accustomed them to a national life, out of which England, as we have it now, was to spring.