Ronald English takes a look at the long and chequered history of Lindisfarne A SHORT distance off the east coast of Northumberland is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. No one is certain about the origin of the name "Lindisfarne", but it became a holy place in AD 635 when a monk named Aidan arrived to spread the Christian faith among the pagans of Northumbria.
He came from the monastery on Iona where Oswald, King of Northumbria, had spent some time in exile, and like so many of the early Celtic monks, Aidan chose an island for his base.
Lindisfarne is an island only at high tide, and for several hours each day it is possible to cross by road on a causeway built in 1954. Previously, pilgrims visited the Holy Island by a route across the sands, and they often had to hurry or climb into the refuge on stilts situated halfway across.
Aidan's mother-tongue was Irish-Gaelic, and King Oswald often acted as an interpreter until Aidan had learned the language of the Angles of Northumbria. With the help of 12 monks, St Aidan founded a monastery and school on Lindisfarne, and many of England's early church leaders — men like St Chad, St Ccdd and St Wilfrid — were trained at the school.
Many wondrous things are said to have happened when Aidan died at Barnburgh, where the king had his palace. The most important was the vision that came to a shepherd-boy in the Leader Valley in Scotland. He saw the soul of St Aidan
being escorted by angels, and, taking the vision as a sign from heaven, he became a monk at Melrose.
His name was Cuthbert, and later, after the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when the whole Church in the north changed from Celtic to Roman practice, he became Prior of Lindisfarne, and then Bishop.
Of the monastery and school founded by Aidan there is no trace today, though they are believed to have stood south of the medieval priory ruins. Since the monastery cloister has disappeared we cannot easily visualise the conditions in which the monk Eadfrith wrote and painted the Lindisfarne Gospel, though we can imagine the cold fingers and tired eyes.
The Lindisfarne Gospel is one of the national treasures preserved in the British Library, and there is a splendid facsimile copy in Lindisfarne parish church. Eadfrith started on this beautiful book a few years after St Cuthbert's death in AD 687.
For 240 years the monastery of Lindisfarne continued as the centre of Christianity in northern England. During his time there St Cuthbert found a place for meditation on a small islet known as St Cuthbert's Isle, a short distance from the priory.
However, he longed for more solitude, and lived for a time on one of the Fame Islands, seven miles south, and now accessible by boat from Bamburgh. St Cuthbert died in his rough hermitage on the Fame Island, and was buried in the church on Lindisfarne.
Nearly 100 years later, in AD 793, the first Viking raid on Britain was made on Lindisfarne. The monastery was sacked and many of the monks killed. Eighty two years later, when a further raid seemed imminent, monks took the body of St Cuthbert, some relics of St Aidan and King Oswald, and the Lindisfarne Gospel, and left the island. After years of wandering and a century at Chester-leStreet the remains of St Cuthbert were eventually enshrined at Durham.
There is little evidence of the island being inhabited during the next 200 years, though monks from Durham did return for a short time, during which they added the words "Holy Island" to the title of Lindisfarne.
The See of Lindisfarne had
been transferred to Durham, and in 1082 Benedictine monks cleared the ruins of the old abbey on Holy Island and built a priory as a dependency . of Durham.
Lindisfarne Priory had a fairly secure 444 years from its foundation to the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. The Viking problem had ceased when the body of St Cuthbert was taken from the island, and while new dangers arose with Scottish raids into Northumbria and English armies marching north against the Scots, Lindisfarne seems to have been passed by. The partial fortification of the priory and the building of a small fortress on the southwest corner of the island were the only precautions taken.
After 1537 Henry VIII seized the priory, and had the small fortress converted into a strong castle as part of the coastal defences against possible French invasions.
In the next century disputes arose over the ownership of Holy Island. Lord Walden, one of the claimants, stripped the lead from the priory and took the bells with the idea of using them in some private venture, but the boat sank, and the bells are still at the bottom of the sea.
The parish church of St Mary the Virgin near to the priory ruins has many interesting exhibits, including the copy of the Lindisfarne Gospel. Then there is the small museum at the entrance to the church and priory grounds where numerous pieces of early sculpture are preserved.
One special item is known as the "Lindisfarne Stone", and was originally believed to represent a Viking raiding party, but is now thought to be a tombstone representing the signs of impending doom as told in St Matthew Ch. 24 v. 6. The men with raised weapons depict "war and the rumours of war."
At the beginning of the present century the castle was converted into an unusual but fascinating house by Edwin Lutyens, and is now owned by the National Trust.
Undoubtedly, many people visit the island to see the castle, but no one can escape the feeling that Lindisfarne is still the Holy Island, the place where Christianity began in northern England.