Lindisfarne, Holy Island of the north: Part 1

In the early 7th century, the death of King Edwin caused the kingdom of Northumbria to split amongst rival groups. This weakened state made it easier for Cadwallon the King of Gweynedd (northern Wales) to attack the land and under his influence the people had quickly reverted back to their pagan roots.

Aided by a vision from Saint Columba, an exiled Northumbrian prince called Oswald rode out against Cadwallon and obtained a great victory over the pagan King. In thanks to God and Saint Columba for returning Northumbria back into his hands, he asked the monks of Iona to send him a monk to help convert his people back to Christianity.

The first monk that was sent to Northumbria from Iona failed miserably. On his return to the monastery he said that it was a waste of time trying to teach a people so barbarous and untameable as the Northumbrians. Amongst the council members who had listened to the report was Saint Aidan. He was one of a few who still believed that the people could be converted and it was decided that he should be the next to be sent to the king’s court to try his luck.

Iona (top left) and Lindisfarne (top right) (Source: http://www.rejesus.co.uk)

Aidan was a huge success in Northumbria, even becoming on close terms with King Oswald himself. He was so successful that he stayed on at court spreading the word of God for the next 16 years until his death in 651. But first in order to do this, there needed to be a centre of Christianity. York had a minster and a monastery built five years previously by King Edwin, but it was run by monks according to the Roman faith. Oswald wanted a new centre that was close to his court at Bamburgh. Aidan and his monks however wanted to retain a sense of isolation which they believed brought them closer to God. Lindisfarne was the perfect compromise and so when Aidan and his monks arrived in 635, they immediately set about creating their monastery here.

Lindisfarne Priory from the air (Source: english-heritage.org.uk)

Lindisfarne Priory from the air (Source: english-heritage.org.uk)

Lindisfarne is one of the larger islands that can be found off the coast of modern day Northumberland and is also know as Holy Island. The island of course can be accessed by boat but one of the unique qualities it possesses, both today and in Aidan’s time, is that twice a day on the low tide it can be accessed on foot by a narrow causeway of sand. The island is around 1000 acres in size and only 6 miles from where Oswald’s court at Bamburgh would have been, not to mention an easy distance to other important centres such as the royal estate of Yeavering. It was the perfect location for the community of Celtic monks.

Lindisfarne immediately became the centre of an Episcopal see with Aidan becoming Bishop. To begin with Aidan had no knowledge of the English language at that time and King Oswald was only too happy to act as his interpreter, having learnt Gaelic from his time with the monks in exile. They travelled together all over the kingdom and it is said that even people from across the border in the Scottish kingdoms came to hear the services.

Oswald was killed in battle at Maserfield in 642 at the hands of King Penda of Mercia. Penda severed the Christian king’s head and arms and mounted them on spikes. The body parts were eventually rescued by Oswald’s family and supporters and taken as sacred relics. Oswald’s head was taken to Lindisfarne monastery, one of his hands which was said to be uncorrupted by decay was kept at Bamburgh, and at the command of his niece Queen Osthryd of Mercia his body was taken to Bardney monastery. Because of his devotion to spreading Christianity and the visions he is said to have had, Oswald was made a saint in his own right and his death on the 5th august was ever after celebrated as his feast day.

For nearly 30 years, Lindisfarne had been the seat of the only bishopric in Northumbria. Bishop Aidan died while visiting the village near Bamburgh on the 31 August 651 and was succeeded by another celtic Bishop called Finan. It was during his time that the new King of Northumbria, King Oswy, won a great battle at Winwaed in 655 and for a time was overlord or Bretwalda of a vast Kingdom that now included large parts of Mercia. This led to Northumbria influencing the other nearby kingdoms both directly and indirectly, including the conversion of the East Saxons and their King Sigebert to Christianity by Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne. The community was improved upon greatly by Finan who began transforming the church and buildings from a community of pious poverty to a place worthy of Bishops.

I have already written at length about the synod of Whitby in other posts so I won’t go into it again here, other than to say in 664 a council was held in Northumbria determining a change from Celtic Christianity to Roman. Colman was at this time the Bishop of Lindisfarne and he was allied with Saint Hilda of Whitby advocating for the Celtic tradition. Hilda and many others were forced to adopt the new regime, however Colman and thirty other monks from Lindisfarne refused and they returned to the Island of Iona and then to Ireland.

The seat of Christianity in Northumbria was now moved further south to York which had been the original seat when Christianity had first flourished under Edwin. Bishop Ceadda (Saint Chad) had been given the position over Saint Wilfred which caused a bit of consternation between Wilfred and King Oswy. The dispute continued for many years, even including the Pope in Rome.

Tuda had taken over the running of the monastery after Colman left for Iona but unfortunately he did not last long. In the same year an illness affected England and Tuda was among those who lost their lives to it. The Monastery continued on under several other caretakers until Saint Cuthbert was made bishop in 687. He and his mentor Bishop Eata had been among the few to survive the pestilence that had claimed Tuda. Though he agreed to follow the Roman teachings at Lindisfarne, his own celtic influenced beliefs in living simply and with kindness to all made him a great favourite in Northumbria.

Cuthbert died 20 march 687. Eleven years later his tomb was opened and the monks were surprised to find his body as uncorrupted as the day he was buried. This added to his saintliness and a cult soon began at Lindisfarne around him. There were miracles reported at his shrine and it became a site of pilgrimage, providing the monastery with wealth from visiting pilgrims and royalty alike. Many nobles and their children were sent here to receive an education and some even stayed on as nuns and monks.

The seventh century was the pinnacle of Northumbrian achievement with its great Bretwalda Kings and learned scholars and saints. In many respects it was also the pinnacle of Lindisfarne as well. At the beginning of the 8th century Lindisfarne was becoming eclipsed by the rising influence of York which was made an Archbishopric in 735. The beginning of this century is also thought to be the time when the famous Lindisfarne gospels were created.

Next time I will have a look at Lindisfarne’s downfall at the hands of the Vikings and a little summary of its history after the Medieval period.

 

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2 thoughts on “Lindisfarne, Holy Island of the north: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Aug 31 – Aidan and Cuthbert | Holy Women, Holy Men

  2. Pingback: Aug 31 – Aidan and Cuthbert | A Great Cloud of Witnesses

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