Interesting Places, Northumberland

Lindisfarne, Holy island of the north: Part 2

Welcome to Part two of the history of Lindisfarne. If you have missed the first part in which Lindisfarne was founded and became a religious, cultural and scholarly mecca, you can read the article here.

Northern Britain in the early Middle Ages, showing the principal places connected with its conversion to Christianity (Source:

Unfortunately for Lindisfarne, its rise to prominence also made it a target. The climax of the centre’s history came in 793AD. These events are best described in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Gospel.

“In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, which sorely affrighted the inhabitants: there were exceptional flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed hard upon these signs; and a little later in that same year, on the 8th June, the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church by rapine and slaughter. “

Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar at the court of Charlemagne, added his own thoughts in a letter addressed to King Ethelred of Northumbria.

“It is now about 350 years that we and our fathers have dwelt in this most beautiful country, and never before has such a terrible thing befallen Britain as that which we have now suffered from the Pagans. Nor was it, in fact, thought possible that a voyage of that kind could ever have been made… Lo, now the church of St Cuthbert is stained with the blood of the priests of God. It is despoiled of all its ornaments. The most venerable place in Britain has been given to pagan nations for a prey.”

This was not the beginning of an invasion of England but just the first of many raids that included Scotland and Ireland as well. It is believed that a community stayed on at Lindisfarne after this first attack until at least 875. There are indications in the written record that the community may have moved for a time to Norham on the mainland in the 830s; however there must have been a sizeable community still on the island in 875 when the Viking leader Halfdan attacked Northumbria.

On the surface it seems that this impending violence caused Bishop Eardulf and the community to leave on what became a seven year long journey wandering throughout the kingdom in search of a safe haven. Modern scholars are now of the belief that due to the route they took that this is most likely the result of the community trying to restore faith in God and Christianity in a country over run by pagans. Think of them as door to door salesmen trying to comfort the Christianised Northumbrians and convert a few of the pagan Vikings along the way.

The exhumation of St Cuthbert in 698, from an early 12th-century version of Bede’s life of the saint. The discovery of his ‘incorrupt’ remains marked the beginning of his cult © Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford (MS 165 p 118)

Joining the Lindisfarne community, now known as the Haliwerfolc, or the followers of the holy man (Saint Cuthbert), was the head of Saint Oswald, the bones of Saint Aidan and the three other bishops that followed him. The largest drawcard however was the reportedly uncorrupted body of Saint Cuthbert himself. This spiritual procession travelled the length and breadth of the now mostly Viking Kingdom of Jorvik (roughly modern day Yorkshire and Durham and parts of Lancashire) for several years until finally resting at Chester-le-street in 883. It would be more than another hundred years until they moved to Durham in 995.

A 10th-century cross-shaft from Lindisfarne, one of a number of carved stones found here suggesting that the burial ground remained in use after the monks had left (Source:

Despite the written record falling ominously quiet on the fate of Lindisfarne for the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period, there is archaeological evidence that occupation of some sort still occurred. There are at least 23 carved stones of late 8th to late 10th century dates, proving that the burial ground was still being used. These are joined by a 10th century socketed base for a monumental cross. Several other whole and fragmented tomb stones also show similarities stylistically with monasteries at Hartlepool and Whitby. The most famous of these is now known as the Viking Domesday stone. This object is thought to have been made during the 9th century and depicts seven armed men with weapons. Many have thought that these are meant to be Viking warriors attacking the monastery and can be seen in the Lindisfarne site museum.

The 9th-century grave marker found at Lindisfarne known as the Viking Domesday stone, carved on this side with seven armed men brandishing weapons. The stone is now displayed in the site museum (Source:
The 9th-century grave marker found at Lindisfarne known as the Viking Domesday stone, carved on this side with seven armed men brandishing weapons. The stone is now displayed in the site museum (Source:

In 1050 a new church was built on the island and a cenotaph marked the supposed spot of St Cuthbert’s original burial. A small community of monks were obviously at hand during this time, however life for all of England was about to change drastically.

After the Battle of Hastings and crowning of William the Conqueror as King over England rebellion broke out all over the Island. The north of England was perhaps one of the most vocal in their hatred of the Norman ruler which eventually led to an event called the Harrying of the North. The Normans destroyed as much of Yorkshire and Northumberland as possible and the monks at Durham were once more forced to flee for safety. They returned to the island of Lindisfarne and after William’s rage had abated a small community remained here as a satellite to Durham.

When the church was rebuilt in the 12th century it was deliberately built in the same Romanesque architecture of Durham Cathedral. The majority of the ruins of this priory church are what we see today; however there are a few additional features from later periods.

A lot of the features that make the church look like a medieval castle can be dated to the 14th century which experienced increased border warfare with the Scots. These include a barbican or fortified gateway and cross shaped arrow-loops in the walls.

More defences were built in 1537 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Lindisfarne priory was one of the few churches that survived the dissolution period as the island was strategically useful. It provided Henry a safe harbour from which to launch a naval attack on Scotland and so a small additional fort was built on the east end of the Heugh (a natural ridge beside the priory) using stone from the old priory. Later in 1550 a castle was also built at Lindisfarne.

A reconstruction drawing showing how the priory buildings may have looked in about 1500 © English Heritage (drawing by David Simon)

Despite all of the preparations towards making the island a defensive base, Lindisfarne never saw any fighting. The closest it would come was when it was used as a base for Northumbrian Jacobites during the 1715 uprising. The priory is thought to have stood largely intact throughout this period until the end of the 18th century when it had become a ruin popular with tourists and antiquarians alike.

By the end of the 19th century there had been a number of excavations here and through the efforts of Sir Edwin Lutyens, part of the complex was converted into a stately residence. In 1944 the priory was eventually entrusted to the National Trust and has continued as a popular tourist attraction and site of pilgrimage.

As in the days of the 7th century Northumbrian monks, Lindisfarne is only accessible by a causeway at low tide from the nearby village of Beal. Stakes further south of the current route show the ancient causeway that these monks would have used, known as the pilgrims way. Both routes are available to the 650,000 visitors that come here each year. As access is governed by the tides advanced planning is required. If you are planning a visit to this remarkable site, the Northumberland County Council publish tide information here.

Queueing to Leave, Some Time Before the Published Opening Time (Source:
Read the tide warnings before planning your trip to avoid getting caught out. Yes, this really happens! (Source:
following the stakes on the Pilgrim’s way to Lindisfarne (Source:
Members of the Diocese of Durham set out on the Pilgrim’s way to commemorate St Cuthbert’s Day 2010. (Source:

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