A pilgrimage to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island

Lindisfarne, castle, harbourTo visit Lindisfarne, a tidal island at the tip of north-east England, is to enter a different world.  It is a world of saltwater, seabirds and saints, a world of mudflats, mead and mystery that is still revealing its secrets. Our story begins in the shadow times before places like England, Scotland and Wales had even been thought of, when wild Anglo-Saxon invaders were establishing themselves in the southern and eastern parts of Britain. They were resisted by native Britons, or Romano-British, one of whom, Urien of Rheged, is said to have besieged the invaders in the island of Lindisfarne late in the 6th century. These invaders may have been pirates initially, but they established the nucleus of a new kingdom, Bernicia, on the rock under nearby Bamburgh Castle.  Bernicia grew and, in the early 7th century, gained control of another kingdom, Deira, to the south, creating the large Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria that at one time stretched all the way from the Humber to the Firth of Forth.  In the ebb and flow of those uncertain days, in 632 AD an alliance between Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd defeated the Northumbrians in battle, killing their king, Edwin.  But Cadwallon was himself in turn defeated by the Northumbrians led by Oswald, at Heavenfield, near the Wall, in around 634 AD.

Upturned herring boatsKing Oswald, a northern hero, believed that his victory over Cadwallon was due to his Christian Faith.  As he ruled a united Northumbria from his fortress of Bebbanburgh (Bamburgh), he wished that all the people whom he ruled should be imbued with the same belief.  So he sent to Iona, the principal monastery of the northern Scots and Picts, for a bishop to spread the Word among the English people.  The man charged with this task was Aidan, described by the historian Bede as “a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation”.  Aidan made Lindisfarne the site of his church and monastery and set about preaching the gospel.  Because the Bishop was not fluent in Anglo-Saxon, Oswald often translated for him.  More monks came, churches were built, and Northumbrians, both noble and simple, flocked to hear the word of God.  Lindisfarne, and Christian Northumbria, prospered.

St AidanAidan died in Bamburgh in 651.  The sixth bishop to succeed him was Cuthbert (c634-687), who had been Master at Ripon and Prior of Melrose, as well as a hermit, before being reluctantly persuaded to become Bishop of Lindisfarne.  As a hermit, he is reputed to have lived for a short while on a tiny island off the coast of Lindisfarne, now called St Cuthbert’s Isle, as well as for nine years in a cell on the island of Inner Farne.  Secure on his island, he surrounded himself with an embankment so that he had no view to distract him from his prayers, except for the heavens.  Cuthbert had a formidable reputation in his own lifetime as a holy man and miracle-worker.  He was Bishop of Lindisfarne for just two years before foreseeing his own death and retiring to Inner Farne to die.  He was buried – initially – in place of honour on the south side of the altar in Lindisfarne’s priory church.  I say ‘initially’ because Cuthbert was disinterred on several occasions: each time his body was found to be incorrupt, looking as though he were merely asleep; and his body travelled somewhat before finally coming to rest in Durham Cathedral.  But that’s another, later, story; all you need to know for the moment is that his tomb in Lindisfarne became associated with healing miracles, and a place of pilgrimage.

St CuthbertIt is hard for us to fully appreciate the contribution the reputations of men like Oswald, Aidan and Cuthbert have made to the character and story of Britain.  With few sources, the truth is elusive and some of the stories are, frankly, bizarre.  But, venerated as saints, and the celebrities of their day, Cuthbert & Co are associated with positive attributes and remembered more than 1300 years after they lived.  This cynical old agnostic suggests that most of today’s celebrities couldn’t hold a candle to them in terms of inspiration and durability.

Lindisfarne GospelsAnyway – over a hundred years passed in peace.  It was Lindisfarne’s golden age, when the Lindisfarne Gospels were produced.  Believed to be largely the work of Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 until his death in 721, the Gospels is a spectacular illuminated copy of the four Gospels, and survives in the British Library.

Pectoral cross

 

Then, on 8 June 793, Northmen – Vikings – fell upon the community at Lindisfarne. The monks were completely unprepared.  Indeed, the attackers themselves must have been astonished to find such handy rich pickings close to the coast, where the owners carried no weapons.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle recorded that, “heathen men came and miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.”  Alcuin of York, a scholar at the court of Charlemagne, was appalled that such an atrocity should occur at Lindisfarne, “a place more sacred than any in Britain” and graphically referred to “the church of St Cuthbert being spattered with the blood of the priests of God”.  Alcuin wondered whether the problem was that the monks had failed to live up to their monastic ideal.  The historian, Symeon of Durham, writing in the 12th century but apparently using a contemporary source, said that the Vikings

“came like stinging hornets, like ravening wolves, they made raids on all sides, slaying not only cattle but priests and monks.  They came to the church at Lindisfarne, and laid all waste, trampled the holy places with polluted feet, dug down the altars and bore away the treasure of the church.  Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried away captive, some they drove out naked after mocking and vexing them. Some they drowned in the sea.”

Viking raids increased in frequency around Britain until, in 865, the Danes landed a great army and set out to systematically conquer and settle.  Ultimately, the Northmen would profoundly transform the social, racial and linguistic characteristics of northern England.  Meanwhile in Lindisfarne, the tradition is that the monks fled in 875, taking St Cuthbert (whose tomb had come through remarkably unscathed), the head of St Oswald and the Lindisfarne Gospels with them. Their seven-year journey across northern England and southern Scotland via Norham and Chester-le-Street to Durham is the stuff of legend, and part of the story of Durham Cathedral.

However, the departure of the monks in 875 did not signal the end for the Christian community at Lindisfarne.  Its continuity is proven by 9th and 10th century burial markers found on site, including the so-called Domesday stone, which depicts a troop of seven uniformed warriors believed to be Vikings on one side and a symbolic portrayal of Domesday on the other.

Domesday stoneThe ruins of Lindisfarne Priory that people flock to today are not the original buildings of Aidan and Cuthbert, of course.  It is assumed that those structures would have mostly been made of timber, possibly quite spread out, and it’s not clear where they stood.  It is believed that Bishop Aidan built two churches on the site, a larger monastic church dedicated to St Peter and a smaller community church dedicated to St Mary.  Today, St Mary’s parish church stands immediately adjacent to the priory ruins.  Some of its stonework dates from before the Norman Conquest, making it the oldest built structure on the island, though most of it dates from the 13th and 19th centuries.  Is this newer St Mary’s on the site of a church that Aidan and Cuthbert knew? Some people think it is.

The Journey, St Mary Lindisfarne

St Mary’s has a fabulous sculpture in elm, ‘The Journey’, crafted mostly using a chainsaw by Fenwick Lawson. It shows six larger-than-life monks carrying the body of St Cuthbert on its travels.

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory churchThe Benedictine community at Durham established a cell at Lindisfarne in the 1070s.  In the 1120s, they began building the large priory church, whose ruins can be seen today.  It took about 30 years to build, and then the rest of the site was developed: the cloister, the chapter house, dormitory, kitchen, brewhouse – and so on.  The decorated columns in the church are unsurprisingly reminiscent of those at Durham – and I have seen similar work elsewhere, including in the parish church of Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria.  Lindisfarne Priory was never huge – at its height it apparently only had about 10 monks, plus a larger number of lay brothers.  At one point it was felt necessary to fortify the buildings against Scottish attack, though the Scots never came.  The Priory was closed by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1537, its church briefly served as a warehouse and the stones were gradually recycled.  Some of the priory’s stones contributed to the construction of the largely Elizabethan Lindisfarne Castle, but the church itself survived virtually intact until the late 18th century.

Lindisfarne CastleLindisfarne Castle was built on a lump of basalt, Beblowe Crag, the highest point of the island.  It was never more than a fort, built as a defence against the Scots.  When England and Scotland came to share a king in 1603, it lost its importance, though in 1639 it is recorded as having an establishment of 24 men, plus a Captain Rugg, “known commonly by his great nose”.  It had an uneventful Civil War (both sides held it at different times), was briefly occupied by a pair of Jacobites in 1715 and was garrisoned until as recently as 1820.  In 1901, it was bought by Edward Hudson, the owner of Country Life magazine, who had it completely refurbished by Sir Edwin Lutyens as a holiday home.  Lutyens’ friend Gertrude Jekyll created a small walled garden there.  The property is now owned by the National Trust.

Guile Point LighthouseIf you allow yourself, there’s an other-worldly feel about visiting Lindisfarne. Perhaps it is partly because you are walking in the footsteps of saints, people who helped forge England and the Britain of today. Maybe it’s because it is hard to forget the barbaric violence of the Vikings, whose culture contributed to ours every bit as much as all those saints did.  There’s a sense that all of this is only part of the story; there’s so much we don’t know.  But visiting Lindisfarne also produces a frisson of excitement because, though a causeway has linked the island to the mainland since 1954, it is so obviously a separate land across the water.  You could take a boat, of course, perhaps beaching, Viking-like, in your longboat before leaping ashore.  Or you could do what Aidan and Cuthbert probably did, and walk across the sands at low tide along what is known locally today as the Pilgrim’s Way.  The route has been marked by poles since 1860, but of course has been used for centuries by islanders taking produce to market, or by visitors to the island.  It takes about two hours each way and the parish registers record the names of some unfortunates who misjudged the tides.  Naturally, these days most people drive or cycle across the causeway.   However, the sea completely covers this at high tide, and the water comes in very quickly indeed; so it is unsafe to cross twice a day for 5-6 hours each time.  If you pay attention to the tides, there is no danger; but feeling a little nervous is unavoidable as the bonnet of your car noses across, knowing that, at the wrong time, you would be entirely submerged.  Amazingly, it seems people need rescuing every year. You can see the waterline on the refuge box in the picture below.

Lindisfarne causewayDay trippers in the holiday season swell Lindisfarne’s tiny permanent population and make the small village almost too busy.  The large number of visitors also doesn’t help the inadequate toilet facilities.  So, getting your spiritual vibe on Lindisfarne may take a little effort and imagination.  Perhaps sampling some of the local mead, traditionally made by the monks, would help.  Personally, I’d like to spend several days there and thoroughly immerse myself in the place, including the remoter parts of the island.  The main attractions – the ruined priory, St Mary’s church, the Lindisfarne Centre (where you can view a facsimile and interactive copy of the Lindisfarne Gospels), the harbour with its upturned herring boats, even the Lindisfarne Mead shop, are all pretty much next door to one another.  The castle is a little further away – though not much.

Lindisfarne mead

Lindisfarne HeaughSt Cuthbert's IsleA Bit About Britain’s last visit in 2018 was on one of the few dull days in an otherwise sunny tour around north-east England and Scotland.  Unsatisfactory photographs and the fact that the castle was covered in scaffolding (yes, I’ve used a shot of the castle from Pixabay) added to a nagging sense of dissatisfaction as we trudged along the Heugh, a natural ridge that runs from the harbour along part of the southern end of the island.  I was in for a surprise, though.  The remains of a 17th century fort overlook the harbour at the eastern end and, a little offshore, at the western end is St Cuthbert’s Isle.  The Heugh has long been of interest to archaeologists trying to identify remains, and the extent of, the early monastery.  In 2016/17, they uncovered the foundations of what is thought to be a stone Saxon church on the Heugh.  It has been speculated that this could date from as early as the 7th century.  Excavations of other large stone features were ongoing as we went by.  A dig was also underway immediately next to a modern lookout tower, within a 19th century building known as the Lantern Chapel, formerly used as a signalling station.  Here have been uncovered the outline of a stone building presumed to be an early church or chapel, along with at least 11 human burials.  The skeletons could be seen quite clearly from the lookout tower and it was a very curious, unsettling, sensation looking down on them: bones that had once had life, people who had thought, spoken, laughed.  I have subsequently learned that they ranged from infant to adult.  One of the archaeologists speculated that they might date from the 10th century, but that is by no means certain.  He did point out marks on some of the stones, which he said looked like the kind of marks a carpenter’s tools would make on wood.  He suggested that this indicated someone trying to learn how to build with stone using techniques they were familiar with; it could mark the start of a technical development when the Anglo-Saxons, who mainly built in wood, were gaining new skills. Interesting, eh?

Burials, LindisfarneThere’s some uncertainty as to the meaning and origin of ‘Lindisfarne’, by the way.  The generally trusty Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names says it dates from c700 Lindisfarnae and possibly means ‘island of the travellers from Lindsey’.  Lindsey was a small, relatively short-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the region of Lincoln.  There are other interpretations, but there doesn’t seem to be much agreement as to the meaning of ‘farne’.  Other sources suggest that the island’s Celtic name was Medcaut.  For obvious reasons, it also became known as Insula Sacra, Holy Island.

Next time we’ll mention the 1970s folk-rock band; but not now.

Lindisfarne Priory

45 thoughts on “A pilgrimage to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island

  1. Richard Sutton

    You seem to have covered everything about this wonderful island. Thank you for this and for the other linked posts about Northumbria. Like so many others I’m inspired by the legacy of Oswald, Aiden and Cuthbert.

  2. M.B. Henry

    Wow – I was drawn into this article from the very first sentence! You captured very well the “different world” that is this island – and the pictures really helped show how eerie it must have been to visit – as you perfectly worded it, to walk in the footsteps of all that history. A wonderful post -thanks for sharing

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – I went with my father back in the 70s … but have wanted to go back for years and now you’ve rekindled that that flame even more … it’s a beautiful area – a fortnight of wandering the whole area would be good – but probably need longer! I saw the Lindisfarne Chronicles when they were on exhibit at Durham Cathedral in 2013 – quite amazing – but I only had an overnight visit. Gorgeous area … and thanks again for such an informative post – cheers Hilary

  4. Malc

    One of my favourite parts of the country and one that you have described brilliantly as always. One visit to Lindisfarne is nowhere near enough, and much better out of season, like so many spiritual places are.

  5. myplaidheart

    This is a great post, Mike. So informative and well-written! My ancestors on my dad’s side come from Northumbria and I find the early history of the area fascinating.

  6. artandarchitecturemainly

    I would not like to live on a tidal island. If you get the low tide partially wrong, you may drown en route. If you are 100% certain it is high tide, you may be stuck unprepared on the island for much longer than intended. And it is cold.

    But the Lindisfarne Gospels were so beautiful, and St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross was so inlaid with precious stones, that the island became a centre of great beauty and learning.

  7. Timi Townsend

    Thanks for this extensive and detailed post about Lindisfarne. I became familiar with it, and Bebbanburgh, and Bernicia, as well as St . Cuthbert, from reading the many volumes of The Saxon Tales, by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell is a great storyteller, but an equally meticulous historical researcher, which for me adds so much to his work. Although I mostly do Viking reenactment, most of my forebears are English (which of course doesn’t mean they weren’t also Viking-descended ). Someday maybe I will physically travel to England and Norway, and Iceland, but if not I will continue to do lots of armchair traveling. Your posts are a great asset to my virtual travels. Thank you ! 🙂

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Timi; I’m a Bernard Cornwell fan too. We’re unlikely to ever know the full story behind all those early saints, unfortunately; maybe that’s why the period is so fascinating.

  8. Alli Templeton

    Thanks for this excellent look at one of my favourite places. I know what you mean about it being other-worldly. It is – very much so, and I sense that every time I go there. It must have been interesting to see the dig and the skeletons. I remember an archaeological dig on a TV programme recently but I’m not sure it was in the same location as the one you saw. You’re right, though, the island has many more secrets to reveal, and that’s probably what we pick up on. That and it’s mesmerising history. And as for Lindisfarne Mead – wonderful stuff, and we brought loads back with us! Next time, if you haven’t already discovered it, try their dark mead – it’s pure heaven!

    I have to say, though, I did have one bubble burst while I was there last, and that was while I was admiring the statue of St Aidan. A builder who was walking past gave me a great big smile and told me I was looking at the patron saint of ice cream! I have to admit I laughed out loud at that, but it’s still a great statue to a fascinating early medieval figure. Great post, Mike, a thoroughly good read. 🙂

          1. Alli Templeton

            It’s gorgeous. Worth a trip to Lindisfarne alone. I hope they’re still making it when we go up there next year. 🙂

  9. John

    What an amazing place! The tide level is crazy high, no surprise people have been killed out there. Great photos and commentary as always!

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