Lindisfarne is a small island off the coast of Northumbria with a long and fascinating history. Lindisfarne Priory, founded by St Aidan in 635AD, is one of the key parts of that history and when I got the chance to spend a few hours there recently I jumped at the chance – not having visited Lindisfarne (also called Holy Island) since I was a small child.
Getting to Lindisfarne by car is easy, as long as you check the tidetables! At high tide the causeway from the mainland is impassable, so make sure to stop and check the boards at each end of the causeway before you start your crossing. Once you’re on Lindisfarne, the best place to park is the big public car park – although this does mean a bit of a walk to see the sights.
Lindisfarne has been inhabited since the Stone Age but it was St Aidan – an Irish monk from St Columba’s monastery on Iona who was invited by Oswald, king of Northumbria, to bring Christianity to his people – who established the island as a major centre of culture for Anglo-Saxon England. His proteges included Hild, later to become Abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby. Aidan died in 651AD but by then Christianity was well and truly established in England.
St Cuthbert, who remains strongly associated with Lindisfarne, was born the year that Aidan founded Lindisfarne Priory, and is said to have received a vision of Aidan being carried to heaven by angels when he was 16. Cuthbert became a monk, first at Melrose and later at Ripon – but at that time there was a major conflict between two distinct strands of Christianity in England: the Celtic Rite and the Roman Rite. Ripon adopted the Roman Rite in 661AD and Cuthbert, preferring the Celtic Rite, returned to Melrose, where he became Prior.
In 664AD the Synod of Whitby settled the ongoing dispute in favour of the Roman Rite, and Cuthbert, with his background in the Celtic Rite and reputation for devotion and tactful leadership, was sent to Lindisfarne to ease the transition to the Roman Rite. He remained at Lindisfarne for 12 years, before leaving to live the simple life of a hermit.
In 685AD Cuthbert became Bishop of Lindisfarne however, with increasing infirmity, he resigned the following year and died in 687AD. He was buried at Lindisfarne Priory and his tomb quickly became a place of pilgrimage. Cuthbert’s rest was not to be peaceful, however, as the threat of Danish invasion led the monks of Lindisfarne to flee the island in 875AD, taking Cuthbert’s bones with them.
Cuthbert was interred at Durham in 999AD, moved back to Lindisfarne during William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North in 1069AD, and finally reinterred in the new cathedral at Durham in 1104AD. Cuthbert’s shrine at Durham remained a popular place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. It was plundered during the English Reformation but the monks had prior warning and hid Cuthbert’s body.
Lindisfarne Priory is also famous for the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the best surviving example of Celtic calligraphy and illustration. The manuscript was produced by Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, around 700AD. They are now on display in the British Library in London.