Here terrible portents came about over the land of Northumbria, and miserably frightened the people: there were flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed these signs, and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the raiding of heathen men miserably devastated God’s church in Lindisfarne island by looting and slaughter.The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 793AD
Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, is arguably one of the most magical places in England. A small ‘semi-island’ (that is, an island only at high tide), it has been a centre of spirituality since St Aidan founded a monastery here in the seventh century AD.
Whatever your religion, or none, you will surely be captivated by the unique charm of a place that seems largely untouched by the modern age. Yes, there are cars, and phones, and even wifi; but there are no chain coffee shops, no bank or ATM, no supermarket. And with the exception of the small stone-built village clustered around the ruins of the priory, the island is undeveloped. No roads serve its northern shore, and the dune-fringed beaches are visited mainly by birds, not people.
To experience Holy Island at its best, you must see it as the locals see it, without the hordes of visitors that descend at low tide. Stay overnight, and as the cars stream away over the causeway and the sea closes above it, the island will become a different place: one of peace and tranquillity, the haven it has been for centuries.
Why ‘Holy’ Island?
There is a lot to see on this tiny island but in this post I’ll focus on the group of now-ruined buildings that gave it the name of ‘Holy’ Island. Its old Anglo-Saxon name is Lindisfarne, but in these parts it is rarely referred to thus. Following the murderous and bloodthirsty attack on the monastery by the Vikings in 793AD, described so vividly in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it obtained its local name from observations made by the Durham monks:
Lindisfarne – baptised in the blood of so many good men – truly a ‘Holy Island’
Two saints who define this island
The first monastery on Holy Island was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD. He can be seen therefore as the person who first established the island as a centre for Christianity and spirituality, setting a pattern that would continue to this day. Without him, this could be a very different place indeed.
Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery founded by St. Columba on the now Scottish island of Iona. The Romans had previously brought Christianity to Britain, and the British had taken it to Ireland (most famously through the missionary work of St. Patrick). But when the Romans left and the Anglo Saxons invaded, they brought their pagan religions with them.
In the northernmost kingdom of Northumbria, however, the ruling warrior family came under the influence of the Irish monks of Iona. When Oswald became king of the region in 633, he chose to base himself at Bamburgh. He invited the monks of Iona to reintroduce his people to Christianity. Aidan arrived in response to this invitation and chose Lindisfarne as the home of the new monastery because of its similarities to Iona and proximity to Bamburgh.
Aidan established an Irish-type monastery on the island, wooden buildings with a small wooden church. Here the monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity, and from here they went out on mission. They used Aidan’s only method as a missionary: walking the lanes, talking to all the people he met and interesting them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds, and in time local Christian communities were formed.
After 16 years as bishop Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651. But the monastery survived and grew in influence, and his memory is still strong here on the island. One of its most well-known sights is the statue of him in the grounds of the Priory.
Unlike St. Aidan, St Cuthbert was a local Northumbrian boy; some sources say he was a shepherd, others a warrior. His life changed when he was about 17 years old. He was looking after a neighbour’s sheep on the hills one night when he saw a light descend to earth and return. He believed it to have been escorting a human soul to Heaven. The date was August 31st 651, the night that Aidan died. Perhaps Cuthbert had already been considering a possible monastic calling but that was his moment of decision. He went to the monastery at Melrose, also founded by Aidan, and asked to be admitted.
Cuthbert moved to Lindisfarne at about the age of 30, where for about ten years he ran the monastery. He reformed the monks’ way of life to conform to the religious practices of Rome rather than Ireland. This caused bitterness, so when he was 40 years old he decided to retire and live as a hermit.
For a short while he lived on a tiny islet just off Lindisfarne (today known as St. Cuthbert’s Isle. Later he moved to the more remote and larger Inner Farne island where he built a hermitage and lived for 10 years.
When he was about 50 the king asked him to give up his life as a hermit to become bishop. He reluctantly agreed, and for two years was an active bishop. Then, feeling the approach of death, he retired back to his hermitage on Inner Farne. There, in the company of Lindisfarne monks, he died on March 20th 687 AD. His body was brought back and buried on Lindisfarne.
Following his death he was sainted; the island became a place of pilgrimage, and the monastery grew in power and wealth.
But the rich monastery on an isolated island was a prime target for Viking raiders who pillaged this coast over the succeeding centuries. After that particularly murderous and bloodthirsty attack in 793, the monks lived in a near-constant state of fear, threatened by on-going raids. Around 875 AD they decided to leave, taking St Cuthbert’s body with them. For over 100 years they moved between various places in the north of England, before settling in Durham. The saint’s body was laid to rest in the cathedral there, where it is still visited by pilgrims. But Holy Island too will always be associated with St. Cuthbert.
Situated in the heart of the small village, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory define what Holy Island is all about. The monastery was re-established here in the late 11th or early 12th century as an outpost of the Durham community, and by 1150 the great church had been built. It contained a cenotaph marking the spot where previously St Cuthbert’s body had been buried. This ensured that Lindisfarne remained a sacred spot, attracting many pilgrims
Over the next few centuries the monastery grew in size and power, but like all those in England it was closed down by Henry VIII. The buildings remained however, and for a while were used for defensive purposes before gradually falling into ruin.
Today only a skeleton of the formerly imposing church remains, its so-called ‘rainbow arch’ an evocative remnant of a vault-rib of the now-vanished tower. Around it are the foundations of the monastic buildings – kitchen, refectory, chapter house, cloister etc.
Yet with a little imagination you can start to visualise what life would have been like for this remote religious community – devoting their lives to the worship of God in this magical, spiritual place.
I have visited Holy Island several times; these photos were taken in 2012 when we spent a couple of nights on the island