History of Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne – also known as Holy Island – is one of the most important centres of early English Christianity. Irish monks settled here in AD 635 and the monastery became the centre of a major saint’s cult celebrating its bishop, Cuthbert. The masterpiece now known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was created here in the early 8th century. The ruins now visible are those of a 12th-century priory, which claimed direct descent from the early monastery.
Early Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria
Lindisfarne is intimately connected with the history of Christianity in Britain. In 635 the Northumbrian king, Oswald (reigned 634–42), summoned an Irish monk named Aidan from Iona – the island-monastery off the south-west coast of what is now Scotland – to be bishop of his kingdom. Oswald granted Aidan and his companions the small tidal island of Lindisfarne on which to found a monastery.
Following the general collapse of Roman military rule in the early 5th century, Britain had fragmented into numerous small kingdoms, many ruled by Anglo-Saxon warlords. By the 7th century Oswald’s Northumbrian kingdom dominated Britain. Northumbria consisted of two parts: Deira, centred on the old Roman city of York, and Bernicia further north. Oswald’s accession in 634 focused Northumbrian power in Bernicia, around the royal palaces at Yeavering, Mælmin (Milfield) and Bamburgh.
Oswald’s gift of Lindisfarne, 6 miles up the coast from Bamburgh, to the monks from Iona enabled them to establish a monastery and a bishopric in the political heart of the Northumbrian kingdom. The ultimate success of the monks’ mission, together with the long-term wealth of their monastery, was founded on their proximity to the royal dynasty of Bernicia.
The Cult of St Cuthbert
Cuthbert died on 20 March 687 and was buried in a stone coffin inside the main church on Lindisfarne. Eleven years later the monks opened his tomb. To their delight they discovered that Cuthbert’s body had not decayed, but was ‘incorrupt’ – a sure sign, they argued, of his purity and saintliness. His remains were elevated to a coffin-shrine at ground level, and this marked the beginnings of the cult of St Cuthbert, which was to alter the course of Lindisfarne’s history.
Miracles were soon reported at St Cuthbert’s shrine and Lindisfarne was quickly established as the major pilgrimage centre in Northumbria. As a result, the monastery grew in power and wealth, attracting grants of land from kings and nobles as well as gifts of money and precious objects.
The cult of St Cuthbert also consolidated the monastery’s reputation as a centre of Christian learning. One of the results was the production in about 710–25 of the masterpiece of early medieval art known today as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
A Wandering Community
In response to the threat of Viking raids, the documentary sources say that the Lindisfarne monks retreated inland to Norham during the 830s and that in 875 the decision was made to leave Lindisfarne for good. After seven years of wandering, the community – carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin and the treasures of Lindisfarne – settled at Chester-le-Street, building a church in the middle of the old Roman fort.
A Christian community survived at Lindisfarne, however. At least 23 carved stones found here date from the late 8th to the late 10th centuries, showing that the Christian burial ground remained in use throughout the period of instability when Viking armies ravaged Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.
In 995 St Cuthbert’s relics were moved again and eventually enshrined at Durham, where they remain. The prosperity of the Durham monastic community was based on its ability to attract pilgrims to the shrine.
During the 12th century the Scottish kings had been major benefactors of the Benedictine monks at Lindisfarne, but after Edward I’s invasion of Scotland in 1296, the borders were transformed from a region of relative peace and prosperity into a war zone. This inevitably affected Lindisfarne.
The monks were obliged to fortify the priory but worried that they did not have the means to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. In 1385 they petitioned Richard II to dismantle the fortifications because they could not afford to pay for a garrison of soldiers to man them.
Despite the insecurities caused by border warfare, life at Lindisfarne was comfortable for the monks who remained. Extensive building work gave the community more privacy than before, and suggests that the monks were looked after by many servants.