The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, England
A Small Island of Europe by Seymour Fortescue
View of Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island
Location: 55°67 N 1°78 W | Population: 180 | Dimensions: 4.8 x 2.4 kilometres
Best time to visit: Any time of year | Best place to stay: Lindisfarne Hotel
Lindisfarne is an island that can be reached by car. At low tide, a two mile causeway attaches it twice daily to the Northumberland coast. High tides confirm its island status: posters at either end of the causeway show pictures of abandoned and flooded vehicles with severe warnings not to cut the journey too fine.
Earlier travellers crossed by coracle or on foot. The island is intimately connected with the history of Christianity in Britain and has nine saints associated with it. As Walter Scott wrote:
Dry-shod o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way.
Twice every day, the waves efface
Of staves and sandaled feet the trace.
Christianity came to Lindisfarne in 635 CE when St Aidan arrived from the Irish monastery in Iona, invited by Northumberland’s King Oswald. Aidan founded the Lindisfarne Priory and travelled throughout the kingdom preaching and converting.
After Aidan’s death, St Cuthbert, whose name and fame is so closely linked to the Lindisfarne, was sent to the island to restore discipline. Thanks to the Venerable Bede (a Benedictine monk who wrote Ecclesiastical History of the English People), we know more about him than about other figures from the dark ages. He was warm hearted and practical, his miracles frequently involved animals. After several years as Prior, he moved to a hermitage on nearby Farne Island, where his reputation for saintliness attracted many visitors. He returned reluctantly to Lindisfarne, where the King made him a Bishop, but went back to his hermitage before his death in 687. His renown was enhanced when a year or two later his coffin was opened and his body was found to be undecayed. Pilgrims came from far afield and miracles were recorded.
Holy Island 1866 (Map section after a nautical map of the British Navy from 1866, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The early church was divided between adherents to Rome, based in Canterbury, and the Celtic persuasion in Iona. There were differences of doctrine and liturgy, but the date of Easter brought matters to a head. This was the cause of domestic discord in the Northumbrian court. While King Oswiu (Celtic) was celebrating Easter, Queen Eanflaed (Roman) was still fasting in Lent. The Council of Whitby in 664 resolved the dispute largely in favour of Rome. It was said of St Cuthbert that he became loyal to Rome, but preserved the ascetic spirit of the Celtic church.
At the end of the seventh century, one of the greatest works of English art was created in the damp and draughty scriptorium of Lindisfarne. One man, Eadfrith, copied out the four gospels in beautiful manuscript and illustrated them with decorated pages of amazing intricacy. He used 258 pages of calfskin vellum, ink made from soot bound with egg white, quills from seagulls’ feathers and materials that included green malachite, blue lapis lazuli and red dye from insects. The ‘carpet’ pages before each gospel are made of abstract patterns, spirals, ribbons, animals and birds, the whole design in the form of a cross.
A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels
The Vikings sacked Lindisfarne in 793. St Alcuin of York wrote ‘Behold, the Church of St Cuthbert spattered with blood, …despoiled of all its ornaments, a place more venerable than all in Britain given as a prey to pagan peoples.’ A group of monks took the body of St Cuthbert and treasures including the Lindisfarne Gospels to safety, wandering from one refuge to another – ‘like sheep flying before the face of wolves’. Legend has it that there was a storm at sea and the Gospels were washed overboard, but found after St Cuthbert appeared in a dream.
To Eadfrith’s elegant Latin manuscript, an English translation was later added in spidery writing between the lines. Vandalism of a work of art? No, the addition is acclaimed as the earliest translation of the gospels into the English language.
Lindisfarne was abandoned until after the Norman conquest. William I renamed it Holy Island and revived the monastery, but as a subordinate cell to Durham rather than as the mother church of Celtic Christianity. A priory church, modelled on Durham cathedral with ribbed Romanesque arches, was built on the site of the monastic cemetery. Initially, there were ten monks, holding eight services daily. Detailed accounts from later years suggest that the monks lived well and that the library contained only five books. The 14th century saw the Priory fortified to protect it from Scottish raiders; in the 16th century, it fell into decay after the dissolution of the monasteries. The roof was stripped of lead and the building gradually became a picturesque ruin. Today, only a single vault, known as the Rainbow Arch remains.
Rainbow Arch, Lindisfarne Abbey
In Henry VIII’s reign stones from the priory were used to build a fort on the island’s only high ground to protect the harbour from Scottish raiders. However, Lindisfarne Castle saw little action and by the early 20th century it had become a derelict coastguard station.
In 1912, the eccentric Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life magazine, leased the castle and asked the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to convert it into a private house. Lutyens – famous for New Delhi, London’s cenotaph and many other buildings – loved castles and created a nine bedroom holiday home with a mix of materials – stone, brick, slate and cobbles. He added arches that echoed Durham Cathedral. The sculptor Macdonald Gill, designer of the London Underground map, created a mechanical arrangement whereby the weather vane on the roof would display the wind direction on a colourful mural in the entrance hall. Gertrude Jekyll designed a walled garden below the castle. Later, Polanski filmed Macbeth with fibreglass turrets and three naked witches.
Hudson loved entertaining. Guests included the war weary Siegfried Sassoon, J. M. Barrie author of Peter Pan, the Bloomsbury set’s Lytton Strachey, and the then Prince and Princess of Wales. The most regular visitor was the renowned Portuguese cellist Guilhermina Suggia, recipient of a Stradivarius from Hudson, to whom she was briefly engaged. Locals listened to her recitals outside the castle windows ‘her cello’s eloquence accompanied only by the beat and wash of waves breaking outside’.
Today, the sturdy houses in the village of Lindisfarne, holding their own against the winds, line narrow streets that radiate from the market place. Tourists are well catered for: some come to absorb the history of the Castle and the Priory, others to watch waders and wildfowl on the saltmarsh and mudflats. Mead, made to an ancient and secret formula, is the souvenir of choice. You sense that the visitors, like the monks before them, enjoy Lindisfarne’s ambiguous relationship with the mainland – insular, but not isolated.
Lindisfarne Abbey and St. Mary's Church (Russ Hamer, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Note. The National Trust now owns Lindisfarne Castle; the priory belongs to English Heritage. The Lindisfarne Gospels are in the British Library in London.
About the Author
Seymour spent much of his career as a
banker. In retirement, he has worked
as a consultant for the World Bank on
remittances, the small amounts of money
sent back by migrant workers to their families at home.
He has been to around 120 countries, including 26 in Africa. He lives in Herefordshire and Provence and is planning to write a book on the most
interesting small islands of Europe.