The Ancient Legend of Lindisfarne

The Ancient Legend of Lindisfarne

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The Saints of England’s Holy Island

Lindisfarne is a cold, wild and lonely island, isolated from the rest of England by twice-daily tides. But its misty shores have witnessed strange and marvellous things.

The story of Lindisfarne reaches far back into the mists of time, to another island, Iona. It was here that the Irish began to save civilization when St. Columba, or Columcille, arrived from Ireland in the year 576 AD with twelve companions. From here, Columba and his monks took the Gospel to the Pictish Tribes of Scotland – and founded another monastic community on Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne was to become as influential and significant as Iona in the development of Christianity in Britain, especially England.

Our story begins in 634 AD when Oswald became King of Northumbria. A recent convert, he wished to evangelise his subjects, so he sent to Iona for missionary monks. The Abbot of Iona, Segenius, dispatched Corman, an austere monk, who, on finding the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria to be both barbarous and obstinate, promptly returned to Scotland.

Fortunately, the Abbot’s next recruit, Aidan, turned out to be a better choice. It was Aidan who selected Lindisfarne as a secluded and peaceful place, ideal for the monastic life – yet close enough to the Northumbrian capital, present day Bamburgh.

From Lindisfarne, Aidan preached the Gospel throughout the Kingdom of Northumbria, sometimes with the assistance of King Oswald who acted as interpreter. Aidan’s mission flourished; people donated land and money to establish churches and monasteries throughout the kingdom. Parents sent their children to be educated by the Celtic monks and four brothers who arrived there, Cynebil, Caelin, Cedd and Chad were ordained priests.  

As we learn from the chronicles of St Bede the Venerable, St. Aidan earned a reputation for his pious charity and devotion to those less fortunate, such as his assistance to orphans and paying to free slaves. He insisted on traveling on foot, rather than horseback. The monastic community he founded quickly grew, as did its reputation as a place of scholarship and learning. Aidan died on 31st August, 651 AD, and his body was interred beneath Lindisfarne abbey. St. Aidan has been proposed as a patron saint for the entire United Kingdom because of his Irish origins, his Scottish monasticism and his mission to the Anglo-Saxons of northern England.

On the night St. Aidan died, a young man named Cuthbert was tending his sheep in the Lammermuir Hills in southern Scotland, near Melrose Abbey. According to the Venerable Bede, he saw a vision of Aidan’s soul being taken up by a Heavenly Host. When Cuthbert learned that Aidan had died at the exact time of his vision, he immediately entered the monastery.

Whilst tending his sheep, Cuthbert saw a vision of Aidan’s soul being taken up by a Heavenly Host. When he learned that Aidan had died at the exact time of his vision, Cuthbert immediately entered the monastery.

Ten years later, Cuthbert became Prior of Lindisfarne, where he often spent time alone on a rocky outcrop, today known as Cuthbert’s Island. Later he went into greater isolation, retreating to the Inner Farne Island and building himself a cell and oratory. Cuthbert’s solitude would be broken by visitors seeking counsel from this wise and pious man, but when he was alone legends have it that he would mortify himself by standing in the sea up to his waist for the entire night, and sea otters would dry his feet and warm his frozen legs. He had a great love of wildlife and he is particularly associated with the Eider Duck, known locally as Cuddy’s Duck.

In 687 AD, Cuthbert’s body was buried on Lindisfarne. More than 100 years later, Vikings attacked the island, and in 875 AD Cuthbert’s loyal monks took up his body and fled. In one of the most astounding stories of Christian monasticism, these monks wandered for generations, safeguarding the incorrupt body of Cuthbert, until eventually founding a church in Durham.  When the Norman French built Durham Cathedral almost 300 years later, they re-interred Cuthbert behind the altar, where he rests today.

 

The ancient Saint Aidan has been proposed as a patron saint for the entire United Kingdom because of his Irish origins, his Scottish monasticism and his mission to the Anglo-Saxons of northern England.

St. Wilfrid, the son of a nobleman, left Lindisfarne for Rome — the first known pilgrimage by an Anglo-saxon to the Eternal City. There, he learned the Roman method for calculating Easter. Wilfrid returned to Northumbria and became involved in the historic dispute between the Celtic and Roman calendars. The dispute came to a head when King Oswiu of Northumbria, who followed the Celtic date for Easter, married Eanflaed, who followed the Roman date for Easter.

To resolve the issue, the famous Synod was held at Whitby in 664 AD, chaired by the Abbess of Whitby, St. Hilda. St. Wilfrid supported the Roman method whilst the Celtic method was supported by Cedd and Colman of Lindisfarne along with King Oswiu and Hilda of Whitby. Wilfrid’s arguments in support of the Roman practice won the day and the Kingdom of Northumbria from then on adopted the Roman practice. Wilfrid also introduced the Rule of St. Benedict at the many monastic houses he founded; some say he was the first to introduce the Benedictine Rule into England and not St. Augustine of Canterbury.

In one of the most astounding stories of Christian monasticism, these monks wandered for generations, safeguarding the incorrupt body of Saint Cuthbert.

Besides producing nine saints and evangelising large parts of England, Lindisfarne’s monks produced one of the greatest treasures of Anglo-Saxon England, The Lindisfarne Gospels. This priceless illuminated manuscript is one of the finest surviving examples of Celtic Art. The Gospels are now kept in the British Library as is St. Cuthbert Gospel, a pocket gospel written in Latin in the 7th C. and placed inside St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The nine saints of Lindisfarne are St. Aidan, St. Finan, St. Colman, St. Tuda, St. Eata, St. Cuthbert, St. Eadberht, St. Eadfrith and St. Ethelwald.

 

The lonely ruins of Lindisfarne still stand today, mute testimony to the light of the Gospel carried by St. Aidan, which illuminated Anglo-Saxon England.

After the Viking raids, Lindisfarne remained uninhabited for over 200 years, when Benedictine Monks re-established the monastic life there. They renamed Lindisfarne ‘Holy Island,’ to commemorate the holy blood shed during the Viking raids. The Benedictine Monks were on Holy Island for about 450 years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1533 under Henry VIII. The ruins of Lindesfarne still stand today, mute testimony to the light of the Gospel carried by St. Aidan, which illuminated Anglo-Saxon England.

PRAYER OF St. CUTHBERT

Bless, O Lord, this island,

This Holy Island.
Make it a place of peace and love.

Make it a place of joy and light.

Make it a place of hospitality.

Make it a place of grace and goodness
And begin with me.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A graduate of Bristol University and for many years a Catholic educator, Michael Durnan made a pilgrimage to Lindisfarne in 2002. He walked the sixty mile route from Melrose in Scotland in the footsteps of St. Cuthbert.

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