Lindisfarne - Sarah Woodbury


Lindisfarne is an island off the northeastern coast of Britain, and accessibly only when the tidal flats are exposed. The island started out, as all of England once did, as a British settlement. But by the 6th century, the Angles had taken it over, and the Historia Brittonum recounts the last attempt of the British, led by Urien of Rheged, to retake the island. The British were defeated, and the Saxons maintained control of the island ever since.

As we talked about in the introduction to Saxon religion, the initial conversion to Christianity of the Saxons of northern England and Scotland was led by Christian missionaries from Ireland, having been converted earlier by the British Saint Patrick. The monastery at Lindisfarne was actually founded by the Irish saint, Aiden, and became the seat of Christian evangelism stretching all the way across northern England to Mercia.

Around 650, the monastery buildings were “hewn oak thatched with reeds”, which the Venerable Bede did not think worthy of the seat of a bishop, and a later bishop removed the thatch and replaced it with lead. When the abbey was rebuilt by the Normans, they moved it to its current location, and the original priory church was redeveloped in stone as the parish church for the villagers of Lindisfarne. As such, it is now the oldest building on the island still with a roof and include a chancel wall and arch. A Norman apse (subsequently replaced in the 13th century) led eastwards from the chancel. The nave was extended in the 12th century with a northern arcade, and in the following century with a southern arcade.

Lindisfarne’s most famous saint is the patron saint of Northumbria, Cuthbert, who was abbot of the monastery and later bishop. His story is told by the Venerable Bede, and an anonymous life of Cuthbert, written at Lindisfarne, is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704 AD.

From around 650, all the churches in Northumbria and many in Mercia looked to Lindisfarne as their mother church, but by 663, their allegiance had switched to Canterbury and thus Rome. By the 8th century, Lindisfarne was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York.

In addition to the origins of Cuthbert, Lindisfarne is also the source of the oldest surviving Old English copy of the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John), an illuminated manuscript, written in the 8th century, called the Lindisfarne Gospels.

In 793, Lindisfarne had the unfortunate distinction of being the first object of a Viking raid in northeast England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: In this year, fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of June, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

It is the coming of the Danes, and their religion, that we’ll be talking about next week.

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