Lindisfarne Priory

Religious Place Holy Island Northumberland

Lindisfarne Priory

Religious Place In Holy Island, Northumberland

A ruined Priory on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, widely considered to be the birthplace of Christianity in England.

This magnificent monastery of Lindisfarne on Holy Island was founded by an Irish monk called Saint Aidan,  around 634. King Oswald (aka King Oswald of Northumbria) requested a monk and Aidan was sent from Iona, a small island off the west coast of Scotland. Founded before the end of 634, Aidan then remained there until his death in 651.

The priory remained the only seat of a bishopric in Northumbria for nearly thirty years. Finian (bishop 651-661) built a timber church "suitable for a bishop's seat".

St Bede, however, was critical of the fact that the church was not built of stone but only of hewn oak thatched with reeds. Quite a bit different to the scale of the ruins we see today!

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England, and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria's patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by the Venerable Bede.

Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. 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 is considered to date to between 685 and 704.

Cuthbert was buried here, his remains later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and later saint), was buried in the place from which Cuthbert's body was exhumed earlier the same year, when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century.

At some point in the early 8th century, the now-famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was made, probably at Lindisfarne.

The artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. It is also speculated that a team of illuminators and calligraphers (monks of Lindisfarne Priory) worked on the text, but if so, their identities are unknown. 

Some time in the second half of the 10th century, a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon (Old English) gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698-721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations, done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements, that are considered to be of the most value. According to Aldred, Eadfrith's successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding the book, before it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit known as Billfrith. The Lindisfarne Gospels now reside in the British Library in London, a location which has caused some controversy amongst some Northumbrians.

In 793, a Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused much consternation throughout the Christian west, and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. There had been some other Viking raids, but according to English Heritage this one was particularly significant, because "it attacked the sacred heart of the Northumbrian kingdom, desecrating 'the very place where the Christian religion began in our nation”. During the attack many of the monks were killed, or captured and enslaved. From the end of the 8th Century, the island was easy prey for Viking raiders and in 875 the monks left, carrying Cuthbert's remains. Only after Cuthbert was finally laid to rest in Durham Cathedral in 1104 did the monks return to Lindisfarne to re-establish the Priory, the ruins of which, including the famous “Rainbow Arch”, still stand today. 

The Benedictine monastery continued until its suppression in 1536 under Henry VIII, after which the buildings surrounding the church were used as a naval storehouse. In 1613 ownership of the island (and other land in the area formerly pertaining to Durham Priory) was transferred to the Crown. The Lindisfarne Priory (ruin) is a grade I listed building, other parts of the priory are a Scheduled ancient monument and it is owned and looked after by English Heritage.

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Where Is Lindisfarne Priory

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55.669133, -1.800971
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Head south into Holy Island Village and follow the signs for Lindisfarne Priory.

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55.675143, -1.801067

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Parking is available at Chare Ends on Holy Island a short walk away

Andrew Gardner

Contributed by Andrew Gardner

I love being outdoors, in nature, and experiencing the relaxation it brings. Wandering through the northern countryside seeing unexpected buildings, historic places and occasionally surprised wildlife is one of life's great pleasures.

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