Lindisfarne – A Holy Island
I was chatting with a friend the other day and I mentioned that I’m going to be visiting Lindisfarne (or Holy Island) later this year. She said she’d never heard of it before. That gave me pause, and started me wondering how many other South Africans and folks elsewhere have perhaps missed hearing about this delightful and unique spot that set up camp in my imagination years ago.
Lindisfarne is a small island off the north-east coast of England. More specifically, it’s about 2 miles off the coast of Northumberland, and is very close to the Scottish border. Every picture I’ve ever seen of it is captivating in its beautiful austerity.
Perhaps the two points that first piqued my interest were these:
1) There are the ruins of a monastery on it (hence the name Holy Island); in the Middle Ages it was a site of pilgrimage. So what we have are the telling remains of a windswept, island-based, religious community in a remote spot of England – what’s not to love about that?
2) Lindisfarne is only an island at high tide, because at low tide you can walk across the exposed sand flats that connect it with the mainland. Sir Walter Scott wrote of Lindisfarne:
For with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry shod o’er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice every day the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace.
Here are a few of the more interesting historical facts about Lindisfarne (according to me):
– The name Lindisfarne was Lindisfarena in Old English and apparently means “travellers from Lindsey” (i.e. from the Kingdom of Lindsey, which was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in NE England).
– The monastery was started in the C7th by an Irish monk, Saint Aidan, and it became a base for evangelising into pagan northern England.
– The famous Lindisfarne Gospels, beautifully illustrated Latin manuscripts of the four gospel books, was produced at Lindisfarne around this time. The manuscipts are now housed in the British Library.
– In 793 AD there was a savage Viking attack on the monastery that took the inhabitants by surprise. The Vikings slaughtered many of the monks, the monastery was partly burned down, and some of the younger men were taken into slavery. The incident is generally taken to mark the beginning of the age of Viking raids into England.
– Holy Island is famous for its connection with St Cuthbert, an abbot of the monastery who became the patron saint of Northumberland. He died in 687 AD and was elevated to the status of saint when 11 years later his coffin was opened and his body found not to have decayed. His remains thus became a holy relic, visited by pilgrims. In 875 the monks evacuated the island because of the threat of the “Great Heathen Army” (a Viking army from Denmark and southern Sweden), and they took Cuthbert’s coffin with them. For 7 years they travelled around Scotland and Northumbria with the coffin. Eventually, St Cuthbert’s remains came to rest in Durham Cathedral.
– A priory was re-established on the island in the late C11th. The Benedictine community that was set up remained there until 1536, at which time it was dissolved by Thomas Cromwell in keeping with England’s break from Roman Catholicism under Henry VIII.
There is also a small, picturesque castle on the island’s highest point. It was built in the late C16th as a fort against the Scottish, and made use of stones from the defunct priory. When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, the fort was no longer needed for that purpose. In the C18th the fort-cum-castle was used for a short time as a hideout by Jacobite rebels. At the turn of the C20th Edward Hudson, the wealthy founder of the magazine Country Life, had it refurbished by Sir Edwin Luytens to give it the look it has today. Incidentally, the castle was used in one of my favourite films, The Scarlet Pimpernel (the Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour version), as Mont San Pierre.
Today there are markers to follow when crossing the sands that lead you along the ancient route known as the Pilgrims’ Way. There is also a road. There are no barriers preventing people from crossing the causeway, so sometimes folks become stranded if they judge the tide incorrectly, and there are refuge boxes for such occasions. I do not plan on being a refuge box statistic, but I won’t perhaps mind being accidentally-on-purpose stranded on the island for a day or two when I visit later this year!
 A.D. Mills, Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names
Related blog posts: Saints, soldiers and solitude (Diary of a Project)