The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

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This week’s prompt for Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers reminded me of one of my favourite spots to visit in the UK: Lindisfarne (or Holy Island). So I have TJ Paris to thank for bringing it to my mind.  This is his photo . . .

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. . . and my story can be read here.

I would normally add a little bit of ‘extra’ information at the end of my story each week, but I thought this was a little too long for that today. So here it is, as a separate post:

I’ve always been fascinated by offshore islands, whether inhabited by humans or simply by colonies of seabirds. It has been suggested that there as many as 5000 islands in total around the coast of the UK – a number difficult to verify as it depends on a person’s definition of an island. Some ‘islands’ may be just small lumps of rock. But there are certainly more than 1000.

As for Lindisfarne, it is well worth a visit. We usually head up there when we’ve been staying around Hadrian’s Wall, just for a change for a day out. It has a lot to offer for tourists, including the requisite souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes etc. Of course, most people go there to see the historical sites.

Lindisfarne lies just off the coast of NE England, in the county of Northumberland. It is connected to the mainland by a tidal causeway, and there is a castle and priory on the island.

(Note.  A causeway is a raised road or track across low or wet ground. e.g. “an island reached at low tide by a causeway”)

Map of Northumberland showing offshore islands. Author: Nilfanion. Commons
Map of Northumberland showing offshore islands. Lindisfarne is the larger, more northerly isle. Author: Nilfanion. Commons
Simplistic map of Holy Island. Author: Fhah 4. Commons
Simplistic map of Holy Island. Author: Fhah 4. Commons

Lindisfarne has recorded history from the 6th century, although we know the Romans were in the area much earlier, and there could have been a village of Britons on the isle. In the 6th century, Lindisfarne was an important centre for Celtic Christianity under Saint Aiden, who came from Ireland and established an Irish-type wooden monastery with a small church and various huts and workshops. He eventually became Bishop of Lindisfarne and was buried there in 651. But at the end of the 9th century, when the priory was abandoned, his remains were taken to Durham Cathedral, where they still remain today. Ther is a statue of St. Aidan by the Priort ruins, which are on the site of the monastery built by him:

Lindisfarne Priory ruins and statue of St. Aidan. Author: Kim Traynor. Commons
Lindisfarne Priory ruins and statue of St. Aidan. Author: Kim Traynor. Commons

Much is written about the history of Lindisfarne and the ‘saints’ who came after St. Aidan. But the event that captures most people’s interest – most certainly mine – is that of the Viking raid on the island in 793. This event is now taken to be the beginning of the Viking Age.

Here’s the modern English version (as opposed to the Anglo Saxon one) of the raid, from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:

“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 January,* the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.”

 (*The generally accepted date for the Viking raid on Lindisfarne is 8th June, when sailing across the North Sea would have been more likely for the Vikings. The’ 6th ides of January’ is now considered to be a translation error.)

Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar at Charlemagne’s court at the time, wrote:

“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. . . The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

These raids by Norwegian Vikings were not followed up. Most of the later raiders sailed north around Scotland. The 9th century invasions came from the Danes … which, of course is the topic of my books.

The Priory on Lindisfarne was built in the 11th century on the site of the Irish-styled monastery founded by St. Aidan in 636. Here are some pictures of the ruins today.

Remains of Lindisfarne Priory: 1798 by Thomas Girton. The priory's rainbow arch (which still survive) is shown truncated for artistic effect.
Remains of Lindisfarne Priory: 1798 by Thomas Girton. The priory’s rainbow arch (which still survives) is shown truncated for artistic effect.

The castle was built in 1550 by Henry VIII in defence of the realm against attack by Scotland and in pursuit of their Spanish allies.  It is said to have been constructed of stone taken from the priory.

Londisfarne Castle from the harbour on a rainy day. Author: Russ Hamer. Commons
Londisfarne Castle from the harbour on a rainy day. Author: Russ Hamer. Commons
Lindisfarne Castle. It is sited on top of a volcanic mound known as Beblowe Craig. Author: Matthew Hunt. Commons
Lindisfarne Castle. It is sited on top of a volcanic mound known as Beblowe Craig. Author: Matthew Hunt. Commons

The Lindisfarne Gospels are among the most celebrated illuminated books in the world. A 10th century inscription at the end of the text was made in honour of God and Saint Cuthbert by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who died in 721. The Lindisfarne Gospels are part of a collection of Sir Robert Cotton (died 1631) in the British Library in London.

Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the incipit from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Uploaded by Airump. Public Domain
Folio 27r from the Lindisfarne Gospels contains the incipit from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Uploaded by Airump. Public Domain
Lindisfarne Gospelsshowing John the Evangelist. Permission PD-Art. Public Domain
Lindisfarne Gospelsshowing John the Evangelist. Permission PD-Art. Public Domain