With my face pressed against the window, I watched nervously as our bus rolled down the slippery narrow causeway that connects Lindisfarne—Holy Island—to the mainland of Northumbria. Holy Island, situated off the coast of North East England, is severed from the rest of the world twice a day when the North Sea rises and floods the causeway. Our group of day-trippers had anxiously waited over an hour back on the other side for the tide to finally be low enough to drive over, during which time I ate a considerable helping of fish and chips (for more about fish and chips check out my last post here). But in spite of its isolation, the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has quite a rich history.
(Lindisfarne or “Holy Island”)
Once we had made it safely over the causeway and onto the island, my peers and I stepped off the bus and into what felt like another century. Looking around at the quaint little houses and wooden fishing boats, I felt like I’d been transported into the past. Our tour guide, Mary, was born and raised in the small seaside village, where she still lives today with her husband and daughter. Her eyes glimmered with pride as she began telling the remarkable story of her hometown.
Although it is often only mentioned in history books for being the site of Western Europe’s first Viking invasion, Lindisfarne played a huge role in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity. King Oswald of Northumbria, the most powerful British king in the 7th century, consecrated St. Aidan of Iona as bishop of Lindisfarne in 635 A.D. and sent him to convert the Northumbrians to Christianity. Aidan, an Irish monk from the coast of Scotland, established a Celtic monastery that brought Christianity to the pagans of the North and founded what is now the civil parish of Holy Island. Lindisfarne thrived under Aidan and would eventually become a “leading ecclesiastical center” of England. When he died in 651 he left behind a legacy of evangelical work.
(Statue of Saint Aidan of Iona at Lindisfarne Holy Island)
St. Cuthbert, after having a vision of St. Aidan ascending into heaven carried by angels, was inspired to follow in his footsteps and become a monk. He went on to become the bishop and eventually Prior of Holy Island, and his evangelical work made it all the way down to the south. He spent a lot of time as a hermit and prayed in solitude for long periods of time on Cuthbert’s Isle off Holy Island. St. Cuthbert is now one of the most venerated English saints, best known for his miracles and holiness. His efforts to protect the native birds—now fondly referred to as “Cuddy Ducks” in his honor—made him one of the earliest wildlife conservationists. St. Cuthbert died in 687 and was buried on Holy Island. There, a series of medieval masterpieces known as the Lindisfarne Gospels were written in memorial of his life and good works.
(Cuthbert’s Isle, Holy Island)
The rest of the monks remained on Holy Island until the Vikings attacked in 793 and destroyed what was the “cradle of Christianity in Britain.” Almost all of the monastery fled south to Durham, bringing with them Cuthbert’s body and all of his relics. There, they built the Durham Cathedral to house St. Cuthbert’s shrine.
Shaking her head fondly, Mary said she didn’t think Cuthbert would’ve been too happy that he wasn’t left to rest on Holy Island. And with a twinkle in her eye, she told us how her beautiful 6-foot-tall daughter with long red hair was undoubtedly the descendant of a Viking Princess…