The First Recorded Inhabitant:
The first person whose name we know who lived here on the island was
St. Aidan. He was not the first human being to live here or hereabouts: During the Roman Empire Britons probably had a village here. They had a name for the Island: Medcaut - a Celtic word of unknown meaning. But in 635AD, when Aidan chose the Island for the site of his monastery, we moved from prehistory into history.
Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery St. Columba had founded on the island of Iona. The Britons had been Christian before the Irish, since Britain, though not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British:
St. Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. But when the power of Rome declined the English (from North Germany) began to infiltrate into Britain and gradually turned it into England. These incoming English were pagans. Up here in the north the kingdom of
North Umbria was largely created by the English warrior leader Aethelfrith but when he was killed in battle (616AD) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now
South-West Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of
Aethelfrith, grew up determined to re-gain the throne of North Umbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Christianity. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing
Bam burgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a mission and eventually Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island the English had renamed Lindisfarne.
Here Aidan established an Irish-type monastery of wooden buildings: a small church, small, circular dwelling huts, perhaps one larger building for communal purposes and in time, workshops etc as needed. Here the monks lived a life of prayer, study and austerity (although in this Aidan was said to be moderate - by Irish standards!). From here they went out on mission. First they needed to learn the English language and their English king, Oswald, who had learnt Irish in his boyhood in exile, helped them. Then they went out, using Aidan's only method as a missionary, which was to walk the lanes, talk to all the people he met and interest them in the faith if he could. His monks visited and revisited the villages where he sowed the seeds and in time local Christian communities were formed. One story tells that the king, worried that bishop Aidan would walk like a peasant, gave him a horse but Aidan gave it away to a beggar. He wanted to walk, to be on the same level as the people he met and no doubt to vary his approach when he discovered something of their background and attitudes.
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Aidan had to ensure that his efforts did not die with himself and his Ionian monks. What was needed was an English leadership of the English church. He had to educate the next generation of leaders. Irish monks were very keen on Christian education, which required the new skills of book-learning, reading and writing and Latin - the language in which all the books they could obtain were written. Once the essentials of literacy had been grasped the expansion of mental horizons must have been amazing. Books could bridge the natural restrictions of time and space! They began with the 150
Psalms (in Latin) and then went on to the four gospels (in Latin). These were the essentials; then they could master as much as their library offered and their minds could hold. Such education at this time could be obtained only in monastic schools. Aidan began with 12 boys, who of course would learn the practical work of being monks, priests and missionaries by observing and working with the older monks. It seems to have been a good system.
The monastery on the Island was for men and boys only. This was not true everywhere. As the Christian faith spread in England double monasteries became popular; under the rule of an Abbess monks and nuns, girls and boys, lived and worked in the same establishment, though not necessarily in close contact! But Lindisfarne was different in that it had been founded specifically to be the
center for mission. It would not have been appropriate to have nuns here, since they could not do the same work: public opinion at the time would not have understood or permitted women to walk the lanes and speak to people they did not know. Yet many of the nuns became very learned and their contribution to the success of the mission was great, for everywhere that Christianity spread books were required and many of these were copied by the nuns in their monasteries. Aidan himself had made sure that it was possible in Northumbria for women to become nuns if they so wished. He had "discovered" the woman who was to become the most famous Abbess of her day,
Hild, who was to be in turn the Abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby. Her contribution to the church was great: at least five of her (male) students became bishops.
After 16 years as bishop Aidan died at Bamburgh in 651AD. We do not know his age. What he had achieved may not have been clear to him at death but subsequent history showed the strong foundations and lasting success of his mission. The missionaries trained in his school went out and worked for the
conversion of much of Anglo-Saxon England.
Apostle of England:
We do not know who first brought Christianity to this country way back in the days of the Roman Empire. We have no obvious original apostle. Yet, if we must choose one man to be called Apostle of England it has to be claimed that Aidan is that man. "Apostle of Northumbria" he certainly was and we are proud to make our apostle known to a wider world.
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Why Holy Island?
Lindisfarne was the name given to the Island by the first Anglo-Saxons to live here and we do not know the meaning of the word. But the monks of Durham, after the Norman conquest, added the words Holy Island when they looked back over the story which began with the coming of Saint Aidan and the building of the first monastery in 635AD, continued with the ministry of the "very popular" Saint Cuthbert and then received a staggering blow from the Viking attack in 793. Both to the Durham monks who died as Christian
martyrs in this pagan attack and the earlier saints made the Island was deservedly named "holy".
The Golden Age of Lindisfarne:
The period of the first monastery is referred to as the "Golden Age" of Lindisfarne. Aidan and his
monks came from the Irish monastery of Iona and with the support of King Oswald (based at nearby Bamburgh) worked as missionaries among the pagan English of
North Umbria. In their monastery they set up the first known school in this area and introduced the arts of reading and writing, the Latin language and the Bible and other Christian books (all in Latin). They trained boys as practical missionaries who later went out over much of England to spread the Gospel. Aidan also encouraged women to become nuns and girls to receive education but not in this monastery. In time Lindisfarne became known for its skill in Christian art of which the Lindisfarne Gospels are the most beautiful surviving example.
The Benedictine Period:
After the Norman Conquest (1066) the Benedictine monks of Durham
possessed the undecayed body of St. Cuthbert and saw themselves as the inheritors of the Lindisfarne tradition. Here on the Island they built the second monastery, a small Benedictine house staffed by Durham monks. This monastery was beset by a number of troubles, especially during the border wars between England and Scotland. It was finally dissolved by
Henry VIII in 1536. The ruins of the second monastery can be seen on the Island today. The first monastery, originally built entirely in wood, has disappeared. But there is evidence that the present parish church of
St. Mary the Virgin stands on the site of Aidan's original monastery.
The Parish Church:
The beautiful parish church, of which the oldest part of the stonework is
pre-1066, has been the villagers' church down the centuries. It is a living church, which holds three services of worship everyday, as well as extra services for the large number of visitors who use it. It is of course still used for the baptisms, marriages and funerals of the island people. Many schools and other
organizations come here and ask for talks on the church itself or the story of the island.
The Presbyterian Period:
In the 18th century a number of the Islanders became Presbyterians and during the 19th century they built the smaller
St. Cuthbert's church. This became a "United Reformed Church" after the union of the Presbyterians and Congregationalists. At present there are no Island families which are regular members of this church but the building is being adapted and is seeking a new role, particularly in service to the huge number of Island visitors.
The Roman Catholic Center:
The center comprises a large youth hostel belonging to the Society of
St. Vincent de Paul where groups of children, often deprived, are brought in the Summer to experience a sea-and-country holiday. This
center is also available for use by other groups. Masses are celebrated weekly here during the Summer months. Currently there is no Roman Catholic priest, though a United Reformed minister and several Anglican clergy do reside on the Island.
The Island is a center of pilgrimage, particularly during the Summer season. Pilgrimages range from those of individuals or small groups to diocesan
pilgrimages of several thousand people. There is a retreat house for groups and individuals. Several other Christian
organizations use the Island as a focal point and recent interest is Celtic Christianity has brought many seekers and enquirers.
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