Monastery

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory, Church Ln, Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 2RX

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Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory

Numerous pilgrimage routes converge on the most important of early English monasteries, including St Cuthbert’s Way, St Oswald’s Way and the Forth to Farne Way

Once England’s most famous monastery, Lindisfarne is still regarded by many as the country’s holiest place. The community attracts 150,000 pilgrims and visitors a year. Despite the crowds, a ghost of its monastic solitude can be glimpsed at high tide when the sea covers the tidal island’s causeway.

The monastery was founded by St Aidan in about 635, an offshoot of Scotland’s celebrated Iona community. The monastery was made really famous by its sixth abbot, St Cuthbert, whose tomb became the scene of many miracles following his death in 687.

The ruined abbey's small museum/visitor centre has some important artefacts from monastic times. It is run by English Heritage, and sells tickets to the abbey ruins. Outside the visitor centre stand the impressive ruins of the abbey. Their most distinctive feature is the ‘rainbow arch’, a fragile-looking span of stones that has somehow survived centuries of neglect. It used to be part of the crossing tower in the middle of the priory. It is made of red sandstone, which inspired the colourful nickname – a bright if monochrome rainbow.

The solid stone pillars and carvings of the ruins are reminiscent of the great cathedral at Durham. It is possible that the priory was built by the same team of masons, since both places are closely linked by St Cuthbert.

When you have finished in the abbey ruins, walk past the parish church to the sea. Just offshore, in the direction of the mainland, is a small rocky outcrop called St Cuthbert’s Isle. This contains the ruins of a tiny 7th-century hermitage chapel, marked by a modern wooden cross. The isle, like Lindisfarne itself, can only be reached at low tide when it is possible to walk across, as described overleaf.

As so often with the holiest places, Lindisfarne suffered atrocity on an unthinkable scale. The first major Viking raid took place here in 793. The slaughter of the monks and desecration of the saints’ sanctuaries shocked the whole of Christian Europe. “Hurricanes and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air,” runs the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for the year.

They were portents of doom: the sack of Lindisfarne marks the first day of the Viking Age.

Hurricanes and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry, year 793

For centuries afterwards, raiders from the sea fell on northern Europe like the lash of God, murdering and plundering defenceless coastal communities almost at will. The last Viking invasion took place in 1066, after nearly 300 years of terror.

Lindisfarne saints

Numerous saints lived and were buried on this island. None of their graves can be found here any more, but the main ones associated with Lindisfarne are as follows:

  • St Aidan (died 651), founder and abbot of Lindisfarne.
  • St Oswald (died 642), the king who gave the island to St Aidan, and whose head was buried here – now at Durham Cathedral
  • St Finan of Lindisfarne (died 661) and St Colman (died 676) the second and third abbots after St Aidan.
  • St Cedd (died 664) and St Chad (died 672) were two brothers who studied as monks here before going to evangelise further south.
  • St Wilfrid (died 709) was brought up and educated at Lindisfarne and became bishop of York, then later Hexham.
St Cuthbert

Around 20 saints are associated with the island in total, but most famous of all is St Cuthbert. He was known for healing miracles during his lifetime and particularly after his death. He lived on Lindisfarne for much of his life, but often sought to escape from the world. Little wonder, given that one of his biggest tasks was to convert the monastery from Celtic to Roman practice following the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The resentment and unhappiness of his fellow monks must have been tangible. As mentioned he would often retreat to St Cuthbert’s Isle, though it is within shouting distance of the monastery. Seeking more intense solitude, he moved for a time to Inner Farne Island, which is visible across the sea on a clear day, 7 miles to the south.

St Cuthbert had an unusual affinity with animals and the natural elements. One story recounted by Bede tells how the saint would get up in the middle of the night and walk down to the sea, where he would immerse himself and sing psalms. “At daybreak he came out, knelt down on the sand, and prayed. Then two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him on their fur” (from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, in The Age of Bede).

At daybreak he came out, knelt down on the sand, and prayed. Then two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him on their fur
Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, in The Age of Bede

This scene took place at a rocky bay at Coldingham with a medieval illustration of the bathing saint. St Cuthbert spent his final days on Inner Farne Island, where he passed away in the arms of his visiting brethren on 20 March 687, now his saint’s day. Bishop of Lindisfarne for the last two years of his life, a charismatic leader, preacher, healer and worker of miracles, St Cuthbert’s true spiritual home was the wild shore.

Directions and more information

The gap between high tides allows around six hours on the island, enough to see the main sights. For safe crossing times over the causeway, see www.lindisfarne.org.uk. Note that these times do not apply to the pilgrimage walking route, which requires local knowledge to cross safely, according to Northumberland County Council, and should never be attempted during a rising tide.

If you want to experience something of the island’s Celtic tranquillity, stay the night or remain on the island during a high tide, when the crowds are much lighter.

The English Heritage visitor centre and the priory grounds are open daily for most of the year, but with limited opening times in the winter.

For ticket prices and full opening times see the English Heritage website or call the centre on 01289 389200.

For details of the St Cuthbert’s retreat centre and United Reformed Church generally, see www.holyisland-stcuthbert.org or call 01289 389254.

The centre offers use of a multipurpose hall, a chapel and a gallery, and can advise on local accommodation. It is on the corner of Prior Lane and Lewin’s Lane.

For more retreat centres, accommodation and much else, visit www.holy-island.info or buy the Retreat Association’s comprehensive annual guide to UK retreats (www.retreats.org.uk, tel: 01494 569056).

The Lindisfarne Centre, with the Gospels exhibition, is on Marygate, Holy Island TD15 2SD tel: 01289 389004).

There are several guides are available that describe the St Cuthbert’s Way pilgrimage route from Melrose, including St. Cuthbert’s Way: Official Guide by Ron Shaw.

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Monastery

Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory, Church Ln, Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 2RX

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