Tag Archives: Lindisfarne

Bamburgh Castle

The Seat of Kings

Not far from Lindisfarne, indeed within sight of it (on a clear day), lies Bamburgh Castle, seat of the kings of Bernicia. Aethelfrith, the pagan Anglo-Saxon king of Bernicia, aggressively expanded into the neighbouring kingdom of Deira, forcibly uniting his own kingdom with it to form Northumbria sometime around AD604, and then proceeded to attack everyone around him, including the kingdom of the Mercians, the various territories of the Britons and Picts, and the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada. By AD616 he was dead, killed in battle against the Mercians, and the rival royal family of Deira seized control of Northumbria, only to lose it to an alliance of Britons and Mericians who broke it in half…

The Return of the King

Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, was sent into exile among the Irish, where he became a Christian, and married an Irish princess named Fín. At the age of 30 he returned at the head of an army, defeating the British king Cadwallon, whose forces dominated Bernicia, at the Battle of Heavenfield in AD633/4, and re-established the kingdom of Northumbria. He invited Aidan of Iona to establish a Christian mission at Lindisfarne. For the next seventy years or so Northumbria was the dominant kingdom in Britain, and was home to the golden age with produced, among other kings, such material as the Lindisfarne Gospels, works of Bede, and a new wave of architecture.

This is not that Castle

This vibrant kingdom, ruled from Bamburgh, was not actually ruled from this particular castle. The Anglo-Saxon castle was destroyed in AD993 by the Vikings, with the Normans later founding a new castle on the site, which itself became the basis for the castle as it stands today. It was added to and expanded over time, fell into a deteriorated state, before a very wealthy man embarked on a sustained restoration effort in the 19th century. Even if it isn’t the original Anglo-Saxon castle, it’s still a very cool place… even if the tour-guides claim that the original inhabitants of the region were cannibals…


An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

Tales from a Crypt

Religious Propaganda

Deep in the North of England sits a town called Hexham. It is a nice town, with nice shops, nice people, and a pretty big abbey. You’d never think that, over a thousand years ago, this was the site of a bold, and ultimately victorious, propaganda effort. Late seventh century Britain was home to a conflict between two competing visions of Christianity, one which preferred the practices of the Irish, and one which demanded conformity with romanitas (I’ll not delve into the details here). In 674 Wilfrid, then bishop of York, began building a church at Hexham which would be a physical expression of the supremacy of romanitas and orthodoxy. A church built in the Roman style, with Roman stone taken from a Roman bridge, containing features Wilfrid had seen in Roman churches, and filled with relics collected while he was in Rome.

In an unusual departure, before the church itself was built, Wilfrid had a large pit dug, in which a crypt for the Roman relics was constructed. This may have been an effort to emulate Roman catacombs. The exposed crypt was then buried beneath the church itself, leaving three narrow points of access for pilgrims and clerics. The crypt, once full of relics, was designed to inspire awe in the pilgrim; the steps down are steep, and the passage follows a path which does not reveal the crypt itself until the last moment. The small room, dimly lit,  smoke- and incense-filled, the remains and articles of saints on display, granted an ethereal life by the flickering light, would have had a tremendous impact on the medieval mind…

Hidden Divide

Though now there is only one rather large church at Hexham, in Wilfrid’s day there were two, the remains of both hidden in the foundations of the present building. A short walk from the entrance to the crypt, hidden beneath a trapdoor, we find the Roman bones of the old church. Aptly sitting above is the cathedra, the bishop’s chair, which Wilfrid himself may have sat on, richly decorated, and surprisingly comfortable…

A statement in stone

Though Wilfrid had to depart the region not long after becoming bishop (let’s be nice and say that he wasn’t very good at making friends), he was soon back again, and then had to leave again, but returned for a successful third act, living out his days at Hexham. Wilfrid’s churches were highly embellished, designed to be opulent and impressive, illustrations of power and wealth. Made from Roman stone, with glass windows (a rarity in Britain at the time), sculptures created by Gaulish craftsmen, and lavish decorations, Wilfrid’s establishments were both a powerful statement in favour of romanitas, and an indication of his own skill and ingenuity in bringing such complex projects to a successful conclusion.