A tiny windswept island off the coast of Northumberland was once one of the greatest centres of art, learning and religion in Christendom. Lindisfarne was the home of saints and the victim of Vikings; it was the cradle of the greatest Anglo-Saxon art, and the destination for thousands of pilgrims down the centuries.
Lindisfarne is only accessible twice a day when a causeway is exposed by the retreating tide. Most people today drive, as the walk is long and risky: you have to be guided by an expert to avoid sinking into the sand! It is a surreal experience to drive across wet, open sands, with seabirds calling in the wind, towards the holy island.
The story of Lindisfarne begins with Oswald, the son of King Ethelfrith. He had been converted to Christianity whilst in exile in Gaelic Scotland, and when he returned to claim the Northumbrian throne, he was a fiercely pious man. He called on a monk called Aidan to help him make Northumbria truly Christian. Aidan was from Iona, a remote island monastery on the west coast of Scotland, and was on the path to sainthood. Oswald granted Aidan Lindisfarne as a base from which to spread the faith. A small monastery was founded, which would grow to become the greatest monastery in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Lindisfarne became the home of one of the most important cult saints of the Middle Ages. St Cuthbert became the bishop of Lindisfarne in the 670s and became renowned for his healing powers and spiritual wisdom, but he eschewed the worldliness of being a bishop and lived out his last days as a hermit. When he died, Lindisfarne became a major centre for pilgrimage. Cuthbert was buried on the island, and his burial goods reveal the wealth and internationalism of this little holy island. His body was wrapped in a stole made of silk from Byzantium, and he had a comb made out of ivory from African elephants. The island was connected to the wider world not only through faith but through trade – and it is ironic that the burial Cuthbert, who so fervently rejected this materialism, is such a clear indication of this.
It was in honour of St Cuthbert that the Lindisfarne Gospels were created here in the 8th century. The manuscript is a breath-taking masterpiece of British art, its pages squirming with strange beasts and swirling with interlacing. It is a decorative wonder, but also a powerful and pious expression of faith, and it testifies to Lindisfarne as a locus of artistic innovation. Once again, we can see connections to the wider world: the lapis lazuli pigment came from the distant Himalayas, and the kermes (a red pigment made from crushed insects) was imported from the Mediterranean. The style of the gospels is a melting pot of Irish, Roman and Germanic influences, just as was the religious way of life of the monks on the island.
Around 70 years after the artist of the Gospels put down his pen, the Vikings came to Lindisfarne. Attracted by the material riches of the monastery, they pillaged the monastery and attacked the monks. There had been Viking raids off the British coast before, but the attack on Lindisfarne marked the beginning of the ‘Viking Age’ and it shocked all of Christendom. The fact that Cuthbert did not make a miraculous appearance to save the island made the monks fearful that their sins were to blame. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle gives a powerful sense of the apocalyptic fear felt by the people of Northumbria: “the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky.”
The monks abandoned the island and the relics of Cuthbert were moved to Durham. But the monastery would be re-born. In the 11th century, a new monastery was founded by the Benedictine order, with strong links to the religious community in Durham. A priory was built, as well as more sophisticated living quarters for the monks. Their ruins remain today and still impress with their scale and architectural pomp. One rainbow arch, looking scarily delicate, survives and forms an elegant curve over the interior space. This would have formed part of a vault framing magnificent stained-glass windows.
The monastery faced the threats of border warfare into the 13th and 14th centuries, and you can see the remains of fortifications that were added to the priory to protect it. Lindisfarne was right on the edge of the conflict between the English and the Scots, but the monks maintained a life of comfort with lots of servants and exotic foods such as raisins, ginger, rice and olive oil! They were even visited by travelling minstrels.
The end of the monastery, which had survived so much and for so long, finally came under Henry VIII’s infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. Lindisfarne became part of the Crown’s border defences, and the priory was used as storage space. A castle was built on the island on a craggy hill overlooking the ocean and was used later in the Jacobite rising in 1715.
Today, Lindisfarne retains the legacy of the 19th century, where visitors admired its Romantic qualities of remoteness and ruin. The little village is bustling but the beaches are open and empty, letting your historical imagination roam free. My favourite part of the island was the Gertrude Jekyll garden, created in the early 20th century. It is a glorious celebration of vivid colour, with the flowers swaying in the wind so that their hues merge and blend. With the castle behind it and enclosed in cosy stone walls, the garden feels like a secret treasure. Jekyll was one of the first women in Britain to train as an art student and turned to gardening when her eyesight began to fail. Her passion for colour came from this need to see clear and bold, but also from her love of Turner, whose paintings she had studied as a student. She described plants as “paints set out upon a palette”. Finishing my visit with a small garden full of life and movement seemed appropriate for a place that, despite its small size, fostered such a flourishing culture.
All images my own except image of the Gospels, which is from Wikipedia