The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Off the Northumberland coast rises a lonely islet which over the years has played host to religious renunciates, Viking raids and the birth of priceless artistic treasures. Julian Humphrys makes the pilgrimage

High heaven: Lindisfarne Castle rises above the beach. It's a steep climb to the castle entrance. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Getting on to Holy Island feels like an adventure. Unless you’re planning to arrive by boat, you can either walk or drive across a long causeway or tramp across the sands, following a line of wooden poles – a route taken by countless visitors and pilgrims over the centuries. Whichever you choose, check the tide tables to see when it’s safe to cross. Both routes are completely submerged at high tide, when the water rushes in at an alarming rate.

Although the village can become quite crowded with visitors, the rest of the island still retains the sense of isolation that led St Aidan to establish a monastery here in AD 635 after being invited to Northumbria by King Oswald to convert his subjects to Christianity. His successor, St Cuthbert, served first as prior and later as bishop on Holy Island, but also spent years as a hermit on the nearby Farne Islands, dying there in AD 687.

For most of the eighth century, the monastery thrived as a centre of culture, producing among other treasures the sumptuously illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels; a digitised version can be seen in the island’s heritage centre. But all this would change in AD 793, when the Vikings launched the first in a series of destructive raids on the monastery. By AD 875, the monks had had enough. They moved away, taking Cuthbert’s body with them, and eventually settled in Durham. Even so, the links with Lindisfarne were too strong to forget, and in 1120 monks from Durham Cathedral were sent to build a new priory on the island – complete with a shrine to St Cuthbert.

Although that priory is now largely ruined, the Romanesque west entrance of its church is an impressive sight, while the survival of the ‘rainbow arch’, a single vault beneath the long-vanished tower, seems miraculous. Note the battlements and crossbow loops – a reminder that living so near to the Scottish border in the Middle Ages had its risks.

The high ground overlooking the priory is known as the Heugh. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed the existence of an Anglo-Saxon church there, and it’s an excellent point from which to spot seabirds and seals, and to enjoy views of Bamburgh Castle on the mainland and the Farne Islands out to sea.

The much-photographed Lindisfarne Castle isn’t really a castle at all. It started life in the 16th century as a gun fort, built to defend the island’s sheltered harbour. It lost its military importance following the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, and by the reign of Charles I visitors seemed less interested in its military value than in famously enormous nose of the garrison commander, a Captain Rugg.

In the eighth century it thrived, producing the sumptuously illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels

In 1901, Country Life editor Edward Hudson bought the crumbling edifice and commissioned the architect Edwin Lutyens to transform it into a holiday home. It’s a steep climb to the castle entrance but worth it for the views alone. The National Trust has recently completed a major restoration of the castle, and its rooms currently house an exhibition telling some of the quirkier stories from its history. Don’t miss the nearby walled garden created by Gertrude Jekyll, or the 19th-century lime kilns with their medieval-looking arches.

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Julian Humphrys is a historian and author specialising in battlefields. His books include Enemies at the Gates (English Heritage, 2007).