Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, as it was named before 1082, is one of the most important sites in the history of Christianity in Britain. The name commemorates St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert. In 635 AD, Aidan left the Scottish Isle of Iona and founded a monastery that was to become the spiritual and educational heart of Northumberland. He was established as the first bishop, but later, St. Cuthbert, the sixth bishop, became the most famous of the island’s inhabitants. His love of animals and birds is legendary. A bronze statue of him stands in the outer court of the monastery. An eider duck, known locally as, “cuddys”, nestles at his feet, as they were believed to be his favourites. He died on the island of Inner Farne in 687, but was buried on Holy Island. It became a place of pilgrimage and remains so today. The Vikings chose Holy Island as the first place to raid in England. In 793, they attacked the church at Lindisfarne, stole the treasures and killed those who dared resist them. The survivors rebuilt the church, but in 875, the monks fled the monastery fearing further Viking attacks. They took with them precious holy relics, including the body of St. Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Over the next three hundred years, St. Cuthbert’s body was moved several times to protect it, arriving at its final resting place in Durham Cathedral in 1070.
The renowned achievement of the ancient Northumbrians, was the Lindisfarne Gospels, probably the finest surviving examples of Celtic art. These magnificently illuminated manuscripts were produced by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne 698-721, in honour of St. Cuthbert. About one hundred and thirty calf hides were cured to make the vellum sheets on which the Gospels were written. Plants and mineral pigments provided the colours for the illuminations and the binding was adorned with gold and jewels. When the monks fled in 875, the Gospels were taken with them, but there is no record of what happened to them until the 17th century, when they appear in government custody. They are now in the British Library, but the Lindisfarne Heritage Centre has a copy.
For two hundred years, the monastery remained empty, but in 1082, Benedictine monks renamed Lindisfarne as Holy Island in commemoration of the holy blood shed during the Viking invasions. By 1120, the ruined priory had been rebuilt in red sandstone from Goswick on the mainland. In 1537, King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all monasteries and Lindisfarne Priory was destroyed, the King taking anything of any value. All that remains now are the roofless red sandstone ruins of the 11th century priory church and the later adjoining grey stoned monastery.
Holy Island is only accessible by road at low tide, when the causeway is passable. It is under water for two hours before and three and a half hours after high tide. Tides sweep across the sands with great speed. Warning notices and tide tables giving safe crossing times are prominently displayed. There is a white painted refuge box with a ladder which is still sometimes used by unwary visitors caught by the tide. The parish records list the names of pilgrims lost ‘crossing the sands’. In 1860, posts were erected to mark the route across the sands, but the causeway for vehicle access was not opened until 1954 and later extended in 1965. This allows Holy Island to receive 500,000 visitors annually, in 70,000 cars and hundreds of coaches. The resident population is only about one hundred and fifty and does not have its own policeman. Even before the crowds have returned to the mainland, this island retains an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.
Lindisfarne Castle stands on a volcanic outcrop, Beblowe Crag, the highest point of the island. It is famous for its romantic silhouette which can be seen from the main A1 road. It was constructed as a defence against the Scots and had been completed by 1543, but the Act of Union in 1603, between England and Scotland, diminished its strategic importance.
By 1820, the castle ceased to be used as a fortification and in the 1880s, Edward Hudson, proprietor of ‘Country Life’ magazine, bought the castle as a residence which was later restored by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is now owned by the National Trust. Below the castle is a walled garden designed in 1911 by Gertrude Jekyll, a well known designer who worked closely with Sir Edwin Lutyens.
The village is small and very attractive, with flower baskets adorning the stone buildings, topped by brilliant red tiled roofs. From the Market Place, streets radiate to the Priory, St. Mary’s Parish Church and the harbour.