The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory dominate the southern side of the village on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. They also provide a very visible and tangible link to the story of Holy Island as an important centre of early Christianity in Britain. This is a story that goes back nearly 1400 years and which still has considerable resonance and relevance for the island today.
Christianity took a roundabout route to reach the Kingdom of Northumbria, which came to dominate much of what is now northern England and south eastern Scotland from the mid 600s. The Roman Church gained a brief foothold in the late 620s from its base in Canterbury, but the gains were subsequently lost. The turning point was the accession to the crown of Northumbria in 634 of King Oswald. He had spent much of his youth in exile in what is now Argyll and had converted to the distinctive brand of Celtic Christianity which had taken root there after initial development in Ireland.
Oswald wanted his subjects to share his religion, and asked the centre of the Celtic Church, the monastery on Iona, to provide a suitable bishop to oversee the conversion of Northumbria. The man they sent to serve as bishop was Aidan, later St Aidan, who from 635 spent 17 years in Northumbria working alongside monks he brought in from Iona to establish a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, granted to them by King Oswald.
The heart of the monastery on Lindisfarne was probably formed by two wooden churches aligned on the same axis, accompanied by modest domestic and service accommodation, all contained within a boundary ditch and bank that approximately (and probably) included much of the area of today's village.
For its first three decades the monastery at Lindisfarne spread the teachings and practices of the Celtic Church across Northumbria and beyond, but change was coming. The early church was riven by doctrinal differences, with the Celtic Church differing from the Roman Church in a number of respects. The most important of these was their different methods of calculating the date of Easter, which in some years could produce results that were 28 days apart.
As far as the Kingdom of Northumbria was concerned, the matter was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664 when, after prolonged debate, King Oswy decided to employ the method advocated by the Roman Church. The result was a split between Lindisfarne and Iona. Monks at Lindisfarne unable to accept the decision departed for Iona, and thereafter the two island monasteries became focal points of distinct Christian traditions.
The man at the heart of implementing these changes was Cuthbert. A relative of Northumbrian royalty, he had become a monk at Melrose before being appointed its prior in 664. In about 670 he was asked to lead the implementation of Roman practice in the monastery at Lindisfarne. This caused so much strife he retired to become a hermit, first on what is now called St Cuthbert's Isle, just off the shore of Lindisfarne itself, and later on the Farne Islands. In 685, however, he reluctantly agreed to the request of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria to become a bishop, initially of Hexham and then of Lindisfarne. During the two years before his death in 687 he established an enduring reputation as a religious leader. He was buried in the main monastic church on Lindisfarne. Two years after his death his body was "translated" to a new coffin, and his remains were found to be "incorrupt". Cuthbert subsequently became a highly venerated saint, and the subject of an enormously popular cult.
The second major event in the early part of the story of the church on Lindisfarne was the creation, probably in the very early 700s, of the Lindisfarne Gospels. This manuscript of the New Testament in Latin occupies 258 pages of vellum made from the skins of around 150 calves. Beautifully ornate, it is regarded as one of the masterpieces of early medieval art and is today held in the British Library.
On 8 June 793 the monastery at Lindisfarne was raided by Vikings. It was the beginning of the end, and in the face of further attacks the monks left Lindisfarne for good in 875, taking St Cuthbert's coffin and relics with them. They established a new monastery in an old Roman fort at Chester-le-Street, before in 995 moving again, this time to Durham. St Cuthbert's relics made a brief return visit to Lindisfarne in 1069-70 to avoid the post-conquest Norman rampage across northern England. Thereafter they became a permanent fixture in Durham, where the cult of St Cuthbert was used to legitimise the community of Benedictine monks introduced by the new Norman overlords.
The Benedictines at Durham were highly active in spreading their influence throughout north eastern England, and they did this by establishing small cells in various locations ranging from Coldingham in Scotland in the north, to Stamford in Lincolnshire in the south. One of these, established in the 1070s, was on Lindisfarne. Some time in the 1120s work began on the building of a large priory church on Lindisfarne, which forms the core of the priory whose ruins we can still see today.
The church was probably complete by 1150, and work then began on the accommodation to its south. What you see today is a complex blend of many different phases of building over the following two centuries. At its heart was a cenotaph commemorating St Cuthbert, placed over the supposed site of his original burial some 500 years previously. Monks served here on rotation from Durham, and at its height in the late 1200s Lindisfarne Priory was home to perhaps 10 monks and a prior, supported by a larger number of servants.
The Wars of Independence between England and Scotland that started in 1296 had a devastating effect on Lindisfarne Priory. In 1327 it was noted that the income from their war ravaged estates on the mainland was only £21 for the year, compared with an annual income of £127 in the years "before the war". The result was a reduction in the number of monks the priory could support. Nonetheless it limped on for another two centuries, despite additional costs arising from the need to fortify the buildings against Scottish attack in the mid 1300s.
Lindisfarne Priory was closed on the orders of King Henry VIII's commissioners in 1537, at which time its income was assessed as just £48 per year. The priory church went on to act as a warehouse when Lindisfarne became an important naval base in support of Henry VIII's Scottish campaigns, and the buildings appear to have been largely complete until the late 1600s. Thereafter the service buildings were used as a quarry for building projects across the island, while the church remained intact until about 1780. By 1820, however, the church tower had collapsed and much of the church's stone had also been recycled. A second medieval church built (or, probably, refurbished) a short distance to the west to reflect the arrangement in St Cuthbert's day survived to become St Mary's Parish Church.
Work to consolidate the priory ruins began in the 1800s, and in 1984 the priory was passed into the care of English Heritage. They also operate the Priory Museum centre close by, which houses a shop and displays many of the wonderful carved stones uncovered during excavations on the site over the past two centuries.
Today's visitor begins in the museum, which acts as a visitor reception and ticket office. The priory itself offers considerable scope for exploration, and the standing remains reflect many different stages of the priory's complex history. Large parts of the priory church are still standing including much of the west gable and the remarkable "rainbow arch", a stone rib diagonally spanning the crossing. This would originally have helped support the tower above, and how it survived the removal of the tower is difficult to imagine. Significant elements of the domestic side of the priory are also still standing, and there is clear evidence of the defensive nature of some of the structures. There are also still three separate wells within the priory.
No visit to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne is complete without a visit to its priory. As well as simply visiting, however, it is worth making your way around onto the rocky ridge to the south, known as The Heugh, which offers the best views of the priory.